I’ve just devoured – no pun intended – Dietland by Sarai Walker, a novel about feminism and fat acceptance. It forced me to confront some memories.
I have healthy self-esteem these days, and frequently forget it wasn’t always thus. I was a fat child – not compared to today’s children, arms and legs like Zeppelins – but I was fat for the 1980s. I was always one of the two biggest in my class. Until I was about 9, I recognised my size but I didn’t place a value judgement on it. When I was 8 my teacher Mr R___, who looked like he was smuggling a beach ball down his jumper himself, said “Liv – you’re too fat”. I was taken aback by his rudeness, but I didn’t feel shamed by his words.
The first time I remember being embarrassed by my tummy was when I went clothes shopping with my aunt and chose a green and white striped dress with a belt. She had to take a belt off the next size dress up. I also distinctly remember that my first school uniform skirt – we didn’t have to wear uniform at primary school – was a 26” waist from Woolworths and consequently the hem hung somewhere around mid-calf. I would have been about 9, and that was the start of a decade of feeling excruciatingly embarrassed by my body. I failed my Brownie agility badge because A___ L___ fell over every time I tried to leapfrog her, which I’m sure she was faking at least some of the time. Once we had to create a graph of the class’s waist measurements (WHY? Why would they choose that, not arm length or shoe size or height?) and I was thinking “Pull it tight! Please pull it tight!” knowing that even so my column would be unhideably bigger than everyone else’s.
Combined with a hormonal issue that meant I didn’t grow tits until I was 18, I was left in no doubt that my body was revolting and no boy would ever fancy me. When I was 10 or 11 and my friends started indulging in some pretty heavy snogging – I always laugh when people talk about children being too sexualised these days; they ought to have seen what went on under the oil tank in the third year playground in 1989 – I realised that between my tummy and my flat chest and my glasses, in terms of dating currency, I was Greece. The only boy who openly fancied me, I found so unappealing that I felt humiliated by his attention – a kind of Lisa Simpson and Millhouse situation.
My parents, who had both been thin kids, were not overly sympathetic. Dad came up with a song called “Fat Liv”, including such winning lyrics as “Who got on her bike and both the tyres popped? Fat Liv!” Mum and I decided to make a skirt for me, and somewhat optimistically chose a size 12 pattern. When it failed to meet round the middle, she did not hide her fury.
I was familiar with every diet of the early 90s – the F-plan, the BBC Diet, Mad Lizzie, Rosemary Conley, various diets written for teenaged girls by brisk, unsympathetic authors who clearly thought being overweight represented some sort of moral deficiency. I filled endless notebooks with lists of foods I had eaten that day. I counted grapes. My holy grail was a 26” waist, which if you remember I hadn’t been under since the age of 9. I suppose in between I was comfort eating, but I wouldn’t have recognised it as such. After an afternoon of enforced long-distance running, during which I was repeatedly lapped by S___ D___ (who of course, went onto become a PE teacher), a Toffee Crisp really hit the spot.
Aaah – PE. The nadir of school for fat kids everywhere. It seems almost purposely designed to humiliate the unsporty. We had to make up a dance pretending to be kitchen objects. I was a stand mixer beating egg whites. Then other groups had to copy us. J___ W___, a vision of glamour who had suddenly appeared from Kent in a cloud of Red Door and precocious sexuality, said “I’m going to be Liv”, lent over, pulled a face and jiggled her belly.
In Year 11 Design Technology K___ E___, a weasily shrimp of a boy, called me “Mrs S” because my tits went in and my tummy stuck out. He accompanied this with a finger gesture meant to represent a deflating erection. I laughed along. But I still remember it 24 years later.
In lower sixth I think a boy I liked liked me back, but was too scared of his friend’s reactions to do anything about it. He started going out with one of the in-crowd girls.
In upper sixth I got quite thin – there was a lot going on both good and bad and suddenly food didn’t seem so important.
The first boy who ever saw me naked – thank god, I didn’t lose my virginity to the twat – said “Lose some weight, will you?” I was a UK size 10-12 at the time.
Shortly after that I fell in love, and we were together for a decade, and I owe 99% of my self-esteem to him because for all his faults as a boyfriend he never let me think I was anything less than beautiful. I knew something had changed inside when a deranged aunt greeted me one Christmas and announced “Liv! You’ve got quite round!” and I retaliated “Yes, and you’ve got quite old.”
The last time someone tried to fat-shame me was at a great-aunt’s funeral in 2004. I was 27. Some wizened old crone, about 4’9” of bile and unconvincingly black hair, started to say something about her jacket as she’d accidentally gone to put mine on – I can’t quite remember, but the punchline, having clocked all 5’8” and 158lbs of me, was “big”. I thought how pathetic she was, but I was annoyed that the relatives I was talking to sniggered.
Which brings me to now. I’ve settled around 11 stone which is the top end of “normal” in BMI-speak. The fat sits where it always has: my arms and legs are skinny and all the weight’s on my tummy. I do keep an eye on my weight, but it’s in the same way that I keep an eye on my dogs’ weight – I don’t want to store up health problems for the future or have to limit my walking because my knees are fucked.
I have stayed pretty much the same size and the world has grown fat around me, so I now I have the interesting experience of being in the thinner camp. I can’t say I don’t secretly love it when I see someone who was horrible to me at school and they are now massive, but it is the worst part of me.
If I see one more smug Twitter update that says “Eat less, move more” I shall scream. I get frustrated that some thin people are so fucking PROUD of it. I firmly believe there are mechanisms around weight gain – grehlin, leptin, microbes in the gut, I don’t know – that mean some people have a propensity to weight gain and others don’t but no, they won’t have it, it’s their iron self-control to thank!
I work with a lot of fat women and a lot of thin women and they are equally obsessed with food. One friend – size 10 max – picks the croutons out of salads, and goes to WeightWatchers for six weeks before holidays so she can look good for the first day on the beach. Another very slim friend is urgently trying to lose 6lbs because her son’s girlfriend is joining them on a family holiday. Why would you even try to compete with a girl 30 years your junior? Hers is a life of constant self-denial. She drinks Diet Pepsi to alleviate her sugar cravings and goes to the gym first thing every day. When she lets herself off the leash she can eat a whole cheesecake. We were talking about our eating habits one day, and she commented that my diet sounded pretty healthy and if I gave up drinking I’d “probably be really small”. My genuine first thought was “And that would improve my life how…?”
Because, the truth is, I don’t want to be one of the “fuckables”. I am perfectly happy being average looking. If a man chooses to talk to me I want it to be because I’m interesting, or funny, or intelligent – not because he’s leering at my tits. I can’t imagine anything more exhausting than everyone wanting a piece of me. I loathe flirty men and on the occasions I‘ve been chatted up I’ve found it absolutely cringeworthy. The thought of being wanked over isn’t flattering, it’s disgusting. My preferred style of dress is more “rag doll” than “sexy” – I don’t think I’ve ever owned stilettoes. Maybe this is because men I fancy are very few and far between, so I am equally happy only to be fancied by the few. I actually look my best undressed – I’m always moisturised and perfumed and wearing pretty lingerie – then the clothes get less and less glamorous with each layer, up to and including a dog walking coat that looks like a brown duvet, and wellies. I like that my husband gets the best of me. It is appropriate.
I’m not saying that I am totally happy with my body. We have mirror doors on the wardrobe, and catching myself naked in those when I’m bent double cutting my toenails is rarely a high point. But I am comfortable with it. My body has got me through 39 years on this planet and will, God willing get me through 39 more. I can easily walk five miles with the dogs. I am rarely in pain. Heavens above, one of my friends is on the waiting list for a lung transplant – it would be rude if I ended up bitching about my own dear, precious body.
Dietland has made me cross, but in a good way. There was never anything wrong with me. I was a gentle, kind kid and I didn’t deserve to spend a decade feeling repulsive. In the same way that I support animal rights even though I am not a cat, I am going to be more vocal about fat-shaming and I am going to check myself when tempted to use “fat” as an insult rather than an adjective. And I will never, ever collude with Fuckability.