Barb Nicoll


Wendy Buckland








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In my mind, I have a picture of Wendy at 30. She is huffing up a hill, squeezed into a track suit two sizes too small. Her eyes are wide: all of her demons are chasing her. One of them is holding a doughnut. She feels that she's running for her life.

Barb's problem, on the other hand, was never one of obesity. Her early story is one of a lifetime of weight loss and gain, and the inherent health problems that can go with it. Genetic rheumatoid arthritis was the largest of these problems, but she says now that some of the physical damage she inflicted on herself in those dieting years will be with her for the rest of her life.

At 37, she says, she saw the path to enlightenment and -- in retrospect -- it was an amazingly simple course. Sensible, low-fat eating combined with a regime of exercise brought her health and energy back along with the figure she'd always dreamed of having: healthily in the mid-120s and better than when she had yo-yo-ed down to 118 pounds in her desperation days.

Then a Burlington, Ontario hair stylist, Barb suddenly found herself with a whole new outlook. "There was so much more room for positive in my life," after years of self-abuse and low self esteem. People, she says, felt this from her. Were, in fact, drawn to her. They started coming to her for tips on how they, too, could change their lives through sensible self-care.

Wendy was one of those supplicants. A friend, Barb says, as well as a client, Wendy -- then a new mother -- and Barb were talking one day when all of Wendy's reserves came down and she told Barb all that was in her heart. At 30 she felt her life was over and that the best was behind her. She weighed 200 pounds and didn't feel like she had the energy or ability to bring any type of change.

When you look at them now, you wonder how any of this can be. Calm self-assured and used to the limelight, both women are the lithe poster children for living well in the 90s. On a tour to promote their latest book, Spread Yourself Thin (HarperCollins), I am surprised to discover that Wendy Buckland and Barb Nicoll look exactly like the many photos of them in their most recent book. They are thin, elegantly turned out and -- predictably -- perfectly coifed. This tour is one of many they've been on since they discovered the new them three years ago. Cross-country tours evangelizing the power of eating right and caring for yourself. And they are evangelists. Living what they've learned with the careful studiousness of new-body monks.

They tell me that the stuff they believe isn't about beauty, but rather about health. It is, they says almost with one voice, the way to higher self-esteem and complete self-power. And it is one voice: they give the appearance of never wavering on decisions and never disagreeing with the other's statements. Sentences started by one are sometimes finished by the other and at first, it's hard to tell them apart. "People say that," says Barb. "So sometimes," finishes Wendy, "we wear big letters on our shirts to help. A big 'W' and a big 'B'."

Today they wear no such letters. Today both are sheathed head to toe in elegant leather suits. Wendy in black and Barb in brown suede. They look great: like mature fashion models on hiatus. But the leather, both explain, was not to be super chic or elegant or even to flaunt their new wealth. Rather, on a cross-country tour, they decided it would be prudent to go low maintenance and wrinkle-free. Both look elegant and chic despite their protestations.

The new wealth is real, though. And one can imagine that the leather suits can be easily afforded. The two successful books are just the tip of the iceberg. Or maybe the frosting on the cake would be more appropriate in this case: chocolate icing on bikini brownies, one the recipes in the new book. But, also, one of the products Wendy and Barb "You Won't Believe This is Low Fat" food items being marketed across Canada. The foods are going over well in cities across the country. With low-fat contents and happy names like Banana Blast Muffins and Skinny Baguettes, Wendy and Barb's food line grossed $6 million in 1997: the first year they were in stores. They show every sign of outstripping that by far in 1998.

The beginning of their ministry -- and in many ways it does feel like evangelizing -- were the seminars they used to do that, in many ways, started everything else. The two women took it on the road and gave workshops to teach others how to re-think the self-destructive behaviors that were affecting their lives. "We'd bring in whole truckloads of food," says Wendy, "and go through everything and say why this was good or that was bad." The message was about re-educating people. Getting them to re-evaluate the way they did things, "and why."

Their message, like the message of so many others like them -- is searingly simple. There are three components, they say, to looking and feeling great. The first is shopping and eating low fat. "It starts with what you buy. If you've bought the wrong foods and have them in your cupboards," says Barb, "it's too late."

Wendy agrees, "All the things you want but all under 30 per cent calories and fat." Sound challenging? Well, they agree, it is. But possible: as their own svelte selves will attest.

Step two is to cook in a low fat way, "Liposuction your kitchen," Wendy laughs, though only half in jest. "People say 'Oh, it's so boring' but it's not. Or it doesn't need to be." It's important, they say, to have the right information on hand as well as the right herbs and spices to help put all that knowledge to its best use. "You've got to keep finding new ideas and recipes," says Barb, to keep the low fat from being highly boring.

The third step is exercise, "it doesn't matter what you do: as long as you move," Wendy says. But you have to move more than a little: 20 to 30 minutes a day four to five times a week if you're starting from the very beginning and have a big hill to climb.

"Throw out the scales! Throw them in the garbage." Barb advises. And here, too, Wendy agrees. "Before we used to say, 'How much do I weigh?' or 'What's my dress size?' but those aren't the important things." Finding a healthy balance, they agree, is what's important. Finding the place where you look and feel your best.

"Being healthy and feeling good," Barb says. "That's what it's really about. It's like an investment program: we're planning for our futures. When we're 60 and 65, we want to be healthy."

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.