In January, many of us pledge to shed excess weight, but as we all know, that’s easier said than done. After my first child was born, I found myself 40 pounds heavier and, after losing half, hit a plateau. The fitness books were filled with hideous prescriptions: counting calories, weighing food, and doing an unpleasant-sounding activity called “reps.”
But I did not want to do any of those things, and the books spooked me. Finally, I stumbled upon one called French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano. Its breezy tone assured me that I didn’t have to change my entire personality just to lose weight. A Frenchwoman wouldn’t dream of moving faster than a languid sashay, let alone do “reps.” How absurd!
It was the Francophilic pep talk that I needed, and it got results. But to address the steady upward creep of the scale in my 40s, I need more than the mental image of “being French.”
Enter the American movie star Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most celebrated beauties of all time. Unlike the prototypical Frenchwoman, she did get fat, especially during her marriage to politician John Warner from 1976 to 1982. Stuck at home in Washington, D.C. while Warner worked long hours, Taylor turned to comfort food (and other substances) for solace. “Eating became one of the most pleasant activities I could find to fill the lonely hours and I ate and drank with abandon,” she wrote later.
Taylor was publicly ridiculed for putting on weight in her 40s, but by her 55th birthday was en bonne forme and more glamorous than ever, having “dropped from 180-odd to 122 pounds.” Her 1987 book, Elizabeth Takes Off, tells the story of how she did it and, more importantly, of her extraordinary life. When I saw it in a used bookstore, I pounced on it like a frosted sugar cookie.
Reading the book is like having a vivacious aunt show up at your door, dripping in diamonds, to tell you if she can pull it together, so can you. Born in 1932, Taylor was nine years old when she made her first film, and she spent her childhood working on movie sets. Feisty from the start, in her early teens she told Louis B. Mayer to “go to hell” because she didn’t like the way he spoke to her mother. As a famous young star, she led a sheltered life, guarded by protective parents and studio bosses.
At 17, eager for independence, Taylor entered her first marriage, with seven more to come. Elizabeth Takes Off dwells fondly on her favorite husbands: producer Mike Todd, who died tragically in a plane crash one year after their 1957 wedding; and actor Richard Burton, with whom Taylor shared 11 films and married twice, in 1964 and 1975. She had three children and enjoyed motherhood so much that she adopted a fourth.
“I’ve always admitted that I’m ruled by my passions,” Taylor writes, explaining not just her many marriages but her love of parties, jewelry, and, yes, food. While today’s film actors subsist on soy crumbles and arugula, Liz was a meat-and-potatoes girl who loved burgers, steaks, mashed potatoes, and fries. She once asked a friendly ex-husband to visit her at Dulles Airport during a layover. “And maybe bring some leftover fried chicken. You do have some fried chicken around, don’t you?” Charmed, the ex-husband fried up some chicken and brought it to the airport with a side of fresh corn. And they lived happily ever after.
As she matter-of-factly describes a wild ride of films, marriages, divorces, hospitalizations, and dress fittings, Taylor is a likeable narrator. Despite having owned a giant rock called the Krupp Diamond, she seems an earthy, unpretentious woman with a zest for life. “I confess I love being surrounded by beautiful things and I love being looked after,” she writes (and I confess that I, and every woman strolling the aisles of a Bed, Bath & Beyond, love these things, too).
“When I gained weight, I just bought more clothes,” she writes sensibly. (Nodding.)
When anyone tried to help me, I’d say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. I’m going through a phase. I can’t diet until I’m ready, and if you push me, the minute you finish your lecture I will go in and have some hot fudge.’
The minute you finish your lecture, I will go have some hot fudge. I am so using that.
Taylor’s sometimes out-of-control life masked an inner strength, the mental toughness that comes through in her films. After a long run of overeating and other addictive behaviors, she took a hard look in a mirror and didn’t like what she saw. A stint at the Betty Ford Center addressed her alcohol abuse, and with a clear head Taylor realized that she had “been doing a lot of harm to [my] body for an awfully long time . . . . I had actually tossed away my self-respect.”
Husbandless and sober, she came up with her own personal plan for food and exercise. While the first half of Elizabeth Takes Off is autobiography, the second half describes her weight-loss regimen. But first, some general advice: “Get out that full-length mirror,” she instructs in her best bossy-aunt manner. “When you’re trying to diet, it’s no time to play games.” Taylor also advises to “look your best while losing.” She continues:
I know plenty of big ladies who are positively glorious-looking. They may wear a size sixteen or eighteen, but they’re always well groomed, neatly coiffed, and radiantly glamorous. Yet many dieters will throw on anything as long as it’s dark in color. Their philosophy is ‘I’m fat so it doesn’t matter how I look.’ Rubbish. It always matters how you look.
It always matters how you look. Strong words for my drawerful of ratty black yoga pants, Liz! But I hear you.
The diet itself is a curious artifact of the mid-’80s. Breakfast is fruit and whole-wheat toast or a bran muffin; lunches feature low-fat cottage cheese and skinless chicken breasts; and coffee is lightened with “a splash of skim milk.” For someone who liked her hot fudge sundaes, the menu is extremely disciplined, coming in at 1,000-1,200 calories a day. Desserts include a baked apple and something called an orange soufflé, made with “3 tablespoons low-cal margarine,” “2 packets artificial sweetener,” and grated zest.
Even at 30 years’ distance, it’s hard to criticize this diet, though it includes odd items like “barbequed squab” and not one, but two, types of “curried mayonnaise.” If Elizabeth Taylor happily consumed such foods on a tufted divan in her orchid-filled Bel Air estate, with a cabinet of acting awards to her right and an original Renoir to her left, planning her next charity ball on a gold phone, who are we to say Curried Mayonnaise #2 and a tray of raw broccoli is not quite up to par in 2020?
And anyway, you don’t read Elizabeth Takes Off for the recipes. It’s just inspiring to spend 200-plus pages with Aunt Liz, who hastens to add that her low-fat diet allows for occasional “pig-outs,” as she puts it with typical bluntness.
“Guard the assets you were blessed with like a miser,” Taylor instructs, but in the end, she is not unduly obsessed with beauty or weight. “Happily,” she wrote in her 50s, “God made me incredibly resilient and I was able to bounce back. In fact, when someone recently asked me what was my proudest accomplishment, I said with all sincerity: ‘Just being alive.’”
Featured image: Elizabeth Taylor in 1987 (Photo By John Barrett/PHOTOlink.net/MediaPunch/Alamy)
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now