This was the first year that I haven’t imposed some sort of arbitrary limit on what I’ve allowed myself to eat. Out of habit, I may have nibbled the insides of mince pies, leaving the pastry, and only eaten one roast potato with Christmas dinner, in a plate heaving with cauliflower cheese, chestnuts and two types of stuffing, but I gobbled down cheese twists like it was 1999 and ate Christmas pudding with gusto, as well as custard and cream. Most years, I would have sulkily declined and downed a consolatory sherry. This year, I threw caution to the wind with cranberry bucks fizz for breakfast. It’s amazing how sober you stay on a full stomach.
I’ve never been fat. But then, I’ve never been that much of an eater. Even at the back end of two pregnancies I only wore a loose size 12, tipping the scales at ten and a half stone, the residual water retention flowing out of me in milk and sweat and back in my jeans after a week and a half. I tend to veer between slim and curvy. The chubbiest I ever got was in my gap year – I returned translucent from India only to plump up in Oz, reaching a peak in my first term at uni – alcohol’s always stuck to my ribs – and my bum and my boobs, much more than anything I ate. But then in my second year, I took up going to the gym and became toned and tight, for all I wasn’t long and lean – except for that year between childhood and adolescence where my fawny legs and ribby torso were in perfect proportion with a head that failed to grow after the age of nine.
As a child I was a whippet, existing on fresh air and doughnuts. Brought up by my grandparents when my mother left, I was indulged with my manorexic grandad’s pocketfuls of Fisherman’s Friends, blackcurrants licorices and good old Werther’s Original. He subsisted on sugary tea, found food interfered with his gullet, and although it wasn’t diagnosed back then, was the probable original of the spectrumy gene that has infected the family gene pool. My nan, round and rosy, baker of cakes and knitter of ballet sweaters, would make an effort to get something good down me, with tinned salmon sandwiches with the thinnest slivers of cucumber on white bread, but largely I turned my nose up at food until I was put on the pill at 14, for acne, when suddenly I developed a taste for cereal and promptly put on a stone.
The trauma of family mealtimes meant I’d always eschewed big meals. My father would wince, and sometimes bang the table, as I gingerly scraped my fork with my teeth so as not to touch the food with my lips, or I would be left abandoned to miserably play with congealing food, hiding it under my fork. I spent years explaining to my stepmother, and the school dinner ladies who she’d got on side to spy on my picky eating and baggy summer dresses, just why I hadn’t eaten my (traditionally revolting ) school meal.
My dad, a child of post-war austerity and rebelling against his own stick thin father, loved food: cooking it, eating it, and going out for it, and as my teens wore on and we as a family got more flush, he saw five star food as the pinnacle of our new found prosperity. He would take us on lavish all-inclusive holidays and want us to appreciate his own delight in the all you can eat breakfast buffets, where I would struggle through fresh fruit and yogurt and be forced to stuff a pain au chocolate wrapped in a napkin in my pocket for later “to try and justify how much bloody money this is costing.” Or we’d take week long trips to a picturesque farm house in Yorkshire where the farmer’s wife would feed us up on bacon and eggs and queen of puddings, while my sister and I would gripe at any unfamiliar fare and generally be surly, calorie counting teenage house guests. In the face of a heaped plateful, I invariably lost my appetite and the drama of my not eating would ensure the behaviour became entrenched for years.
Despite his love of food, my dad was a vocal critic of other people’s figures, perhaps as a response to insecurities about his own strapping size and bald pate, as well as the pedantic semantic that means, as an aspie family, we tend to speak our minds without thought of the impact. He would regularly draw attention to my mother’s age (as if she could do anything about being 8 years his senior), my sister’s short shins and my spots. Not eating became a method of control – I may have been many things, but at least Daddy couldn’t call me fat.
At uni I learned a bit more about healthy eating, but mainly as an antidote to my frequent hangovers. I was pole dancing by then, a healthy size ten in a club that showcased the figures of all from the surgically enhanced to the pharmaceutically addicted. Anything female, and the odd inbetween, has their market in a strip club it seems, and my girl next door figure – Reubenesque, according to one observer, was bringing home the bacon, despite a diet that verged on the vegetarian, under the influence of a hippie vs lawyer spawned flatmate who curbed his nascent alcoholism with hearty breakfasts of eggs a la spinach with a side of avocado, and a shot of breakfast whiskey
But years of acne medicine had played havoc with my gut – long term antibiotics upset my internal flora to the extent I question what role my off kilter microbiology played in my son Jonah’s Asperger’s. I was taking tetracycline to the day I discovered I was pregnant, and when he was born, his ragged placenta was a symptom that something had been amiss in an otherwise textbook pregnancy. I stressed myself out with exercise classes and gave Jonah colic eating nothing but smoothies as I breastfed him – my little liposuction baby – for six solid months. I ended up with a flat stomach and bags under my eyes, my hair falling out in stringy handfuls.
Years later, suffering chronic fatigue, mysterious rashes and recurring thrush, my nutritionist friend suggested I may be suffering from a systemic candida infection from those years of mismanaged prescriptions. I promptly gave up sugar, bread, pasta and booze and within two weeks had wasted away to pre-adolescent boniness, my skin healing, fatigue all but gone but a persistent bad temper at constant self denial fueled a relationship with cigarettes that I’d previously had largely under control.
It felt good being thin, though; effortlessly size 8, movie star thin. People would remark how good I looked, how lucky I was to be “naturally skinny”. I wasn’t lucky. I just lived on grilled fish and vegetables. My treats were limited to a square of dark chocolate, and a line or two of charlie at weekends. There was nothing lucky about it. I was pretty miserable. But I looked great on it, although my fragile mental state all but crumbled.
I never quite recovered. A new job meant I was cycling nine miles a day, and with less time to make salads from scratch, and barely covering the cost of my childcare to start off with, I brought in rye bread, which I would nibble with almond butter, my figure, despite two kids, rivaling the office’s 20 year old interns, but my tendency to snap at them, withdrawing from nicotine, flushed from the school run and the cycle, Jonah’s tantrum and my anxiety about the limitations of my career and our poverty since Tom lost his job in the city, made me few friends.
It took my friend Sam to get me to enjoy my food. He liked nothing better than to watch me – any woman – eat, and his raison d’etre was to eat out, preferably burgers. He liked my tummy too, and my tits, which promptly filled out, and I quietly swapped my size 8s for a 10, and then, today, wandering around Primarni in the sale, for a UK size 12.
But I don’t care. It’s just a number, like my age, to which I’m reconciled as well, despite the uncanny incongruity of being past it as a woman in her mid 30s, while a man of the same age remains in his prime. In fact I’m happy, because it’s testament to the fact I no longer feel the need to be faddy about food. The body tyranny to which I subjected myself in my 20s has all but dissipated, and my identify is much less bound up in the way that I look. With a career that’s increasingly satisfying and growing up children, who I’ve learned to love for themselves rather than how I’d once envisaged them, no longer tyrannical toddlers, they entertain rather than tantrum, and enable activities that require more fun brain power than yesterday’s cutting and pasting, and an other half who I respect for so much much more than what he could once buy me, I’m happy enough with my clearer skin, growing hair and, er hem, slightly fuller figure.
I may weigh a bit more, but my mental state is a hell of a lot more balanced – although weighing myself is one method of female self harm with which I have rarely tortured myself, except for that one time, full term, for a laugh. But I saw it in my dimpled thighs and muffin top, augmented in the hideous lighting of the communal changing room of one of Hackney’s finer clothing establishments: I’ve definitely looked slimmer. But in many respects, I’ve never been happier. I’ll still eat a breakfast of champions: raw porridge and natural yogurt, goji berries, sesame seeds and bee proprolis – in a nod to my need for control from my diet, but I don’t freak out anymore because I’ve been presented with a bagel by a well meaning family member, or one of my children thrusts a well licked ice cream under my nose. It took a pat on the back for enjoying my food from someone who’s opinion I valued to learn, too late, that a bit of what you fancy does more than the power of good, and my kids can learn that taking pleasure from the little things in life is far more important than worrying about the size of one’s arse.
8 months pregnant with Ava and two year old Jonah
Back in a bikini with only a tiny bit of bump, aged 28 with Ava, 7 months and Jonah, 3
A year on, I’m tiny and miserable with hair cut off after it fell out.