I’ve just spent the past four days wearing a bikini, shades, and a wide brimmed hat. Dressing that way always makes me obsess about my body. If I stand in just the right light, at precisely the right angle at exactly the right time of day (i.e. when my stomach is first-thing-in-the-morning flat), I kind of like what I see. To enhance the image I might partially suck in my stomach so it looks very pre-pregnancy taught. Too much suck and it just looks wrinkly, like a deflated balloon. I spend a lot of time perfecting the ‘suck’ before venturing out in public. When all the conditions are right, I’m at peace with my body. I know that there are many more important things in the world to worry about aside from this terrible obsession, but I simply can’t help myself.
At forty-four, my body probably is the best it’s ever looked, unless you are one of those people who believe that a woman is most beautiful when she is pregnant. There was certainly more of me to love when I was ‘carrying’. I was shocked, during month five of the pregnancy to discover that the huge arse in the store changing room mirror belonged to me. I was utterly repulsed. I prefer it when there is, quite simply, less of me.
Currently, I’m training for a marathon and am as much of a lean, mean running machine as I could ever hope to be. My arms and legs are defined, my butt is tighter, and the ripples of muscle across my back are impressive. My boobs are pretty good too, but I took the easy route there and paid for them.
My rational side argues that I look great, but being a perfectionist, I ignore the positives and instead seek out flaws. How can I possibly be unhappy with my 5’4” size 2/4 frame? For me, the answer is simple. As a young child, living in England, it was made very clear that there was something wrong with my body. Regardless of the purpose of any visit to the doctor, my mother would always ask whether I needed to go on a diet. As the consultation drew to a close I would anticipate the sting of humiliation and my mother never disappointed.
When I was eight-years-old she enrolled me in a Weight Watchers class. I was the only child amongst a group of adults, some of whom were clinically obese. Over the course of a few months, I lost 14 pounds. My family saw it as a great achievement but I’m still scarred by the experience.
Each Tuesday evening, my mother would drive me to Beeston, a suburb of my home town of Nottingham, and park in the multi-storey car park. At each meeting, I would stand in front of the group and my weight loss/gain was shared with everyone. I lost 4 pounds during my first week on the diet but was more impressed by the 14 pounds loss of another man who enrolled at the same time as I did. I wished that I could be like that man so that my own target loss of 14 pounds would be accomplished and I could get on with my eight-year-old life.
I have no doubt that I was my mother’s favorite child and she had my best interests at heart. Her concern was that I was distinctly chubbier than my older sister, though it never occurred to my mother that my sister might be overly skinny and was perhaps further from a normal weight than I was. I have studied photos of myself from that period. You might describe me as robust rather than waiflike, but certainly not obese. My mum’s side of the family tended to be overweight and she made it her mission to save me from their fate. The fact is that I might have just as easily shed the puppy fat in a natural way as I grew taller. And that would have made my life a whole lot simpler, both then and now.
I reached my target weight after five months and was presented with a celebratory pin badge. I wasn’t particularly delighted by the achievement, and proceeded to spend the following months packing the weight back on. I would steal money from my mother’s purse or my father’s change jar (which was really a cleaned out jar of my mum’s face cream that sat in his closet) and take myself off on my bike, making a stop at the gas station across the street to buy chocolate bars. The contraband stowed safely in my saddlebag, I would cycle to The Hills, an area of undeveloped land, and sit on The Log, where I would devour the foods that I had been denied. I honestly don’t remember if I did this in defiance or because I simply liked chocolate.
It wasn’t until I was seventeen and began dating for the first time that I took an active interest in my weight, namely shedding it on my terms. Between September and December of my final, autumn trimester at Bramcote Hills Grammar School I shrank from a chubby teen to a waiflike shadow of my former self. My sister, who was very handy with a sewing machine, spent her Christmas visit home from University altering all of my trousers so that they fitted me stovepipe style, all the better to show off my emaciated legs.
While my mother was now concerned about my weight for entirely different reasons, she never challenged me and my family accepted my weird relationship with food. The miniscule portions, the mood swings if I went too long without food since there was nothing in reserve, and The Box. The Box was a shoe box which contained my personal stash of beloved chocolate bars—the Mars bars, the Snickers bars, the Bounty bars—the list was extensive. I realized that I could enjoy as many chocolate bars as I desired provided I did so in moderation. To this end I kept a small knife in the box alongside the part wrapped, half -eaten stash. No meal would be complete without the ritual performed behind my closed bedroom door as I sliced off miniscule slivers of chocolate and savoured them until they dissolved in my mouth. As I recall these memories twenty-five years later, I realize that my behavior was pretty weird. I imagine I was borderline anorexic, if such a diagnosis exists.
When I moved to London in my early twenties my body/food issues followed. For somebody who didn’t eat very much, I was obsessed with food. I had a new best friend, Gilly, and, God help me, she was another waif. We would stand in line waiting to be seated for dinner and she would inhale chocolate bars to keep her going. I simply decided that I’d been dealt an unfair lot when it came to metabolism. Gilly somehow talked me into joining her to model the swimwear line that she designed. The pictures are hysterical. She’s all winsome waif and despite the fact that I worked out and thought that I was eating sensibly, I’m the chunky friend who somehow wandered into the camera frame by accident. I feel somewhat responsible that her pieces weren’t a sell out.
I cringe when I think how much of my adult life has been wasted, staring back over my shoulder into mirrors and wondering, “Does my bum look big in this?” I guess the answer to some (if your peers are emaciated models) will be “Yes!” But to most it will be “What the hell are you talking about?”
I go to great lengths to prove that I’m still not good enough as far as my body is concerned. Shortly after the birth of my first child I, literally, cried for days when I was gripped by the sadistic notion of trying on my Agnes B leather pants … which got stuck half way up my thighs no matter how much I wriggled, bargained with God, and cursed. I still freeze with irrational fear if I need to be weighed and request, at my yearly health check that the nurse record the number silently on the chart.
Aside from the obvious fitness benefits, training for and running marathons has been positive in that I’m forced to eat in order to run the distances. Although I did note my disappointment to my long-suffering husband in the fact that I expected all the running to render me skinny by now. He merely sighed and remarked that I am skinny already.
So will I ever quit the pointless obsession and be kinder on myself? Unfortunately, as long as I live on the Westside of Los Angeles, it’s going to be a tough job. In this town women make a career out of being thin—not only the models, actresses and singers who obsess about carbs, but the regular people—many of whom are grappling with living lives among the rich and famous. There’s am unmistakable kudos in the school mom circles in wearing the illusive size zero. The gal who isn’t necessarily good looking still gets a nod of approval if she can slip her emaciated butt into jeans that are so tiny that my skinny sixth grade son would struggle to fasten them. Part of the answer must surely be to give up reading the fashion magazines that make me feel inferior about my shape and size and to keep reminding myself that it’s better to be healthy and heavier than skinny and sick—both in mind and in body.
By Caroline Bird