Monday, June 15, 2015

Sizing up

"I think maybe it's not such a bad thing that you are overweight. It means boys won't be interested and you can concentrate on your studies."

I was 17-years-old when my father said this to me. He said it casually, as though he were thinking out loud.  I wasn't shocked or surprised - a little humiliated and hurt yes. But this is how my family talked about weight and appearances: in a matter of fact cause and effect sort of way, and it had been that way since I could remember.

My extended family were at it too. Whenever you saw them, there'd be a comment on how you looked - if you had gained or lost weight, how you wore your hair, what you were wearing. Lunches at my mother's family's house were tremendously anxiety provoking to me as a teenager because my appearance was open for public discussion and opinion, whether I liked it or not.

And it wasn't just my family either. As a teenager I'd visit my brother's wife's parents house, and my sister-in-law's father would comment: 'You're getting a bit chubby hey?" And his wife, a petite redheaded woman who I adored, would admonish him. "Don't love, girls at this age are very sensitive." I'd smile awkwardly as though I was in on the joke, and inwardly I wanted the floor to open and swallow me up.  

Rewind a few years before the 17-year-old fat shaming incident with my father: I am little and sitting at the table with my family.  My father is seated at the head of the table and is threatening my siblings and I with a spanking if we don't eat our food. "You are not leaving this table until you eat every last thing." I don't, and after everyone goes off to watch TV, I'm left behind at the table as my food slowly develops rigor mortis. Sometimes my brother comes into the kitchen for a snack (he is always hungry), and I bribe him to eat my now ice cold food with whatever sweets I've managed to save up. The only thing I genuinely enjoy and eat readily (apart from sweets) is marmalade on toast. I start developing white spots all over my body, so my mother takes me to the doctor. Sitting in his consulting room, a cigarette smouldering in his large fingers, he advises my mother and me that I have a deficiency, and looking me straight in the eye informs me that if I don't start eating I am going to die. I am about seven years old.

In his 30s my father used to go to the gym almost every evening after work. He'd come home with a pocketful of peppermints for us from the gym's reception. Occasionally he'd enter amateur body building competitions and one of the best things that ever happened to him was meeting Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was Mr Universe at the time) who was a judge at a competition he participated in in South Africa . My father was handsome and in great physical shape. He was also naturally slender and I imagine the bodybuilding was a way of bulking up and feeling bigger and stronger - a form of compensation for his slender frame. 

My grandmother, my mother's mother,  and my aunt (my mother's sister) were always on some kind of diet - the mango diet, the carrot diet (my grandmother's hands started turning yellowy/orange), the watermelon diet. My own mother never dieted but she maintained her slender frame with portion control and is still to this day the sort of person who never sits still. At family lunches the women in my family would stand around in the kitchen with their hands on their hips comparing diet notes, and complimenting whoever happened to have lost a lot of weight recently. 

I was a slender child but I was also very active. Never particularly good at sports, I participated irrespective: Netball, softball, occasionally some tennis, the requisite school athletics. However when I went to high school I stopped doing sports because the school was a long way from home. I chose the drama club as my after school activity of choice, which was once a week, and a lot less hassle for my mother who had to play taxi. With the advent of puberty I started eating a lot more, and along with very little to no exercise, I started gaining weight as most young girls do. My sister and I joined a gym, and when I was around 14-years-old, worrying about getting fat,  I put myself on a diet and started running around the block each day after school. I had just started menstruating and it stopped because my weight dropped to around 41kgs. Everyone said I looked great.

At 17 my father died suddenly and I started eating and also drinking heavily when I'd go out with my friends on the weekends. I'd see people at school the following week and they'd tell me they'd seen me at this or that club and I had no memory of it. I look back on it now and it's obvious that it was a way of dealing with my grief and the many unresolved issues I had with my father. But even though he had passed, my father was right -  I had very little to no interest from boys. And compared to my friends who were all so enviably slender, I felt huge. My diaries from that time are miserable tortured entires of my weight, how much I hated how I looked, and endless lists of what I had eaten on any given day. Not long after this I left home for university, and the eating and drinking continued and very soon I weighed around 75kgs or 165 pounds. At 1.54cm tall it was a lot of weight on my small frame.

On returning home from my first term at university, my mother took one look at me and her face fell. I overheard her on the phone to my grandmother talking about how fat I'd become and she was truly devastated. I imagined had she discovered I had a drug problem it would have been preferable - anything but being fat. Thereafter jokes at my expense flowed: Referring to me and my tall slender first year boyfriend as Laurel and Hardy or Little and Large, or saying she was amazed my bicycle seat was even remotely visible when I used it. She thought these jokes were hilarious. Making fun of people who were overweight or skinny or different was so commonplace in my family that it wouldn't even have occurred to her that she was being hurtful. If you didn't want to be on the receiving end - it was simple: lose the weight and get your act together.

A few months ago I was at breakfast with my friend and her mother. Her mother told me that her daughter had gotten ill as a teenager and as a result of medication and hormones had gained a lot of weight over a relatively short period of time. Not realising how much her body shape had changed, she continued to dress as she had before - and a lot of the clothes were too short, too tight, and not right for her figure. "But I didn't want to dent her confidence or make her feel that I didn't love her for who she was, so I didn't say anything - I just let her get on with it," she said. My friend leaned in to her mother and smiled lovingly. I nodded my head thinking back to my own very different experience at that age.

After leaving university I moved in with my older brother for a while. He begged and pleaded with me to join a gym with him because he didn't want to go alone. For all I know this was his way of telling me I needed to get healthy and lose weight, but he never said that to me, he never made me feel bad about how I looked. I arrived and my initial gym weigh-in and physical assessment reeking of cigarette smoke and beer following a social function at the Taiwanese trade magazine I worked on. And so, begrudgingly, I agreed to join Golds Gym with my brother. Almost a year of going to the gym every day ahead of work later, I lost a total of 25kgs or 55 pounds. I recall going to buy a jacket with my mother and sister and asking the sales person for a large and she looked at me and said: "No no, my dear, you are a small." It was a whole new world.

After moving to the UK in my early 20s I lived in a bedsit for a while and gained a lot of weight once again. I was very lonely, didn't have much of a social life, certainly didn't attend a gym, and on the weekends I would spend most of my time in my room watching Sunset Beach omnibuses and eating take out and ice-cream. As the months passed and I started establishing a life for myself, making friends and having relationships, the weight came off again and apart from pregnancy weight, I've not had a weight problem in that same way since.

I recently read a fascinating article on the nature of addiction in the Huffington Post by Johann Hari, this bit really got my attention:

"If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: "Drugs. Duh." It's not difficult to grasp. I thought I had seen it in my own life. We can all explain it. Imagine if you and I and the next twenty people to pass us on the street take a really potent drug for twenty days. There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That's what addiction means.One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments -- ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.
The advert explains: "Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It's called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you."
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexandernoticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn't know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.
The rats with good lives didn't like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did." Continue reading the article here.

How many of us see someone who is overweight and think only that that person is lazy, that they are hooked on rubbish and overeating, and that they don't care to exercise? Very few people stop and wonder what that person's life is like: Are they lonely? Have they had something traumatic happen to them? Are they in a destructive relationship? Are they facing hardships? Are they incredibly bored at work and under-stimulated? Are their primary relationships with their parents unhealthy? Do they feel alone and unloved?

For me the relationship between loneliness and unhappiness is directly linked to my weight and health. If I look back at the times in my life I have been very overweight - those were periods I was most unhappy or lonely. And I doubt I'm alone.

I was on holiday in December ahead of my 40th birthday and I started to have this panic about turning 40 and going on a beach holiday with my husband. And the fact that I don't have a bikini body (whatever the hell that is), and that I have cellulite, and that my stomach isn't flat, and my thighs meet and form these bulges on the sides that even industrial strength Spanx struggle to tame. And that a lot of relationships are failing around me and men are leaving their wives and young families for younger, slimmer models. And even though I was able to see the absurdity of these thoughts (and the inherent sexism and the fact this this kind of thinking was insulting to my husband), I was still irrationally panicked by them. So I decided that I must have a cross trainer, I absolutely must - my future happiness and my marriage depended on it.

So I hired one, and in three months I used it four times. It sat in my art room amongst all my paintings, my computer, and my books, and I'd walk in in the morning and I'd resent it. It was a constant reminder of the fact that I wasn't using it: so therefore it was a constant reminder to me that I was lazy, didn't have willpower, was fat, couldn't possibly be found attractive or lovable. Basically like my father's voice, or those historic lunches with my family coming back to haunt me each morning.

The day I called the guys and they came and collected the cross trainer, it was like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt like dancing a jig and singing "Ding Dong the witch is dead." Now while I write this I appreciate that for people who enjoy the gym and their running and their exercise classes, this sounds absolutely absurd. But you have to understand that a lot of these simple healthy occupations have very negative associations for me  - they exist solely to remind me that as I am, I am not good enough. This genuinely taints my relationship with exercise and diet in a way that it probably shouldn't.

My current level of activity includes a 25 minute walk most mornings, I do pilates once a week and play tennis once week, I refuse to see or call any of this exercise. Such is my resentment of the concept of exercise for exercise's sake (the gym makes me think of a hamster on a wheel). So I rationalise that my walking is to get home and not sit in traffic, and to get some fresh air and think. The pilates if for my neck and back, and the tennis is to master a skill.

I was at lunch with a really good friend of mine at the beginning of the year and I said to her: "I'm just so tired of this bullshit dysmorphia that I have going. Even when I lost all of the weight, I still found things about my body that I disliked and I wasn't particularly confident. I have UK size 8 dresses in my cupboard that look tiny to me now, and I remember wearing them about two years ago and worrying about the fact that I felt big. We are never happy as women are we? I mean, when will this self loathing stop?" And she looked at me squarely and said: "It stops when you decide it stops."

I was interested to see what people my age are doing in terms of exercise and why. Doing a small Vox Pop on FB it appears that a lot of people are keen on running these days, yoga is always a constant, and spinning is pretty big too. A good friend of mine has a personal trainer that arrives at her house a few times a week: "If he didn't, I wouldn't do it. But because he turns up I cannot get out of it." Then there's Karl Lagerfeld who said he lost the weight so he could wear nice clothes, which narcissistically I can relate to. I love clothes, but the clothes I love don't suit my figure. Not that I'm FB friends with Lagerfeld. Or the email I got from an old school friend who told me due to a debilitating illness she is no longer able to exercise in the same way, and that she has gained weight, but that fortunately her husband still loves her the way she is. And it made me think about myself, and how many of us equate being loved, being attractive, being accepted, with our dress size. And that makes me deeply sad. It really does.

Likewise I got a lot of emails from people talking about how exercise was a celebration for them; it made them feel good, it made them process their emotions better and they felt healthier not just physically but emotionally too. Or for my friend's young son, who following leg surgery and months in a wheelchair, has totally transformed his life and gained a new-found confidence by losing an astonishing 42kgs or 92 pounds. Some of my friends, also in their 40s, talked about adjusting their diet and exercise to encourage heart health  - obviously an increasingly worthy concern as you get older.

Fast forward a few months after my conversation about dysmorphia with my friend at lunch (because while one may have an epiphany, acting on it often happens a while after the fact) I decided I was going to get rid of my bathroom scales. I was using mine every morning - in the past I had used them morning and night, so this was a noticeable improvement. What I discovered is that far from helping me keep in shape, the scales were actually hampering my body image and relationship with food instead of improving it, and here's why:

Each morning, after peeing, I would weigh myself. Depending on the number (it usually varied by 500 grams up or down) I would reflect on what I had eaten the day before that might have constituted the difference. I'd quietly admonish myself if it was up (thinking of that extra glass of wine or bit of chocolate I had had before bed), and I'd feel enormously frustrated if I hadn't eaten very much the day before and hadn't lost anything. So basically, before my day had even started I was (a) Thinking about food (b) Having negative thoughts about myself all thanks to a couple of digits.

What the hell kind of way is that to start the day right?

So I got rid of them. The first few days were panicky. What if I balloon? I mean, if I don't see those numbers it might get completely out of hand. How can I trust myself? But slowly over the next few days, weeks, and months, I've found it totally transformative. And here's why:

I don't start the day thinking about food: what I ate the day before, and what I need to eat that day. More so I'm thinking about if I need to wash my hair, getting the kids up, hoping my son is in a good mood when he wakes up, and that I'd like a cup of tea. I might eat a piece of toast while I make my daughter's packed lunch, and sometimes I don't eat until I get back from taking the kids in to school because I've never really been a morning person when it comes to food. Ideally I like to eat at around 9 or 10am. During the day food doesn't really feature that much in my thoughts - if I'm hungry I eat, otherwise I don't. I eat what I want, and when I've had enough, I stop, not feeling compelled to finish what is on my plate. Meal times aren't really relevant to me, but then I don't work in an environment where I am restricted in that way, which I appreciate a lot of people are in terms of work.

My current clothes still fit me, some of them more snuggly than others which sometimes makes me panic all over again and think I need to get the scales out of the cupboard. But the reality is, I have not ballooned in weight, and even more interestingly, the self loathing thing is slowly starting to fade too, which I suppose is helped by the fact that I don't have those hateful conversations with myself each morning. 

My husband actually prefers a curvy shape - not to objectify people, but we are all of us drawn to certain things in terms of what we find attractive. For him it's Christina Hendricks, and failing that, me.  And after years of telling me this I am slowly starting to believe him, and not just thinking he says that to me to make me feel better about myself while secretly lusting after tall skinny model types. But even though I am now with someone that loves and accepts me unconditionally and actually finds my figure very attractive, that negative self loathing thing I have going is hard to beat. Indeed the voices from our past are hard to silence completely, but right now I'll settle for an occasional whisper. 

I probably massively over-compensate against the obsession with physical appearance I was raised with and don't use words like fat or thin around my children - nor do I ever identify people I am referring to in terms of these sorts of physical descriptions. I also never talk about my feelings about my own appearance in front of them. Food is simply something we eat to nourish our bodies, keep up our energy, and something that brings us together as a family. I get as frustrated and at times worried as my father and mother probably did when my children refuse to eat perfectly good food, but there are no threats of physical violence if they do not eat, and emptying their plates is not a requirement. However making an effort to at least try something is strongly encouraged. I also try and make things they enjoy eating even if the menu does become somewhat repetitive -  especially where my son is concerned.

I recently had an appointment and felt worried ahead of it that some of my 'thin' nice clothes don't fit and I didn't know what I was going to wear. Shopping is often frustrating because I don't think anything looks good on me because my body shape does not conform with an idea of what I think I should look like, i.e. Daphne Guinness. So a friend of mine offered to go shopping with me and suggested a few things that she felt would suit my figure. She was honest and encouraging and  I bought a couple of new items of clothing that weren't actually in larger sizes, but in cuts that were tailored to my figure and that suited my shape. And voila - I looked good, and I felt confident.

While I was trying on a pair of an excessively tight jeans in the department store the young sales person said to me: "Wow, you have the perfect figure - you have curves in all the right places." Obviously my immediate reaction was that she was flattering me to get a sale, because she couldn't possibly have been honest. I mean, how can I, with big backside and ample thighs be considered perfect? So I looked directly at her in that dead pan way I like to joke and replied: Thank you. You know, I have to eat a lot of cake to get my curves this way." And she responded earnestly with: "Really? Cake? I eat cake, I mean I do, but it just doesn't work for me." In that moment I realised that the compliment had been earnest. This slender girl wanted what I had and didn't want. And obviously she was completely stark raving mad. But it made me smile.