‘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.
Explore The Diet
‘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.
‘The Diet’ by Carol Ann Duffy contains several themes. The major theme of the poem is dieting or in simple words fasting (ironically). The modern sentiment with physical leanness creates an illusion of beauty in women. It’s not only about women. But, about all who forget that dieting isn’t a kind of fasting. One reaches the extremes and the body sorrowfully suffers. Moreover, there is a theme of physical beauty in the poem. The poet specifically talks about the illusion of physical beauty. In the modern world, people being in good shape is synonymous with being beautiful and glamorous.
Apart from that, there is also the theme of gender-bias in the poem. How a woman should look like, is a mere perception having no connection with reality. Society creates this fading-definition of beauty from time to time and women get mad about keeping themselves in the shape created by others.
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.
The key technique used in Duffy’s ‘The Diet’ is a 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.
Analysis of The Diet
The diet worked like a dream. No sugar,
eight stone, by the end of the month, she was skin
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.
She starved on, stayed in, stared in
all cheekbones, had guns for hips. Not a stitch
in the wardrobe fitted.
The second stanza of ‘The Diet’ 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.
What passed her lips? Air,
She sat at her open window and the wind
blew her away.
In the third stanza of ‘The Diet’, 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’ suggest 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.
Seed small, she was out and about,
head splitting, mouth dry, hungry and cold, and made
for the light.
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Diet’, Duffy depicts the physical and mental condition of the woman who has been dieting for a long period. The persona looks like a “seed” after a few days of dieting. She becomes so frustrated that she can’t even get to her senses. Wandering in finding the meaning of what she has done with her body, she finds solace in drinking a chilling beer. The process of being thin is no doubt, caused her so much pain. To move on from the suffering, she breaks the shackles of restrictions first and moves freely in the streets drinking and singing.
The next day, she wakes alone having no one to love her as she is. Her mouth is dry, hunger, and cold ravaging her skinny body, and at last, she sees “light”, metaphorically the light of freedom amidst the darkness of dieting.
She found she could fly on the wind,
Minute, she could suit herself from here on in, go
where she pleased.
The fifth stanza of ‘The Diet’ focuses 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’ seems 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.
She stayed near people,
in mud under fingernails, dossed in a fold of fat
on a waist.
In the sixth stanza of ‘The Diet’ by Carol Ann Duffy, the poet uses a simile to describe the woman’s state. She is like a “germ”, badly longing for human companionship. That’s why she “stayed near people”. Moreover, her physical pain was unbearable. For restraining herself ruthlessly, she became like a beast, desirous of only “flesh and blood”.
However, the lady wasn’t mentally stable. She wallowed in mud water and dossed there. Here, the poet ironically refers to the “fold of fat” that still gave her warmth, a sensation of life.
But when she squatted the tip of a tongue,
then it was carrots, peas, courgettes, potatoes,
gravy and meat.
The beginning of stanza seven of ‘The Diet’ 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.
Then it was sweet. Then it was stilton,
chomped and chewed and gorged; inside the Fat Woman now,
trying to get out.
In the last stanza of ‘The Diet’, 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.
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.
Like ‘The Diet’, one of the famous poems written by Carol Ann Duffy, here is a list of some poems that talk about the theme of expectation vs reality.
- Barbie Doll by Marge Piercy – In this lyric poem, Marge Piercy talks about the absurd expectations placed on girls from an early stage of their lives. It’s one of Marge Piercy’s well-known poems.
- Mushrooms by Sylvia Plath – In this one of her best poems, Sylvia Plath metaphorically uses mushrooms as a symbol of women and their lifelong battle for equality.
- The Pig by Ogden Nash – In this famous light-poem of Ogden Nash, the poet highlights the theme of expectation vs reality from a pig’s perspective. Moreover, Ogden Nash‘s ironic reference to the pig’s innocence is interesting.
- The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins – In this poem, Billy Collins talks about mental suffering that is close enough to the suffering of the lady in Duffy’s poem. Moreover, it’s one of Billy Collins’ famous poems.
You can read about 10 Heartfelt Poems about Depression here.