Urban Legends

The Dangerous Diet Pills

The Legend

After trying all sorts of fad diets, a young woman turned to a new company that was selling diet pills over the Internet. She didn't know how they got her e-mail address, but she thought that if they had gone to all of the trouble to find her and then saw that she needed to go on a diet, she might as well give them a try.

The woman ordered a month's supply, and when the package arrived she was surprised to see that it only contained two pills, but that the pills were enormous. It took her all afternoon to work up the willpower to take the first pill, and almost another whole hour to choke it down, but the effort seemed worth it. Her appetite disappeared, and she quickly began to lose weight.

Unfortunately, even when she was down to her target weight she continued to get thinner. A doctor examined her and asked to see the other diet pill. He broke it open and found that it contained a tape measure, designed to uncoil in the stomach and block the absorption of food.

Behind the Legend

Sympathetic magic -- the use of an object to represent the thing being enchanted -- has a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Apparently, the designers of the diet pills described in this legend believed that a tape measure (representing a waist that wishes to be reduced) would provide good sympathetic magic for a dieter.

Sympathetic magic is not recognized by Western medicine and, as such, has been largely derided and made illegal, no matter how well it works. The same blind adherence to a scientific approach to medicine that led to the banning of these ultimately deadly but otherwise effective pills has also put at risk such traditional and highly lauded practices as starving a child to chase out the demons that make it lisp and grinding up endangered animals to make aphrodisiacs. Fortunately, a strong pro-homeopathy lobby in Washington has largely preserved the right of Americans to, for example, use non-existent poison to cure poisonings.

Further muddying the waters here is a variant of this legend in which the pills contain a tapeworm instead of a tape measure. That's just gross. A further variant in which the pill contains a tape dispenser is completely ridiculous.

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