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The New Puritans

Deprivation Chic

From the June 11, 1984 issue of New York Magazine.

Have I not sinned with my Teeth? How?
By sinful, graceless, excessive Eating.
—Cotton Mather, on having a toothache.

Feel the burn . . .
—Jane Fonda

Dawn on the Upper East Side. A small rain falls, a chilly mist hangs over the cherry blossoms in Carl Schurz Park. The only people on the block are porters emptying garbage, doormen staring listlessly out into the wet—and Mike Frankfurt, 48, of the law firm Frankfurt Garbus Klein & Selz. As he does every morning at 6:15 in sun, rain, or snow, "like the postman," Frankfurt has risen from his warm bed, leaving his two sons, his wife, and his wheaten terrier asleep, to run ten miles. And, says Frankfurt, smiling, one of the "great joys" of the experience is the pain. "You get up every day and you never know what's going to hurt."

As Frankfurt and his companions—a cardiologist, a surgeon, and an executive in the fashion industry—huff and puff their way toward the footbridge at Wards Island, most of the conversation is about their ailments. "During the week," says Frankfurt, "I get three or four phone calls about injuries."

"We have a saying," says Frankfurt, the sweat pouring down his face, "that to run with pain is the essence of life."

Elsewhere on the Upper East Side, Kathy Krauch, 24, an art director at Young & Rubicam, has gotten up at 5:30 to don her black shorts with chamois padding in the rear, and set out for a twelve-mile bike ride in Central Park. Despite the early hour, the park is crowded with runners and cyclists, jostling one another as they fight for space. And on most of their faces the expression is that of, well, pain.

Before the day is over, Kathy Krauch will have breakfasted on granola, lunched on yogurt and nuts, worked a ten-hour day, swum two and a half miles, dined on vegetables, and then, despite her strained hamstrings, taken the train to Brooklyn Heights to play walleyball (a form of volleyball) until midnight. She will top this off with a couple of laps in the pool "just to cool down." (Some days she likes to vary her routine with a soccer game.) Her swimming coach says, "I'm amazed she's still alive."

On the same morning, Preston Handy, 41, who is in the import-export business, has gotten out of bed and begun his eating ritual of the day. For breakfast, Handy will eat a banana, a pear, and an apple, plus some 35 vitamin pills and various herbal compounds and bee pollen—"It tastes kind of like a mouthful of dry sand," he says. Before going to work, Handy will swim two hours; at midday he will skip lunch to work out for 45 minutes on the Nautilus machines at his local gym; in the late afternoon, he will run six miles around Central Park. He will then come home to a dinner of a yam and a baked potato, pasta "with a minimal amount of sauce," vegetables, lecithin liquid—"It's like licking the underarm of a snake"—and a multivitamin, "to cover anything I've missed."

Handy, Krauch, and Frankfurt are emblematic figures of the New Puritanism, a movement that has converted many New Yorkers into hyperactive ascetics. It is affecting their eating habits, recreational activities—even, in some cases, their sex lives. (Some people, worried about herpes and AIDS, deliberately shun sex; other passionate exercisers find that several hours of running and swimming leaves them without enough energy—or interest.)

New Puritans are not merely concerned with developing clearer complexions or trimmer thighs. They pursue self-denial as an end in itself, out of an almost mystical belief in the purity it confers. They work hard and play harder—if your idea of play is Olympic competition. At a recent dinner party, as midnight approached, one of the guests, a financial analyst, announced that she had to get home to do a few more hours' work before she turned in. "I need only four hours' sleep," she boasted. "And I never eat breakfast or lunch these days—only chocolate." Quickly the conversation became a contest of who could sleep least, eat least, and run most. Another woman confessed to needing six hours' sleep a night, but, she said, "I'm running ten miles a day now." One bemused guest thought, "This is deprivation chic."

Abstinence and self-mortification are the cultural messages at late-century. No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list of how-to books is Eat to Win, which advocates a competitive diet of mainly potatoes, vegetables, and pasta.

Not content with the New York City Marathon (17,000 ran last year, up from 2,400 in 1976), local athletes are looking forward to the triathlon, which the New York Road Runners Club is planning for August. Participants will get the chance to swim 1¼ miles in New York Harbor, ride a bike 23 miles, and then run 6 miles around Central Park.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Jun 11, 1984 issue of New York
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