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Home --> Horrors --> Fatal Vanities --> As the Worm Squirms

As the Worm Squirms

Claim:   Dieters used to attempt to lose weight by ingesting tapeworms.

Status:   Undetermined.

  • Besides the usual unnamed woman who stars in such tales, some famous ladies have been fingered, including Claudia Schiffer and Maria Callas.
  • Some versions of this legend specify that once the vain one has lost all the extra poundage desired, she takes deworming pills to be rid of the tapeworm.
Origins:   As unlikely as this must sound, there might be some reason to believe tapeworm diet pills were once marketed in the Tapeworm diet pill cartoon United States between 1900 and 1920. A number of sources have indicated encountering advertisements for such products, but whether the products advertised actually matched their descriptions would be difficult to verify. (Just because an ad for a diet pill proclaimed the product contained tapeworms doesn't mean it really did — duping people into buying medicinal nostrums by way of making false and exaggerated claims was standard procedure in the days before government regulation of food and drug products.)

In the 1960s, memories of those ads resurfaced as appetite-suppressant candy came into vogue, prompting curious dieters to speculate on how they worked. By 1970, diet pills were all the rage, and amphetamines accounted for 8% of all prescriptions written that year. Simple reports about various wonder products evolved into appalling whispered-behind-hands tales about women so desperate to keep their figures that they routinely swallowed magic diet pills which were really tapeworms in capsules. Sometimes the tidbits ended there as "Did you know ... ?" shared tales, but other times the buzz was expanded into tragic tales detailing the gruesome deaths that had befallen some beautiful but vain young things.

No one has been singled out by this rumor more than opera singer Maria Callas (1923-1977). Callas was afflicted with tapeworms, but not due to any "lose weight quick!" reducing scheme. She was overly fond of steak and liver tartare, raw meat dishes prone to
contamination. In her case, the rumor about tapeworm diet pills collided with her real-life condition, resulting in her being misidentified as someone who used such a product. Compounding the error, respected newspapers passed along fatuous statements about her and this rumor as if they were revealed fact. (Example: "Maria Callas, whose desperation to lose weight led her to swallow a tapeworm, shed several stones over a matter of months and never regained her former power," trumpeted The Guardian in 1992.) Some poorly-researched biographies have even claimed this as truth, falling for the myth instead of the reality.

It's interesting to note many accounts of the Callas rumor spitefully and self-righteously conclude with the news that her indulgence in this ill-advised tapeworm diet fad caused her to lose the ability to hit the high notes. Such flourishes remind us that vanity rumors are often employed to humble women who aren't much liked or are seen as having attained high positions they did not merit. In Callas' case, her well-publicized, long-standing liaison with Aristotle Onassis caused some to belittle her talent by ascribing her success to her having a powerful benefactor; others wanted to find additional justification for disliking a woman who openly consorted with a (then) married man.

Sometimes a rumor will meld with a folk tale to form a new entity:
[Baker, 1982]

A few years ago there was a company who put out sure-fire diet pills, guaranteed to lose weight in no time. People began to take these pills, and in no time the people were losing weight. After a few weeks these people began to lose too much weight. So the government investigated. They opened the pills and found the head of a tapeworm. Tapeworms are hard to get rid of. They had the person starve himself for days. Then they set a bowl of hot milk in front of the person. He had to keep his mouth open. After a while the tapeworm began to come up his throat 'cause he smelled the milk. They kept moving the bowl further away until the tapeworm was completely out.
Other versions of how to draw out a tapeworm include placing milk, cookies, and a hammer near the afflicted person's anus for a few nights and letting the tapeworm gorge himself into complacency on the treats. Once this has been accomplished, the cookie is withheld. When the worm comes all the way out to demand, "Where's my cookie?," whoever is stuck with worm-watching duty that night bashes it with the hammer. An alternative vermifuge calls for 29 steaks and a hammer: The patient eats a steak for 29 days in row, then fasts on the 30th day. The worm becomes closely acquainted with the hammer when it emerges to demand its T-bone.

Barbara "T-bone voyage, sucker!" Mikkelson

Last updated:   8 July 2006

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  Sources Sources:
    Baker, Ronald.   Hoosier Folk Legends.
    Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1982.   ISBN 0-25-332844-6.

    Bret, David.   Maria Callas: The Tigress and the Lamb.
    London: Robson Books, 1997.   ISBN 1-86-105257-X.

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   The Choking Doberman.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1984.   ISBN 0-393-30321-7   (pp. 111-112).

    de Vos, Gail.   Tales, Rumors and Gossip.
    Englewood: Libraries Unlimited, 1996.   ISBN 1-56308-190-3   (p. 148).

    Morgan, Hal and Kerry Tucker.   Rumor!
    New York: Penguin Books, 1984.   ISBN 0-14-007036-2   (p. 65).

    Smith, Paul.   The Book of Nastier Legends.
    London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.   ISBN 0-7102-0573-2   (p. 69).

    Thomas, Tessa.   "Health: Pavarotti and Other Weighty Tissues."
    The Guardian.   11 September 1992   (p. 27).

    Tucker, Elizabeth.   "The 7-Day Wonder Diet."
    Indiana Folklore.   Vol. 11; 1978   (pp. 141-150).

Sources Also told in:
    Cohen, Daniel.   The Beheaded Freshman and Other Nasty Rumors.
    New York: Avon Books, 1993.   ISBN 0-380-77020-2   (pp. 107-108).

    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 178).