Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Not Being Fat and Other Stories

I've become slightly addicted to the new series by Cherry Healey on BBC Three. These fun documentaries unfold the typical women's issues, so far looking at breast feeding, money, and most recently, body issues. In the latest episode, Cherry discussed some of her own issues about her body and weight, and visited a number of women to talk about their own body images.

According to Cherry, the average woman spends 31 years of her life on a diet. If we presume that the first and last 10 years of any woman's life are not spent dieting (but are rather spent being young and being old respectively), that's a total of half of a woman's life from age 10 to age 70 spent on a diet. Hideous.

The documentary really hit home to me. Like practically every other woman on the planet (or at least in the UK and USA - German women never seem to have body issues!), I've spent a good proportion of my 24 years worrying about my body. I remember in explicit detail practically every instance of being called 'fat' at school - going back as far as when I was four years old and had to stand up in front of the class to say something. I was always a 'well built' child, despite the fact that I was brought up on the healthiest and most wonderful of diets - I can honestly claim that not once did I consume a packet of crisps or a chocolate bar in my packed lunch, and enjoyed instead melon and raw vegetables, and the odd fig roll as an occasional treat.

So I continued into high school being relatively overweight, but nothing too serious. I wasn't fit (at all!!!) and I had a big appetite, and once I was given free-reign of my food my 'well built' figure became 'properly overweight' quite quickly. I always dreamed that one day I'd lose weight, but I never actually tried to; I have no idea why. Then, I got a boyfriend, and McDonalds lunches teamed with Starbucks afternoons teamed with absolute disregard for my health led to full-on overweightness. Possibly even obesity. We were overweight together so it seemed less obvious, and I didn't notice until my favourite trousers became a bit tight.

To cut a long story short, I decided, much later than I should have (I actually couldn't wear trousers at the time as finding a pair to fit was too difficult), to do something about it. I started running (albeit very slowly!), I started going out on my bike, and most importantly, I started to cook. I cooked and cooked and cooked. I discovered new vegetables, spices, curries and chillies and ratatouille. I came home from school every day and put a tray of vegetables in the oven to roast. I stopped eating meat and bread. I loved fresh salmon, chickpeas, and mounds and mounds of colourful veg. I had a good breakfast every morning: muesli and natural yogurt and fruit. I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with food. I still ate a lot, but the weight just dropped off - fell as if I was shedding my skin. That summer, I wore a bikini on the beach in Vancouver. I was 18 and I absolutely loved my body: how many women can say that?

But there's always a but.

Mine was university. What happened, I do not know, but everything came undone. Maybe I was too confident in my new habits, maybe I got cocky and thought I'd never be able to be fat again. I can assure you that takeaways and alcohol make you fat incredibly quickly. It's very easy to be thin, but it's just as easy to not be thin, that's for sure.

(I actually can't find a single photo of me from back then that isn't only my face to put on here - shocking!)

Argh I was so unhealthy, and the chronic stomach problems I've always had got worse and worse and worse. I was in so much pain and discomfort that I had to miss lectures, and I ate mainly Weetabix and cous cous for a good few months running. I became pretty scared of food and how it could make me feel - but that didn't stop me stopping by the pizza takeaway on the way home from a night out.

It wasn't long into this nightmare that something clicked into place. I started cooking properly again, and (gasp! confession!!) in March 2007 I joined a gym! I hate gyms, I really hate them. But I went, three or four times a week, mainly to run on the treadmill. Weight once again disappeared (as did the takeaway boxes in the recycling), my stomach problems improved and I started to feel good. By June I had the confidence to run outside, and by July I was back in that bikini in Croatia.

A photo!!

Ah you see! I was not super skinny and I certainly didn't have a six pack, but I felt GREAT. Absolutely wonderfully great about my whole body. Hurrah! I was fitter than ever and back with my love for food; happy just to carry on the way I was going.

And then another but!

France. The but of buts. The living alone with no radio or Internet in a tiny basement studio. Freezing cold all winter. Nothing much to do. Certainly not the lifestyle a 20-year old wants for herself. Cue calorie counting, portion control, an obsession with sit ups and squats and bean-can dumbbells.

Six months later I was the thinnest and unhappiest I'd ever been. We don't need to go too far into that right now. But I do have loads of photos.

So, what have I just laid this all out for? Because this is something that is more to me than much else. Most women have issues with their bodies, and it's up to all of us to fix it. Because the world around us is not going to change, so we have to change it ourselves. Because I don't want to spend another 22 years dieting or worrying about myself.

I'm a whole stone heavier than I was this time last year (despite the fact that I eat less and exercise more...hmm), but I'm no less happy than I was then. I'm no less happy than I was in that top picture either. I'm a trillion times happier than I was in the above photo. Plus I'm not irritable, I have periods, I don't wake up in the night with agonizing pains in my legs and hips, I don't bruise at the touch of a feather, and I've gained my interest back in a lot of (very important!!) things. Hurrah!

I can stand, hand on heart and say that - right now at least - I love my body. I don't feel fat (though I do have fat days of course!), I don't want to make anything bigger or smaller, and I don't ever do sit ups (how long do I have to live, and how much of that do I want to spend doing sit ups?). I eat loads, I run and cycle for the pleasure of it, I don't intend to ever join a gym again.

Watching Cherry Healey's documentary yesterday made me realize how fortunate I am to feel this way. How much I need to celebrate not getting on the scales every day (or week, or month), not counting calories, not doing 100 sit ups in the mornings. I'm ok with not having a toned stomach, I'm ok with not fitting into my teeeny tiny jeans, I'm ok with my stocky legs that recently got me 100-miles on a bike.

We focus too much on losing weight, and not enough on being healthy. Forget sweetner, forget margarine, forget treadmills and sit ups and no carbs. None of these things benefit our bodies. Fresh air, wholegrains, laughter, gentle yoga, 12 portions of veg a day, water, lentils and lots and lots of simple happiness: that's how I want my time to be spent, thank you very much.

And cake, too, of course!


  1. Absolutely brilliant post. And very honest too.
    Lisa x

  2. A fantastic post. I have too much to say really to put it all into a comment, but I have a story very much like yours. I was obese up until the age of 18 and then kicked myself into shape, but struggled for years (and if I'm honest still do) with what dieting did not to my body, but my mental health. I still struggle with the psychological impact that dieting did to me, and still weigh myself daily. BUT, with a partner who once told me I was so thin I was unattractive (I NEVER thought a man would say that!) and takes the mick out of me if I get too silly I am much better than I have ever been, and it was cooking that did it for me. I use butter and sugar not the alternatives and feel better and healthier and happier for it all. How I wish more people would write about things like you do.

  3. We focus too much on losing weight, and not enough on being healthy

    Could not agree more!! Healthy and happy. I think where so many of us go wrong, and certainly where I went wrong in the past, was associating being thin with being happy. It is one of the biggest myths there is, right up there with Bigfoot :P

    Great to hear more of your story and how far you've come, you should be proud :) xx