Wednesday 10 February 2010

On being fat (and related battles)...

This is quite a difficult issue for me to write about, and it probably won't be of any interest to a lot of people, but I received such a positive response to my blog post on being single that I felt the time was right to get this out of my head and on to the page too. It feels quite appropriate too because it's almost a year since my first blog post (which I wrote on 15th February 2009) and in it I said I would probably be writing about 'what I've been up to, how my latest diet is going (this time I'm really going to do it, damn it), the ongoing lack of anything resembling a love life and more than likely a lot of Tim Minchin related nonsense'. Well, there haven't been masses of Minchin posts - mostly because he's been out of the country, and hasn't really done anything new for months - but I have done the being single post so it's time I came good on the first part. If you find diets and girls with issues about their weight and body images tedious and uninteresting then please accept my apologies...and look away now.

For as long as I can remember my Mum has been on a diet. I remember the F Plan Diet in the 80s which seem to consist of eating lots of bran-based cereal which looked (and tasted) like cardboard. Then probably in the early 90s my Mum started worshipping at the scales of WeightWatchers in all the various incarnations it's had since then. Now, I wasn't a fat child. We ate relatively healthily from what I remember, in a 'meat and two veg' kind of way. Of course in the 80s we also discovered pasta and the wonder new-fangled foreign foods like spaghetti bolognese, although I do remember having some weird combinations; pasta with tinned meatballs and gravy anyone? Or even better, pasta with hotdogs and ketchup? I'm not having a go at my Mum here - this was all pretty normal stuff for the time. I was a really fussy eater as a child too (well until I was in my late-teens really). When I was little the only vegetables I would eat were carrots and raw peas straight out of the pod. And the only fruit I liked was apples but I was restricted to one a day...any more than that and they sometimes fermented in my stomach and I essentially vomited cider (which is really quite unpleasant). I liked salad (but only lettuce and cucumber), I wouldn't eat onions in anything (because they were 'slimy'), and despite the rest of my family switching to brown bread, I would only eat white (to be fair, I would still much rather have white bread than brown). So you could say I had some issues with food early on in my life. I wasn't the only one though - my brother didn't eat cooked potatoes until he was 12 years old. If we had chips then he would have raw chips, and seeing as I just liked raw potato I would have half cooked and half raw! But like I say, I wasn't fat. I remember having to ask if I wanted anything to eat. I wouldn't be allowed a biscuit when I came in from school because it would 'spoil my tea', but I was brought up to finish everything on my plate. I think my Mum was pretty good at judging the right portions to give us so finishing it all wasn't really a problem, but that is a pretty hard habit to break. 

When I was about 13 though everything started to change. For one thing, I grew boobs seemingly overnight. I thought I wanted them but when they suddenly appeared I would have given anything for someone to take them away. They became one of my defining features; 'oh you know, Sarah, with the big boobs'. And at the age of 13 or 14 I was regularly mistaken for someone much older. At the time I was doing a lot of dancing, going to classes and rehearsals four or five times a week, but boobs and hips do not the ideal dancer's body make. I started hiding under baggy clothes and slowly put on weight until I was about 16. I still wasn't fat by any stretch of the imagination but I wasn't skinny and flat-chested like some of my friends either. It was in these years from 13 to 16 that my battles with my weight and body issues really imbedded themselves in my head. I've kept a diary on and off since I was 13 and looking back through them other day I came across a lot of 'I wish I was thinner' comments. My mood would soar if I managed to lose a pound or two then plummet again if the needle on the scales went back up. Like I said, my Mum has been on a diet for as long as I can remember, and I think that it just seemed like a normal thing to do at that point. I don't specifically remember her making comments about my weight back then, but I do remember a sort of disappointment if I needed a bigger size school uniform. Maybe my Mum was just trying to avoid me falling into the same cycle of yo-yo dieting that she was (and still is to some extent) stuck in but I definitely remember feeling that I was getting too fat. 

Then when I was 17 it all took a turn for the slightly more sinister. If you've read my blog post about being single you'll know that when I was 16 (and a half) I got a boyfriend 6 years older than me. After I'd been going out with him for about six months and was well and truly hooked, he made the delightful comment 'you know, you'd be so much sexier if you were just a bit thinner'. Nice. He probably wasn't really thinking about what he was saying, I'm sure he didn't realise just what an effect his comment would have on me for the next year. Because what happened was that I pretty much stopped eating. I don't actually remember that much about it. I can remember starting off by skipping breakfast - just having a glass of sugar-free juice. Everyday my Mum would make me sandwiches to take to college for my lunch, and everyday I threw them away. This was when Pepsi Max had just come on the market and I drank a couple of cans a day to try and take away the hunger. I think I must have eaten the dinner that my Mum made because I don't remember ever hiding or throwing away food but I did cut down the amount I would eat. I was also doing about 250 sit-ups every night. And the up shot of all this was that I lost a lot of weight. At my thinnest I weighed about 8 and a half stone, which I know is not that shocking but it was very thin for me. And I still had 32FF boobs. I looked ridiculous. But no-one (except my boyfriend) really knew how thin I was because I was still hiding under baggy t-shirts and big jumpers. And although being thin was what I was aiming for (and I have been ever since) I don't think I was happy. I was hungry. And I still thought I should be thinner. I wouldn't have described myself as anorexic at the time, and I still wouldn't now, but I think I was pretty darn close to tipping over that edge.

Then one day about a year later, I don't really know what happened, but I left college and I started eating again. This was about the same time I went to university and split up with my boyfriend and that probably had something to do with it. My weight started creeping up and I remember saying to myself 'I should do something about it' but I was having fun and being on a diet was boring. And I was living away from home and cooking for myself so my eating just became more erratic. I would binge one day, polishing off whole chocolate bars and full tubs of ice-cream one day. Then eat nothing the next day to compensate. I still think myself lucky that I never fell into the binging and purging cycle of bulimia. 

In my first year at university I made a major change to my body that I thought would cure all my body issue problems. And for a while I suppose it did. When I was 18 I had a breast reduction (paid for by the NHS). I went from being a 32FF to a 32C. I weighed about 9 and a half stone and that's probably the happiest I've ever been with my body. I've got a photograph from about a month after the operation when I was going out to a party - and I still have that photo on my kitchen noticeboard as the body I aspire to. Although, now I had the small(er) boobs I'd wanted they weren't really as small as I'd hoped - but I couldn't tell anyone that after what I'd put myself through. Breast reduction is a very invasive operation and I ended up with fairly horrific looking scars for a while (they've all but disappeared now though). But for a while there I was pretty happy with how I looked. But then I started piling on the pounds. I was a student and therefore drinking quite a lot, and eating lots of chocolate and smoking a lot and generally being quite unhealthy. In between my second and third years at uni I went to work on a campsite in France, drank a lot of beer, had two pain au chocolat and a bottle of full fat coke for my breakfast every day, and then wondered why I'd but on a stone in less than three months. By the end of uni I think I weighed nearly 13 stone and I was fatter than I'd ever been (and my boobs had already gone up to a 34D). I tried to pretend (even to myself) that I was happy with my size, but I was miserable. There are hardly any photos of me from that year or the couple of years that followed. My self esteem was pretty low, and as I mentioned in my single blog I compensated by having a lot of unsuitable sex to try and convince myself I was still attractive. Of course there's nothing attractive about a girl who has a lot of sex, apart from the fact that you can be fairly sure she'll have sex with you. In the summer season and ski season that followed it (I was 21 by this time) I think I gained myself something of a reputation, and one that I'm not particularly proud of. At the time I thought I was having fun but looking back I remember being quite miserable a lot of the time too.

Over the next few years, I carried on working in France and because I was doing a physical job, I lost some weight and I stabilised around 11 stone. I would still periodically try and lose weight. I even followed in my Mum's footsteps and did WeightWatchers for a while, which worked fine when I was at home but was virtually impossible to follow when I wasn't. So my weight went up and down, every Christmas I would see my Grandma who would exclaim 'well, you've put weight on!' - just what I wanted to hear. My Mum would often ask how much I weighed as well, it seems to be very important to her. I really don't want to blame my Mum for any of this but I can't help but feel her attitude to her own weight, and mine, has rubbed off on me.

Skip forward, and I've lived in Scotland for the last six and a half years, and I've lost and gained the same stone and a half more times than I can remember. Oh, and my boobs are now bigger than they were before I had my operation. In hindsight I think I was probably too young to have it done, and gaining weight will inevitably make everywhere get bigger. I've gone from going to 3 or 4 excercise classes a week, to doing no excercise at all, then training for a (walking) marathon, to nothing, and to my current level of one dance class a week. But then when I was excercising more, I would see it as an excuse to eat more so it never made much difference to my weight. The problem is not really what I eat at meal times, which is at the healthier end of the scale, but that I go through phases of binging on chocolate, and biscuits, and ice-cream. And I have a tendency to binge drink as well just to throw a few more calories into the mix! I have a strong tendency to comfort eat, so if I'm fed up about something, or stressed, or even just bored then I start eating. And then I start to think; well, I've eaten a family size bag of Maltesers so I might as well have a pizza now. And then I feel miserable and annoyed with myself for having eaten them, so I eat some more and I end up in a downward spiral where I've been known to put on a stone in three or four weeks. The other problem is that when I've successfully lost weight in the past, it's been 'for' something. For example, I appeared in an amateur production of We Will Rock You in 2007 and before the show I managed to get down to about 10 and half stone which is the lowest my weight has been since I've lived here. But as soon as the show was over I just went back to my old ways again.

Last May my weight hit another all time high. I was supposed to be trying to lose weight in time for my brother's wedding but somehow I was just getting fatter. Once again I was trying to pretend that I wasn't bothered but when it got to the point that hardly any of my clothes fit me I knew I had to do something. And I knew I couldn't do it on my own this time. So I went to Lighter Life. Now, I've always sneered at meal replacement diets but I knew a few people who had done this, and frankly, I wanted something that would give me fast results. Without fast results, I know that I get bored and disheartened and slip back into old habits. The Lighter Life Lite programme that I followed means that you have three 'foodpacks' a day (shakes, soups or bars) and one meal of protein and vegetables. Which means no booze, and no chocolate. I actually found it relatively easy - completely cutting things out of my diet isn't hard, it's moderation that I have issues with. In just over two months I lost nearly two stone. As well as the meal replacements, I was also attending a weekly meeting with a Lighter Life councillor, where we talked about the reasons for my overeating, my attitude to food, and what sort of changes I needed to make. I was really pleased with how I'd done, I was a lot happier with my weight although I still wanted to lose another stone. But....the Edinburgh Festival happened, and I started uni again and any routine I had quickly went out the window. And unfortunately, I clearly hadn't learned quite as much as I hoped because over the next six months I put a stone back on again. However, I was determined not to fall into my previous trap of putting back on even more than I'd lost in the first place, so I went back to Lighter Life just after New Year. And since then I've almost lost that stone again and I'm feeling positive about carrying on until I lose the other stone I wanted to originally. I know I still have a lot of work to do to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again, but I'm still going to the meetings and talking about it all (and blogging) actually does help. I'm doing things a little bit differently this time, in that I'm allowing myself a small amount of chocolate once a week if I want it, and clearly last week in London I was drinking, although that isn't going to be a regular occurrence. I think one of the problems with cutting things out of my diet completely is there will come a point when I just can't resist any more and my brain will just go 'give me all the chocolate, and give it to me now!' So by having a little when I want it, I'm still losing weight but I'm training my brain to realise that nothing is forbidden, but moderation is the key. In all of this I haven't told anyone close to me just how I was losing weight. I haven't told my Mum, or my brother, or my best friend Claire - I know that none of them would approve of my methods, especially not my Mum or Claire so it's easier not to tell them. In fact, I didn't tell my Mum I was doing anything to lose weight at all; because when I have done in the past it ends up being all that we talk about. Every time I spoke to her on the phone it would be 'how much did you lose this week? And what do you weigh now?' So not telling her took the pressure off - I didn't see my parents from May to September last year and the transformation was quite dramatic, and so quite a surprise to my Mum when she saw me!

So there we are, another long, rambling look inside my mind. But if you've been reading this blog for a while you should be used to this shit from me by now...and I did give you ample warning at the beginning of this post so if you've stuck with it, thank you. I've still got a way to go before I get down to the weight I want to be and I'm aware that it won't be the miracle that will solve all my worries and problems overnight but hopefully it will make the other stuff easier to deal with. I'm being a bridesmaid for Claire in April and of course I want to look amazing in my dress but I'm not doing this just for that occasion. I'm doing it for the rest of my life. One of the other reasons I had to do something about this now is because of the whole teaching thing - kids can be mean and I didn't want to give them any ammunition, I need to feel comfortable standing at the front of a classroom. So this isn't just for the wedding, because I'm planning on being a teacher for a long time.

I really hope I've broken the yo-yo cycle this time. I don't want to have to do this again.


  1. It's been interesting reading this, being still just 17 I'm only just starting to crawl out of the pit of self loathing I wondered into at about 11 when puberty struck.

    I'll admit I could be happier if I wasn't like me, I'd rather be skinny and flat chested, but instead i'm blessed (for want of a better word) with broad hips and shoulders and big boobs. I do dip right in at the middle but I've got a bit of a tummy, something I used to hate. But I think i'm learning to deal with that now.

    Anyway, this isn't the place to be heading off into a ramble about how weird I got with food, needless to say I think you're doing very well, and if you're happy that's the important bit.

  2. I think it's safe to say that every woman in the world has a story like this that they could tell if they wanted to about issues with food etc. I know that I could go on about my past issues (I now know what weight is healthy for my height, age etc so now am pretty happy) but I won't here.

    Keep up the good work, like you said - everything in moderation now and then, is healthy and good for you physically and mentally. I find your blogs very interesting, all the best with your healthy eating. x

  3. I'm busy reading through your archives and thinking we have some similaritieS. when it comes to food and weight. Good luck with your most recent campaign, I'm rooting for you!