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Amy Choate-Nielsen: The connection between me, Margaret Thatcher and my grandmother

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5 2013 4:35 p.m. MST

When I was little, my family spent summers in Washington, D.C.

We loaded up our little blue and white van in Oklahoma and took a three-day road trip to the other side of the country. Then we unloaded all of our belongings into whatever hotel or military base we were staying at for the next few weeks, or months, and I went looking for the pool.

We spent our days roaming the halls of the national museums, the national zoo and the art galleries. We visited Civil War and Revolutionary War battlegrounds. We did homework. And we visited my dad at work in the Pentagon.

I remember drinking orange juice in the employees' cafeteria and exploring the hallways that were lined with flags from different countries. It was exciting and mysterious, but also familiar because we spent so much time there.

One day, there was a crowd of people pushing down the hallway of many flags. I vaguely remember hanging back behind the crowd with my siblings, watching the cameras flashing and people pushing by. My brother and sisters say they saw the top of a blue hat as it passed by at the epicenter of all of the attention.

It was Margaret Thatcher's hat on Margaret Thatcher's head, but for the life of me, I don't remember seeing any blue.

Nevertheless, the story became a legend in my family. It was the mid-1980s and "Iron Lady" Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of England. I didn't grasp what that meant then, but I knew it was a big deal. And as my family has repeated the story over the years, I've come to feel some connection to the political leader. We could have accidentally bumped into each other in the hallway, after all.

She was Britain's first and only female prime minister, arguably one of England's most well-known political leaders, a wife and mother of two.

And yet, she was still concerned about her figure.

In my last column, I mentioned that my grandmother Fleeta Choate, who died before I was born, clipped various diets and kept them in her cookbook. It should be said that I never knew my grandmother and I never had the chance to talk to her about many things in life. I draw inferences on her likes and dislikes, hobbies and accomplishments from the stories her children tell — and from her cookbook. It's the only personal possession of hers that I have. To me, it might as well have been her journal.

So when I found a yellowed piece of paper in her cookbook that said "Mayo Clinic Diet," I was intrigued. For one thing, the diet advises that you eat two eggs at every meal, along with foods like steak, grapefruit and chicken that you can have for various lunches and dinners. You're not to be on the diet longer than two weeks, but it is promised that you can lose about 20 pounds in that time if you follow the diet correctly.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher had the same "Mayo Clinic" diet tucked into the front flap of her own pocket diary, according to the Margaret Thatcher Foundation. It was the diary she used right up until she took office as prime minister, during a time she could have been looking for a "pre-election spruce up," the foundation's website says.

In March of 1979, a British newspaper ran a story of an interview with Thatcher called, "My face, my figure, my diet." In the story, the future prime minister reveals her dress size, her beauty regimen and the fact that she doesn't eat marmalade and toast or chocolates for fear the weight will go to her hips.

"Who would want a dowdy female fatty for a prime minister?" the article asks. "After all, if a person can't control her weight, doesn't it occur to everybody that she may not be able to control other, more important things?"

I can imagine the pressure one must feel, being under intense scrutiny, to look as society wants you to look. But it dismays me that my grandmother and Margaret Thatcher — who were beyond successful in their achievements and accomplishments and who pushed themselves further than most women or men did in their day — still could not escape the grasp of our world's obsession with image. If even the smallest part of their self-confidence was affected by the size of their hips, what hope do the rest of us have?

As it turns out, the popular "Mayo Clinic" diet that my grandmother and Margaret Thatcher had was a hoax. The Mayo Clinic didn't actually endorse a diet until 2009, and the real diet doesn't prescribe eating two eggs and grapefruit at every meal. But next time I'll tell you about the last diet I know my grandmother tried — maybe what she ate wasn't just about weight, after all.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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