Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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“The Secret Lives of Dieters” uses its three characters to illustrate the changing nature of male-female relationships in the wake of the women’s movement. Donald wants only to be with someone; Louisa wants only to be in control; Polly wants only someone whom she cannot have.

Donald illustrates both the positive and negative extremes of the sensitive new man who began to emerge in the media in the 1970’s. On the one hand, he is a nurturer—he plans and cooks lovely low-calorie meals for Louisa and himself, he shops for foods that will tempt Polly to eat and thus build up her strength, and he hopes to illustrate children’s books. On the negative side, Donald is a passive spectator of his own life—he has been unwilling to pursue the advanced degree that he needs to progress in his career until he is forced into it by Louisa, and he is unwilling to confront Louisa or make any demands on her, despite the fact that she is sexually involved with another man even as she continues to live with him. At the end of the story, Donald stares out the window, paralyzed with depression, realizing that he is now thin and on his way to graduate school but is alone.

Polly and Louisa present opposite images of women: Louisa is strong, psychologically and physically, an assertive woman who takes charge of her own life; she shows no emotion as she leaves the caring, responsible Donald and moves efficiently on to another man. Polly is weak and thin, living alone with her fantasies; she has never had a relationship with a man whom others would consider to be normal. Although she imagines herself to be in love with Donald, she not only does not pursue him, but she does not even include herself as an observer, much less a participant, in his life when she illustrates it nightly in her sketchbook. Unlike the no-nonsense Louisa, Polly has an almost witchlike quality about her, as she proceeds to draw intimate details of Donald and Louisa’s life together with an eerie accuracy: Louisa examines her thinned-down self in the mirror, Polly draws such a scene in her sketchbook—did Donald describe this to her? Can she see Louisa from her window? Did she foresee—or even cause—Louisa’s action?

The use of food as a symbol of connection between people is foretold by the title. As Donald tries to build up Polly’s strength, he is also concentrating on slimming down both himself and Louisa, even after he discovers that Louisa is dieting to make herself more attractive to another man. As Polly’s meals—like her fantasy life—grow richer and more flavorful, the meals that Donald fixes at home—like his domestic life—become ever more spartan.