The Diet by Carol Ann Duffy explores the societal pressure placed on women to look a certain way, manifesting in the unhealthy abiding to diet regulations of the character woman. Duffy’s woman takes her diet to the extreme, stopping eating everything and giving her whole life to fasting. Her life spirals out of control, Duffy using the metaphor of being eaten to reflect how the woman herself has become consumed by her dietary practices.
The Diet by Carol Ann Duffy begins by outlining what the woman is going to cut out, removing essentially everything from her diet. Naturally, Duffy suggests that the diet worked ‘like a dream’ at the beginning, not eating anything leading to the woman rapidly dropping weight. Yet, the woman takes the diet further, never eating at all until she was whittled down to nothing. She becomes smaller and smaller, eventually being blown away by the wind. Her life has become consumed by the desire to lose more and more weight, losing everything that is dear to her in the process. Eventually, the woman has swallowed herself, sent into someone’s stomach due to her tiny size. At this point in the poem, Duffy uses the metaphor of being eaten to reflect the woman binging on food again, eating as much as she can, and losing herself in the process of this torturous switching between binging and fasting. The last line depicts weight as a prison, the woman trapped behind the figure that has come to define her life.
You can read the full poem The Diet here.
Form and Structure
Duffy splits The Diet into 8 stanzas of 7 lines each. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem, although there are several cases of internal rhyme. These are used to speed up the rhythm of the poem, pushing the woman ever-onward in her diet journey. The regularity of the poem, with a consistent line length per stanzas throughout, reflects the strict nature of the woman’s diet, never managing to stray from the intense requirements of the starvation diet. The final line of each stanza is shorter than the rest, always containing an end stop that bluntly ends each stanza. In doing this, the poem has a sense of jolted rhythm, moving forward only to be yanked back and stalled. The structure could, therefore, reflect the diet process, the woman moving from starvation to binging in a constant cycle.
Dieting has become a word that is seen in all aspects of society. Especially considering the instant window social media provides into the lives of others, dieting, fitness, and looking your best for the camera has become a pandemic across the world. Recent studies have shown that currently 20-24 percent of American men and 33-40 percent of American women are currently dieting to lose weight. Although impacting men and women, even from this small statistic it is clear to see how much more dieting and looking a certain way is something on the mind of many women. Duffy replies to this rampant dieting across society, painting the picture of someone who has become obsessed with the concept. The diet industry (yes, industry) is a multi-billion dollar faculty, with the modern age only leading to further profit for corporations that base themselves within this area. Eating disorders are thankfully becoming more discussed within society, with Duffy using The Diet to create a platform that explores the impacts of these disorders, presenting the chaos it can bring to an individual’s life.
The key technique used within Duffy’s The Diet is metaphor. Although the diet is realistic, the impacts are exaggerated, with the woman turning into a tiny ‘thimble’ sized woman who floats away. While this transformation mirrors the loss of weight, it is extended to show the psychological damage that intense dieting is doing to the woman. Duffy uses this metaphor to expose the dangers of trying to live up to the expectation placed upon women and the unrealistic examples of body-types seen around the world. Especially in a modern-day reading with social media leading to body dysmorphia and widespread insecurity, Duffy’s Diet hits home.
Another technique that Duffy uses when writing The Diet is the linking of the semantics of the body with plosive sounds. Especially in stanza six, Duffy connects parts of the body, ‘fingernail’ and ‘mouth’ with harsh plosive words, ‘kipped’ and ‘dossed’. The connection of body semantics with harsh words is emblematic of the woman’s view of her own body, the blunt plosives reflecting the negative opinion the woman has over her body, represented through the semantics used.
The Diet Analysis
The diet worked like a dream. No sugar,
The poem begins by placing ‘The Diet’ as the central focus, Duffy instantly drawing attention to the extreme diet. The use of asyndeton following this diet exposes the ridiculous nature of the fasting, the woman cutting out essentially everything, ‘sugar, salt, dairy, fat, protein, starch’ covering every single food group. The use of asyndeton within this list allows for the list to flow quickly, Duffy moving through food groups as if they were insignificant, reflecting the woman’s attitude towards food.
The internal rhyme furthers the speed of the meter, emblematic of the quick weight loss the woman is going through. Linking ‘dinner, thinner’ through this internal rhyme signals that the skipping of meals is linked to the shrinking size of the woman. Yet, the woman takes this too far, fasting until she is ‘skin and bone’ by the end of the stanza. The first stanza takes away all weight that is humanly possible, with the rest of the poem sinking into unrealistic exaggeration.
Stanza Two and Three
She starved on, stayed in, stared in
blew her away.
These stanzas further the ‘slimmer’ journey of the dieting woman. She morphs into a lesser human, a mere ‘skeleton’ of the past. She turns into just bones, ‘cheekbones, had guns for hips’, Duffy showing the process of wasting away. The use of sibilance across ‘starved on, stayed in, stared in’ creates a cutting sound that begins the second stanza. This harsh use of sibilance is emblematic of the brutal impact the diet is having on the woman’s body, the sound cutting through the poem as the diet cuts through the woman’s weight.
Duffy personifies ‘Anorexia’, presenting the woman as her ‘true daughter’, the use of ‘true’ insinuating the faithful obedience to the eating disorder. The capitalization and personification of ‘Anorexia’ suggests a parental influence, Duffy presenting the idea that the woman pains her eating disorder as a governing force. The use of caesura following this phrase, ‘girl, a shadow, dwindling’ create a sense of melancholy, the woman unable to stop, shown through the connection of phrase.
Stanzas Four, Five, Six
Seed small, she was out and about,
on a waist.
These stanzas focus on the metaphorical loss of control, the woman being ‘blown’ by the wind and taken away from her home. This is emblematic of the woman’s losing her battle with her eating disorder, it taking over her life and turning her into a passive object that can be controlled.
The semantics of freedom within ‘fly’, ‘floated’ and ‘breeze’ seem to suggest a positive change. Yet, they are actually just reaffirming the presence of the wind, constantly acting on the woman – representing how she has become a passive participant in her life, controlled by her eating disorder.
Stanzas Seven + Eight
But when she squatted the tip of a tongue,
trying to get out.
The beginning of stanza seven seems to indicate a Volta, ‘but’ perhaps demonstrating the moment in which she regains control. Yet, Duffy actually presents the woman falling deeper into her eating disorder. Duffy presents the woman being metaphorically eaten by someone, the very act of feeding now having overtaken her life. The constant semantics of food within these stanzas, ‘carols, peas, courgettes, potatoes’ demonstrate that she has moved to the other side of the spectrum, now binging food.
Duffy presents the woman as trapped inside ‘the Fat Woman now’, this idea of being encapsulated in a body that does not represent who you are reflecting the idea of body dysmorphia. Duffy depicts eating disorders as a cage, with women unable to escape from the brutality of constant fasting or binging.
The final line of The Diet, ’trying to get out’ uses the gerund, present progressive tense. This ‘trying’ suggests that the woman is still ongoing, trying day after day to escape the horrific cycle of binging and fasting that she has fallen into. The metaphor of being consumed represents the total obsession, Duffy presenting the mental and physical destruction that an eating disorder can have on a person.