Keeping Up Appearances: Bingeing, Obesity and Me

Yesterday, I was innocently filling my bottle up at the water fountain at work when one of the catering ladies - let’s call her Debbie - approached me with a photo of her ‘when she was fat’ (her words, not mine). 

Apart from the occasional ‘good morning’ and polite British small-talk about the weather, I have never really spoken to her. I certainly haven’t discussed her weight or mine. Undeterred by this knowledge, she shoved the aforementioned photo in my face and proclaimed: “I don’t mean to be rude, but…” (yes - that phrase which we all know preludes something horrifically insulting) “...this is proof that you can lose the weight!”

My first reaction was genuine shock; my first thought was to rebut with something extremely rude and caustic. However, I didn’t. I did the Polite Chitchat Dance about my weight - yes, that thing which has become public discussion material despite being my business alone. Debbie went on to say that she had only got that fat because she had children - because of course, that is the only acceptable time to gain weight and therefore look so unsightly. While I am sure she thought she was doing me some sort motivational favour, I can categorically state that this sort of behaviour brings me much more grief than the standard, “All right, fatty!” from a passerby on the street.

I read with great interest the earlier Vagenda post Anorexia Was My Problem, But It's Also Yours, because there were starkly similar patterns and themes to my story. Except that two years ago, I weighed 18 stone 12.5lb, and was medically classed as obese.

My mother has often reflected on my predicament, once memorably stating: “As a baby, you were always a guzzler. I knew you would struggle with your weight.” This innocent comment speaks volumes about her attitude to food and weight, as it does mine. Now, don’t get me wrong: my parents have always been incredible to me, very supportive of everything that I do, and well-intentioned without exception. But after 30 years of eating, I am able to pinpoint what started off my unhealthy relationship with food. And, in many ways, the buck stops here.

My parents wanted us (myself and my two brothers) to live with healthy, balanced diets - and that we did. But certain foods were always classed as ‘naughty’, ‘forbidden’, and ‘treats’. It is this simple categorising of nutrition that sparked off my unhealthy attitude towards certain food groups. I was the kid at the party who ate so much she was sick and then went back for more - because it was an opportunity to eat those forbidden foods; they were never allowed at any other time, and I was perfectly happy to gorge on them when they became suddenly available. I felt that if I didn’t eat it all then, I might never get the chance again.

It was this attitude which got me to my heaviest in June 2011. When I left for university, that time away from home became a three-year binge of everything that had been previously ‘forbidden’: a cycle which continued throughout my life. This attitude towards high-sugar and high-fat content food became toxic when combined with the normal concoction of school bullies, gnawing insecurity, and a failure to fit in to a desirable teenage ‘look’. Over time, I grew bigger and bigger.

Like you’ve heard in so many weight loss stories before mine, my determination to sort myself out was after I looked through holiday photos. Unlike the anorexic that sees a fat person in their mirror, I realised that I’d been seeing a smaller version of myself than I actually was. When I thought about it, that much had been obvious in my day-to-day life: I often fell short when trying to squeeze between cars in a car park, or bounced off door frames: my mind had been stubbornly holding up a barrier between my real and imagined size. Additionally, I had been exercising and eating healthily - but it was the gorging between meals which had led to my incremental gains in weight. All of a sudden, the undeniable physical proof of the photographs stopped me in my tracks.

For a long time, I had been OK with the way that I was - but by June 2011, I was uncomfortable. My legs rubbed together and my thighs burnt with pain in the summer. Sex was suffocating for me, and certain positions were painful. I had  always been an active person – played netball, swam, and did all of this at the weight that I was. Neither was I particularly unfit; I could certainly still jog for a bus. 

But I was hot – all the time. Things started to get tricky for me when they weren’t for others. I did fit into an aeroplane seat, but it wasn’t comfy. Things you would never think of, like a helicopter trip in New York while I was on holiday, became a problem because of my weight. My six-monthly contraceptive pill check-up became unbearable because the nurse would scold me for my weight, detail my increased risk of DVT on the combined pill; and then eventually moved me onto a progesterone-only pill for my own safety.

Shopping was a challenge because the places I could shop were limited and there were lots of ‘Debbies’ who were happy to approach me with tips on how I should lose weight and how it could be done. I found it astonishing how, just because I didn’t fit into a physical ideal, people found it acceptable to make loud and open assumptions about my health, behaviour and diet. While smokers, for instance, were quite rightly allowed free rein to do as they would with their bodies, the fact that I looked different meant that people could speculate on my own risks, struggles and desires. Everywhere I looked, it seemed that another Debbie was there.

I had been on and off various diets since I was a young teenager. Despite what the ubiquitous Debbie presumed, I knew why I was the weight I was; in fact, I knew how to lose weight. I knew what my triggers were, and I knew if I was reaching for food out of boredom, anger, sadness, frustration and not hunger then my brain should kick in and tell me to put the doughnut down. But the internal monologue went more like this: “I’m not hungry. I know that I’m eating out of boredom. But I want to, so I will.” My willpower versus my willpower.

There is some semblance of a happy ending. A part of this cycle broke with those photographs and, a year after seeing them, I had successfully lost four stone. But then I hit a wall. A year on and I remain standing at that wall, peering over: I still have another four stone to lose to reach the top of the NHS healthy BMI for my age and height. Losing the four stone has been great for me mentally and physically. I am proud of what I have achieved. But the battle with food is still present, and my internal struggles continue to play out daily.

Want to know my secret? The simple fact of the matter is that if you don’t lose weight for yourself, then you don’t lose weight. Diets for any external reason - to look good for others, because someone told you to, because of rampant media pressure - are doomed to fail from the outset. The key, for me, was merely eating less and moving more. I went back to basic balanced diet rules, didn’t cut out chocolate, alcohol, or carbs, deliberately didn’t categorise anything as a ‘naughty treat’. I worked out portion sizes appropriate to my size. In the privacy of my own headspace, I pursued my own private goals.

And I accept that I may never get to that healthy BMI. I love food too much. I love cooking it, baking it, entertaining with it, going to the newest restaurants and trying the next ‘best burger’ to hit London. I recognise the facets of my relationship with food, and I try to balance them out with exercise. I keep in shape doing things I love, like swimming and ballet. For myself, I would like to lose another two stone so I can feel even better than I do now. I will never be society’s ideal – but nor would I want to be.

Meanwhile, the Debbies in shops and skulking round water coolers will always want to comment on what they perceive as others’ shortcomings. They’ve certainly been trigger-happy with mine. 

But then again, the Debbies of this world will always be unhappy, because they’re doing what I was guilty of for so long: peering at the outside, and never looking in.