Here is me when I was 17
Here is me now I am 23.
Digging around for the photo of me at my thinnest meant going through my Facebook to find the photos for my leavers’ ball. So much of that is irrelevant now: former friends I can’t stand to be in the same room as, pals with their then-boyfriends who have probably been very long-forgotten, hairstyles that were never revisited. The one thing that remains oddly relevant is the fact that I wasn’t very fat. Whenever I get interviewed for a magazine, or even just when talking to acquaintances about my size, one thing they get obsessively stuck on is the fact that I once lost a lot of weight.
People cling onto the ‘former fat person’ tag for dear life. One blogger even has ‘former plus size gal’ in her Twitter bio. I view my ‘former not-so-fat person’ tag with amusement, and not much nostalgia. The difference between me at 17 and me at 23 is six years and, I would honestly estimate, about six stone. I am bigger than you think I am. I weigh more than you think I weigh. Despite various journalists’ best efforts, I have refused to engage with a set of scales for at least three years, and it’s been glorious.
I lost about four stone (25kg) in my last year of secondary school before I went to university for the first time. It was followed obsessively and remarked upon incessantly by friends, family, teachers. They all seemed to consider it my greatest achievement, the thing most worth praising me for, the area of my life most worthy of appreciation and reward. I became public property. It was suddenly appropriate for teachers to comment on my appearance in a way it never had been before. People would tell me how much better I looked now, and ask me, expectantly, if I ‘felt better?’. I would smile politely and tell them, yes, I felt much better, which was always a lie as I couldn’t really tell or see the difference.
It was always for them, not for me. Even the weight-loss was. I’ve never really cared. I just thought that given I was an interesting, intelligent, sociable person, I should at least give those around me the chance to have the complete package and make myself more conventionally attractive. I could tell people worried about me, and wanted me to be ‘pretty’, or ‘normal’, so I did it. It wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t fun either.
Making the effort to lose weight has a massive impact on your social life. I was only able to do it because I was at school from 9-3:45, could be in the gym before most people had finished work, and could do this five times a week, had almost all my meals provided for me by my mother (an ally to the weight-loss cause), didn’t drink alcohol yet, didn’t have money to eat out. It has never been possible since then to lose weight in the same way because a) I have a life and b) I don’t bloody want to.
It wasn’t fun. I didn’t feel like more of a ‘success’. I didn’t understand how I was more attractive. It couldn’t last. And of all the things in my life, I am absolutely not going to measure my own rise or fall against my ability to lose weight, or my propensity to gain it. I Googled “value of diet industry” and it brought up a Guardian article from three years ago that put it at £2billion in the UK. In the US it’s $60billion. If dieting worked, and I mean really worked, forever, I am willing to speculate that it couldn’t possibly be a multi-billion pound industry. Whether diets fail through stress, or pressure, or ‘poor self-control’, or lack of commitment, the fact remains that most of them do fail. I failed at dieting, but, a few years later, I have 100% succeeded at reaping what are supposed to be the benefits of dieting without the pain and boredom. If losing weight is what you want, then go for it, but let’s not pretend it’s your life’s greatest achievement.
Just before you get to the photos from my leavers’ ball, there are a few from a holiday I took the same summer. I was trying to find a photo of me in as few clothes as possible, but I’m wearing a one-piece swimsuit in most of them. This is the only evidence I could find of me in a bikini. Even at my thinnest, the thought of someone seeing my very gym-toned, size 14 body in a bikini was not a pleasant one. Now, as anyone who knows me will confirm, I have absolutely no problem taking my clothes off at any given moment. That’s not a product of an obsession with the gym, it’s a product of my own self-confidence.
When I’d lost weight, I wore a bikini once. I think I took my top off in a club once. I started a relationship with someone I fancied. But I was ’empowered’ to do these things because I’d lost weight, and because I thought that losing weight gave me the right to do them. Now I do them because I’m powering through life at high speed, making new connections, having new experiences, learning what it means to be me, who I want in my life, how I want to do it, what’s important to me. Whenever I dance in my underwear now, I’m empowered to do it by the knowledge that it’s what I want.
While I was writing this post, I would periodically scroll up to the top of the page and flip between the two photos. For all the ‘work’ that went into being the girl in the top photo (gym five times a week, obsessive denial of things I wanted, tricky navigation of social outings involving calories, etc etc) I genuinely can’t find a part of my heart or mind that thinks she’s any better than the girl in the second photo. I keep looking at my body, clothed and unclothed. I keep looking at my face. I look at photos of myself. I look at myself in the mirror. I just can’t find anything to hate, anything to change, anything to purge, any fat I want to burn, any flesh I want to obliterate. I’m not saying the two states (that of dieting and that of serenity in one’s own body) can’t necessarily co-exist, but for me, existing in the latter negates the need for the tedious former.
To quote David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome: ‘Long live the new flesh’