First off – I don’t want anyone to reply to this telling me I’m not fat. It’s not a word I see as inherently a slur or a pejorative. It’s just something I am, like being tall or brown-eyed.
Weirdly, I am far more reluctant to talk about this than, say, my PTSD. I hate talking about it. I never feel more uncomfortable than when I’m talking about my body or my weight. I’ve only managed to mention it to my therapist twice, and that lady knows absolutely fucking everything about me.
That’s how personal and secret it feels, like an incredibly private shame, even though of course most people know what I look like and can see how big I am – probably better than I can.
I think that to explain it all, I have to start at the beginning.
I was pretty average sized until about the age of 8, when I really got into reading. I also did ballet and modern dance; I did drama; I swam well (and still do if I go to the sea or a pool, though it ruins my hair for the rest of the day so I don’t do it often).
The problem was that I hated the pressure of competing – always have, always will. I just wanted to have fun, but instead I got yelled at. Even encouraging shouting put me off, because it meant they had high expectations of me and so they’d be angry or sad if I failed. So one by one, I dropped those active hobbies. At some point, I started to hate PE. Sometimes I remember I never have to have a PE lesson again and I am incredibly grateful for it.
I don’t remember much bullying about my weight specifically, but I was bullied a lot for being the odd one out, for being weird. And not just at school; there was one very painful afternoon when two of my cousins made up a song about how fat I was and sang it every time I tried to eat something.
Other than the occasional incident like that, my weight wasn’t something I thought much about until I hit puberty. That was when I really began to absorb the message that I was repulsive, unattractive, unlovable. As devastating as that was, I still didn’t think very deeply or do much about it until a boy I’d been talking to online said he was going to come and see me.
So the dieting started, because I desperately wanted to look ‘good’ – or at least ‘better’ – for him. And the way to do that was to be thinner, of course; this was as obvious to me as the sky being blue. This was when I was about 14 – and coincidentally, I was also about 14 stone.
I had no idea what I was doing. My goal was just to eat as little as possible. I kept a food diary; I remember logging daily totals of 600, 700 calories. By the time this boy arrived, around six months later, I’d lost about 20 pounds.
But I didn’t stop after he’d left. I found restricting my food to be addictive. I now think it’s because I couldn’t control anything else apart from that, since this was also the point in my life that my Mum and I were most at odds. I was approaching my GCSEs and she was tutoring me in maths and science every night after school.
I am naturally shit at maths and science, but she acted as if I was doing it deliberately. I got yelled at about every third time I got something wrong, and I got a lot of lectures about whether I wanted to fail everything and work in a factory, and whether I thought my friends and cousins would know the answers (implication being that of course they would and all of them were doing better than me). I don’t know how to express to you the sky high levels of stress and fear that I went through on those evenings.
Sometimes I still get anxiety pangs when I’m back in my hometown and hear her car pull up, because that means it’s time for revision; time to sit on the floor and stare at an incomprehensible equation whilst I’m shouted at for not writing down an answer that I don’t know. I vividly remember staring at a blank answer box. I remember my pencil shaking.
But she couldn’t control what I ate or what I did to my body, so I clung to that. Because of school, I woke up before Mum did and got home before her, and I learned to lie to her very well about what I ate – or I told her the truth about what I ate, but not about the amount. I counted everything I ate. Every. Damn. Thing.
When I entered sixth form, I was 11 stone. When I left sixth form, I was 9 stone and a size 8/10. I was also angry all the fucking time. I used to get angry just seeing other people eat things that I was forbidding to myself. I’d think ‘how come you’re so beautiful and you get to eat like that?’
I was going to write out what an average day of food was like for me back then, because I can still remember exactly what my routine was, but it’s genuinely just too pathetic for me to bear looking at it. Suffice to say the aim was to consume under 1000 calories, 1200 if there was a special occasion. I weighed myself every day. I walked the long way round to the bus stop, and the long way home – about three or four miles a day. I obsessively recorded everything that went in my mouth. I drank so much water.
A friend of mine told me I looked like a stick insect. Another friend’s mum told me she thought it was okay for me to stop dieting now. Another friend simply encouraged me in it, as she was also in a constant diet mode. Only one friend told me I was anorexic, which I strenuously denied. She just shook her head at me. (I’m sorry, Alex. You were right.)
Eventually my period stopped and Mum dragged me to the GP. He weighed me. As you may know if you know about these things, 9 stone at 5’8″ is still juuuust about within the ‘healthy’ weight range. So he declared there was nothing wrong with me and my Mum was forced to leave it at that. I savoured that victory.
She now refers to this part of my life as my ‘health phase’, by the way.
As you might expect, when I went to university I put on some weight; but that was okay, I told myself, as long as I didn’t go over 9 stone 6 pounds. I still tracked everything. I allowed myself the luxury of 1500 calories a day, 1800 if I was going out drinking.
I used to measure my vodka. I can still tell you approximately how many calories are in a few drinks, and I can accurately estimate the calories for practically any given food item (the rule of thumb is that it’s almost always more than you think). I still put chocolate in the freezer out of habit (frozen chocolate stays in your mouth longer). I still take longer than necessary to read a menu – and if you’ve been out with me and haven’t noticed, that’s likely because I looked up the menu and narrowed down the options beforehand.
Despite myself, my weight crept up. I made a friend who was in a similar place to me in terms of body image and recovery from dieting. We’d watch films and the L Word and eat pick and mix and have a really fucking good time. Despite the fact that I was happier, I was both horrified and terrified by my own behaviour. But I couldn’t stop giving in to temptation. I was so hungry all the time. I was so tired of saying no to everything I wanted. I felt like my willpower had run out. And I was putting on the weight so much quicker than I had lost it. Worst of all, my period had come back (god, I hate it).
By the summer of my second year, I was 12 stone 6, but beginning to stabilise. I’d remained at that weight for a few months and I felt almost okay about it. I was happy, I was in love, I was doing interesting and exciting things, I was studying a subject I enjoyed. Then my Dad died, and within a week I was back to 12 stone because I almost stopped eating altogether. I felt like because my Dad couldn’t eat any more, I didn’t deserve to. When I did eat, I couldn’t taste anything.
I confess, there was still a small and awful part of me that wanted this lack of appetite to last, because then losing weight would be easy. The idea of losing weight is constantly at the back of my mind.
After the funeral was done and my initial mourning came to an end, the binge eating started in earnest. I had already done it a bit while at university, but now I could barely bring myself to care what I ate. I rarely binged on what you might call stereotypical ‘junk’ food – if I was going to binge, it was usually on cereal and toast. These are still my go-to. At several points in my life I have stopped buying cereal because I can tell I’ll go through a box of it in a couple of days.
Just before my final exams, my boyfriend of two years left me for someone else, despite my assumption that we were going to move in together (fun fact: I’d paid off his credit card debts so we could pass a credit check if we rented a place. I had not seen the break-up coming). I binge ate more.
I was between 13 and 13 stone 6 when I met another guy and fell in love. We were together for the next 3.5/4 years. I moved to London, got a stressful job, got another stressful job. I started going to therapy, and the things that I unearthed were too heavy for me to bear without a coping mechanism. Here’s an interesting and unfair and illogical thing – sometimes I wish that my coping mechanism was alcohol or weed or something heavier, rather than food, because at least then it wouldn’t have such a constantly visible effect on me.
By the time I broke up with that boyfriend I was maybe 15 stone and about a size 16. I managed to stop religiously tracking my weight at some point during that relationship, largely because he really did love me for me; I genuinely don’t think he noticed whether I lost or gained weight. I was just Helen.
I got used to being just Helen. I started eating what I wanted to more often, not what I ‘should’ eat (the ideal still being nothing, of course). It was such a relief not to think about it all the time, not to guilt myself over it later, not to stand in front of a mirror every morning and stare at my own stomach to see if it had grown or shrunk. I liked that relief. I still do.
You may have noticed that this whole journey started mainly because of other people and external stressors, by the way. If I had been left alone, I think I would be both thinner and happier by now; I think that goes for a lot of people in my position.
I don’t think many people, if any, are inherently greedy; I think food is just one of the most easily available and reliable tools we can use to comfort ourselves in a really difficult world. And I think doing so has more of a physical effect on some people than others for various reasons. And that’s all I really want to say about it on that level; if you want to know more, there’s tons of information out there about why diets are so difficult to stick to and why your brain sends signals to make you eat more after you’ve lost weight.
Anyway, a whole load of shit has happened since then, including a couple of abusive relationships and yet more stress, and I have no idea how much I weigh now. I know it’s more than I ever weighed before; I’d guess a bit over 17 stone. I’m a size 18 in dresses and skirts, usually a 16 in tops, but god knows what in jeans because jeans are a horror show for everyone. I’ve largely given up on them.
So we’re in the present day, and you know how I got here. These days I have no idea any more what I look like; my weight has fluctuated so much that I have no permanent idea of my size. I know I’m big, but how big? Somewhere between Queen Latifah and Lizzo, but I don’t know where exactly. I can strain my eyes in my full length mirror and not be able to decide.
At some point, like that former boyfriend of mine, I began to mostly see myself as Helen and not just as a collection of physical flaws that desperately need to be changed. But I still think that way sometimes; I can’t help it. Self-hatred is tough to beat.
I have not advanced very much towards self-love and acceptance, but I am also not where I used to be. Sometimes I think I look great; I might even feel sexy. Sometimes I think I look disastrous. Sometimes I see pictures of myself taken by other people and feel like I’ve seen a monster. I think: ‘I can’t possibly live inside that’, because when it comes to myself, I still have not gotten rid of the societal message that my fat body is not really a human body.
The worst part is the cognitive dissonance of often being attracted to women with a similar body type to me, but also dealing with ingrained loathing for my own body. I don’t know how that works at all.
I think my brain will always revert back to Operation Shrink for at least a few days if something pushes the right button. In fact, the reason I’m writing this now to try to make sense of the history of my body is because that button got pushed pretty hard recently.
I have had a dry patch without many dates or partners (pretty unusual for me), except for a PUA who tried to manipulate me into falling into a trap of low self-esteem. He told me I looked better in real life than in my pictures – innocuous by itself, but carrying the implication of ‘you look bad in pictures’. He asked me how I’d rate myself out of 10 for looks, but didn’t reciprocate or tell me if he agreed. He touched my hair and asked me if it was natural. He said I looked hotter when I was angry, and told me how to do my hair next time I saw him (that was what put me on high alert).
When I finally cottoned onto him – because it’s surprising how difficult it can be to spot these tactics when they’re being used on you – I just called him a predator and left, but I found myself wondering whether the only people interested in me were people who just wanted to use me. On top of that, I later rejected a guy (he was deathly boring) and said we weren’t going to work out, and he replied with ‘Take care. Also you should probably hit the gym :)’.
Regardless of how well I know that this was just the parting shot of a sad, bruised male ego, my very, very old irrational fear surfaced: am I finally too big for anyone to genuinely want and love? The answer is, of course, no – but the fear remains.
As you can probably guess, I have been having lots of thoughts about trying to diet again. But I am so afraid of the deep unhappiness that I was carrying around for so long. I don’t want to accidentally find myself down in that mire again. Plus I am already so unhappy and depressed so much of the time; I don’t want to imagine how I will feel without my main coping mechanism.
I don’t know how to conclude this – probably because there is no conclusion. I am going to be living in this body and dealing with my feelings about it for as long as I’m alive, and my impulses to punish it will likely never go away. This is my real long-term relationship, and it needs constant work, and the unrequited love story between us will never be complete.
For the avoidance of doubt, it’s my body’s love for me that is unrequited, or at least worthy of an ‘It’s complicated’ status.
My body literally holds me up and beats my heart and keeps me breathing and warns me when something is wrong or dangerous, and often all I can think is that I wish there was less of it. I am regularly tempted to starve it into compliance. How cruel of me.
‘I gave you everything!’ my body might yell at me someday as it packs its bags. But hopefully not yet, not for a while. I’m sorry, body. I’m trying.