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Looking back at the ’90s has meant reexamining the decade’s toxic diet culture

How Impeachment, Spencer, and Katie Couric are rethinking the diet culture of the ’90s.

Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, left, and Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky on FX’s American Crime Story: Impeachment.
Tina Thorpe/FX
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

In 2021, America’s long-building fascination with revisiting the lives of scorned women of the 1990s and 2000s went thoroughly mainstream. Together, the media class and inhabitants of Twitter watched viral documentaries about Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and Brittany Murphy; we unearthed old Us Weekly upskirt photospreads and stared queasily at the results. Our culture is absorbed right now in the women whose lives obsessed us 20 years ago, and with how that obsession ruined their lives.

As part of that obsession, this year, we seem to be spending particular time focusing on the bodies of these women and their relationships with food. This year’s period pieces were obsessed with what their subjects ate, how they thought about food, how they starved and purged and punished their bodies, and how the rest of us looked at the results and shamed them for it.

On FX’s limited series American Crime Story: Impeachment, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp bond over their restrictive diets and their mutual hatred of their bodies, right up until their bodies become fodder for their national humiliation. In Pablo Larraín’s film Spencer, Princess Diana starves herself, binges, and purges in fidgety sequence as her in-laws demand she participate in public weigh-ins. In Katie Couric’s memoir Going There, Couric describes her own history of bulimia and the press’s swirling fascination with her body and its size.

As both Impeachment and Going There starkly illustrate, the way we talk about fatness and diets has shifted dramatically in the past few decades. Fat jokes are now considered body shaming, and they have to be disguised under a few layers of subtext to be considered acceptable punch lines on late-night comedy shows. There’s a certain glib satisfaction that comes from watching the comedians of the 1990s go to town on the question of whether Monica Lewinsky was too zaftig for the president: You get to think, “Ah, we’re so much better now.”

But these stories about diets and eating disorders and body hatred are doing more than offering us a chance for nostalgic smugness. By coming back again and again to the ways these specific women learned to hate their bodies, these stories spiral out into the ways misogyny is embodied, how it lives in our very flesh. They give us a space to think about the way bodies can become a site of punishment and discipline and internalized rage, and how the ideas we discussed explicitly a few decades ago swim murkily under the surface of polite discourse now.

These are stories not just of a now-retro form of misogyny and of how we mistreated a handful of famous women way back then. They’re stories of how our culture teaches women to hate their bodies now, with a sharp, reflexive eagerness.

Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldman) and Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) have a slumber party, complete with refreshments, on American Crime Story: Impeachment.
Tina Thorpe/FX

Here is a list of all the food that Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are shown eating over the course of the first episode of American Crime Story: Impeachment: A grande nonfat latte from Starbucks. A Slim-Fast meal replacement shake. A single surreptitious M&M. A microwaved baked potato. A solitary glass of white wine. A fruit cup, nonfat yogurt, and miniature box of granola. Coffee with nonfat creamer. Carrot sticks. A tuna sandwich, the onions painstakingly removed by hand, and a side salad. A microwaved tray of diet mystery meat. While they eat this quasi-food, they talk about their diets.

Here is a list of all of the food that Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are shown eating over the course of a six-minute Saturday Night Live sketch from 1998: Haagen-Dazs ice cream mixed with whole milk. A meatball sub. A Big Gulp. A bucket of KFC with barbecue sauce. A 40-ounce can of porter. Tortilla chips. Cheeze Balls. A pizza with more Cheeze Balls sprinkled on top of it. A piece of cake. A hot dog. A squirt of straight canned whipped cream. While they eat this quasi-food, they talk about their diets.

Both the SNL sketch and Impeachment are reacting to the same oddity. Linda Tripp taped her phone calls with Monica Lewinsky, during which Lewinsky regularly discussed her affair with President Bill Clinton. The tapes eventually went public, and Americans waited with delight to hear all the salacious details.

But the actual tapes are in large part Tripp and Lewinsky talking about their diets and exercise regimes with each other. They congratulate each other on going to the gym (“Good girl!”) and gossip over the amount of weight they’ve lost. Tripp explains that she likes going to the gym on Friday nights, when “people who have lives” aren’t there and she can watch CNN in peace. Lewinsky offers dieting war stories.

“What’d you eat today?” Tripp asks Lewinsky towards the end of one call from Tripp’s tapes.

“Ugh, I don’t even want to talk about it,” Lewinsky mutters, at which Tripp bursts into laughter.

“Go on your stupid treadmill, then, and then go to bed,” Tripp says.

“I think I’m gonna go on an all-protein diet, I always lose when I do that,” Lewinsky muses. “God, it’s so hard, though.”

Then the two of them talk for a little while about what kinds of food an all-protein diet allows you to eat, and whether they should still eat beef after a recent E. coli scare. And that’s most of what happens on these tapes — these real, genuine tapes; not a fictionalization, but the actual tapes that almost brought down a presidency.

The only thing Tripp and Lewinsky talk about quite as often as their diets is the politics of their office; who’s being made redundant, who’s transferring where. It’s as though Tripp and Lewinsky have built their friendship around the two forms of labor they share in common: the labor they perform in their jobs at the Pentagon, and the labor of disciplining their bodies.

Which is very odd, SNL implied at the time. Because imagine spending that much time and energy thinking about your body and its weight — as many women did, as arguably most women did and still do — and still end up looking like that. All that hard work and your body is still average, which is to say monstrous and grotesque. That’s the joke.

Tripp, at the very least, got the message. Impeachment ends with Linda 40 pounds lighter, her face transformed by plastic surgery. She tells a journalist she hopes the new look will make people change their minds about her. “Until all this happened, I didn’t know how ugly I was,” she says.

Katie Couric with Tom Brokaw, 1993.
Ken Regan/NBC News/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Katie Couric is always very clear on exactly how she looks in her new memoir Going There. Couric writes candidly throughout the book about her rise to the peak of daytime TV fame in the early 2000s and the misogynistic culture she had to navigate to get there, and she makes it clear that a disordered relationship to food was part of the package.

“Dieting was a way of life in my house,” Couric writes. She describes watching her mother and sisters gazing longingly at forbidden tuna fish sandwiches, subsisting on “cottage cheese and Tab.” Her mother sent her a letter during her first year of college that warned her to be careful not to gain the freshman 15. Couric herself developed bulimia in high school after she was rejected from her first-choice college. She felt, she writes, compelled to deal with the disappointment by “turning on myself.”

Like Lewinsky and Tripp, Couric seems to have understood her body as a locus of discipline. It existed to be molded into an ideal shape and to be punished for its sins. She describes falling into a cycle.

“Knowing food was my enemy, I’d swear it off,” she explains. She would starve herself, then crack and binge eat, and then purge to “expel my guilt.”

In her 1993 book Unbearable Weight, the feminist philosopher Susan Bordo argues that the way women with eating disorders think about food and bodies varies only in degree, not in kind, from the way all women in our culture are encouraged to think. Someone with an eating disorder, she writes, “appears, not as a victim of a unique and ‘bizarre’ pathology, but as the bearer of very distressing tidings about our culture.” The tidings are: Food is the enemy, bodies are sinful, and if you fail, you must turn on your own flesh.

Couric describes landing a surprise interview with then-president George H.W. Bush in 1992 when he crashed her interview with Barbara Bush. Couric pivoted on the spot from her planned softball questions and cornered Bush on the Iran-Contra affair in a major media coup. Afterward, she recalls glowing over positive coverage of her interview from the Washington Post media critic Tom Shales.

“Couric proved yesterday that she’s worth her weight in gold,” Shales wrote. “Actually, more. She doesn’t weigh all that much.”

“In a piece overflowing with praise,” Couric says, “that last sentence might have been my favorite part.”

The sentence is an inverse of the point Impeachment was trying to make about Linda Tripp. When Tripp did something awful, the country reacted by shaming her for her body, so she reshaped it and presented herself back to the public for a redemption that never came. When Couric did something great, the world reacted by praising her for her body, and that was the praise that mattered most to her. Always, the body keeps the score.

A maid stands behind her and clips a necklace of pearls around Princess Diana’s neck.
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, wearing her pearls, in Spencer.
Courtesy of Neon

Halfway through Spencer, the people’s princess eats her pearls.

Diana, portrayed by Kristen Stewart, is sitting at a formal dinner, wearing a necklace of pearls from her unfaithful husband, Prince Charles. She is staring sickly down at the bowl of pea soup she is expected to eat; she feels unlovable, repulsive, grotesque; all the more so because she knows logically that she is beautiful, desired, beloved. She cannot stand her husband, she cannot stand her husband’s family, she cannot stand to exist in her own body.

The camera closes in on Diana’s glassy, staring eyes, and we enter into her head. She locks eyes with her husband and rips at her necklace until the pearls tumble into her soup. Then she begins spooning them luxuriously into her mouth, spoon by spoon and pearl by pearl, crunching down with her teeth.

Gradually her spoonfuls speed up, turning frantic. Then we cut to Diana stumbling down the hallway, ready to vomit up all that pea soup that she did eat, the pearls she didn’t really eat still clasped around her neck.

Diana, according to the film, has spent the past three days tormented by food. She was weighed upon arrival at Sandringham, the queen’s holiday escape. She’ll be weighed again when she leaves, with the expectation that she will have gained three pounds by the end of the weekend as proof that she enjoyed herself. The film begins with a nightmarish procession of food into the Sandringham kitchens, their colors blaring luridly off the screen; we’ll later see Diana binge eating under the sullen light of the refrigerator at midnight, and collapsing onto the bathroom floor in exhaustion after purging. The only thing Diana eats with any evidence of pleasure all weekend is her pearl necklace, and that’s in a fantasy.

If food in our world is a sin and a temptation, Diana’s fantasy of eating her pearl necklace carries a distinct tone of hedonism. It’s also an act of vengeance. Charles gave an identical pearl necklace to his mistress Camilla without seeming to realize the duplication. Diana tries to beg off wearing her version of the pearls, but her staff insists: it’s expected.

And when Diana imagines eating the pearls, she’s imagining making the biggest scene of all, insisting on her own anger, her own pleasure, and her own right to be fed all at once. The thought of it is so appalling that she immediately has to force herself to vomit.

Spencer is in some ways a horror movie, and Diana’s body is the locus of its horror. She harms it again and again, cutting and prodding and purging. She reflects with terror that when she is queen, she is going to become a head on a coin; she will have lost her interiority; she will become currency. How unbearable, the film seems to be saying, to be trapped within a body that cannot belong to you because it is a symbol for other people.

The difference between Diana’s plight and the plight of other women is, like the difference between women with eating disorders and other women, one of degree rather than of kind. Under our current system, all women’s bodies are currency. Companies extract wealth from women’s bodies through the sale of those Weight Watchers meals and Slim-Fast meal replacements; powerful men condescend to talk about women’s achievements in the same breath that they use to discuss their bodies, where their value is understood to lie.

Diana was easy to love in part because she looked so thin and fragile and elegant, like a fairy tale princess. Linda Tripp was easy to despise in part because she did not.

“Femininity itself,” Bardo writes in Unbearable Weight, “required the holding of breath, the loss of air, the choking down of anger and desire, the relinquishing of voice, the denial of appetite, the constriction of body.”

Bardo is writing there about the Victorian era, when the impossible constrictions of femininity could manifest in women’s minds and bodies as hysteria. But it’s worth asking whether that sentence might just as well describe the demands of femininity in 1993, when Bardo was writing — or even right now, today, in a time when we can’t seem to stop talking about what our culture has done to women’s bodies.

Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp on American Crime Story: Impeachment.
Tina Thorpe/FX

There’s more to our fascination with the body ideology of the ’90s than the smug certainty that we’re doing better now. The fascination says: Maybe we’re not doing better. It says: Maybe we’re still doing this horribly wrong. It says: Maybe we’re all frogs in a pot boiling to death and if we look back far enough we’ll be able to see when they first started cranking the heat up.

In the ’90s, women’s bodies were expected to be thin as popsicle sticks. It was the era of Kate Moss and heroine chic; of jutting clavicles and prominent hipbones; of low-fat SnackWell’s cookies and Oprah trundling her wagon of fat out in front of a live studio audience.

In Unbearable Weight, Bordo argues that the obsession with dieting that developed in the second half of the 20th century emerged as a backlash to the women’s liberation movement. “In this historical era, when the parameters defining women’s ‘place’ have indeed been challenged, it is disturbing that we are spending so much of our time and energy obsessed, depressed, and engaging in attempts at anxious transformation (most frequently, reduction) of our bodies,” writes Bordo. “It is hard to escape the recognition … that a political battle is being waged over the energies and resources of the female body, a battle in which at least some feminist agendas for women’s empowerment are being defeated (or, at a minimum, assaulted by backlash).”

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was, among other things, about attempting to redefine the parameters of a woman’s “place.” It was about whether women should expect to be harassed on the job; whether it was appropriate or indeed aspirational for women to have sex on the job; whether a first lady belonged in the West Wing; whether more women in cabinet seats than ever before canceled out accusations of sexual harassment and assault against the president.

The same stands for the Katie Couric and Princess Diana zeitgeists. And yet an enormous percentage of the discourse around these stories was devoted to policing the bodies of the women involved.

Lewinsky and Tripp were both considered too fat, which rendered them mockable. Also mockable was the amount of time and effort Lewinsky and Tripp manifestly put into their diet and exercise routines. To care about such things was frivolous, popular culture said; and anyway, it clearly didn’t work, so what was the point?

What that SNL joke ignores, and Impeachment makes clear, is that Lewinsky and Tripp are caught in an impossible trap. They know their bodies made them easy targets for mockery, so they are diligently working to remake them. They eat their microwaved Weight Watchers meals and their Slim-Fast meal replacements; they fill their bodies with simulacra of food on the understanding that they don’t deserve the real thing; they make remaking their bodies into a hobby and a form of social bonding. And then the work of remaking, too, became ripe for mockery.

But Impeachment approaches this idea awkwardly, through the layers of prosthetics Sarah Paulson wears over her face to play Tripp. Paulson wears Tripp’s fatness as a costume for most of the show, approaching each moment with such precise mimicry of Tripp’s mannerisms that you begin to feel you’re watching a mime rather than a character.

In the final episode, Paulson shucks her layers of pads to reveal Tripp post-weight loss and post-plastic surgery. The moment is meant to be cautionary: America shamed Linda Tripp so terribly that she became convinced that the thing that was wrong with her was her body, rather than her betrayal of a vulnerable young friend. She got it wrong because we shamed her for the wrong thing.

But the artificiality of the fat suit means it plays as a revelation instead: Look, here’s thin Sarah Paulson, out from under all those prosthetics, revealing her true body at last.

Inside every sinful fat girl, the thinking goes, there’s a respectable skinny girl, just waiting to come out.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Spencer takes place at Highgrove House. It takes place at Sandringham.

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