Chapter One: Eating my feelings
No one taught me how to do it. There wasn’t a point in early adolescence when my mother or my sister waited for a friend to upset me, before sitting me down in front of a sharing block of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and saying, ‘So this is what you do…’ It might have been something that I observed, or maybe heard about from people older than me. The origins are hard to pin down, in truth, but from adolescence to adulthood I quickly found there weren’t many life problems that couldn’t be resolved by eating – or, so I thought.
When I was twenty-two years old, I weighed nineteen stone and four pounds. I was very much in a cyclical vacuum of gaining weight by that point, trying to fill a space that would never really be placated with food. A lot of people – family, friends, complete strangers – would take their turns in reminding me I was fat, which is a privilege a lot of non-fat people wield like a trophy: ‘Listen to me, because I take better care of myself than you do…’ The vacuum was lined with unsolicited comments that people made about my weight, which gave me a helping hand into the pattern of being sad (about my weight), so I would eat for comfort (and gain more weight), so I would be sad (about my weight). That said, I can’t pass the buck. I was very much in control of what I was eating – or, as in control as people who eat for comfort can be of their eating – and by no stretch of the imagination was anyone shovelling food into my mouth on my behalf.
However, in among all of the comments about my weight – including comments made by healthcare professionals, who always had a comment to make – I don’t remember anyone ever a) asking why I would eat so much for comfort, or b) offering me help when it came to stopping. I would often be told I needed to lose weight, but people told me very little about my actual eating.
Even at the weight of nineteen stone and four pounds, it wasn’t my comfort eating that I wanted to change but rather the size that comfort eating had made me. A not-quite-out-of-ear-shot comment made by a family member sent me crying to the friend-I-was-sort-of-seeing-at-the-time who said, ‘I like that you’re squishy.’
I’ll carry that word with me until my memories start to tumble from my head, I truly believe it. ‘Squishy,’ I remember thinking. ‘That person allegedly wants to see me naked, and that’s how he’d describe me to someone?’ It wasn’t exactly the best motivation in the world, but my (extreme) dieting started a day or two after this incident. Which, I’d like to note, was one of hundreds of incidents where someone who wasn’t directly affected by my weight felt entitled to make a comment about it.
Chapter Two: Starving my feelings
No one taught me how to do it. I decreased my calorie intake to one thousand calories a day and I created as much of a deficit as I could through exercise (which I managed three or four times a week). I dieted without a target weight in mind, which quickly turned into dieting and dieting and… I lost just under nine stone altogether, which meant I was officially a “healthy” weight for my height. It was hard to maintain – although in the years since, I’ve only gained around a stone of what I lost which means I’ve still lost eight stone and one pound (at the time of writing) from what I was when this journey started, and I’m proud of that.
That said, something I’m less proud of is that the comfort eating evolved into something like comfort starving – which, I hope most readers will agree, is an equally problematic habit. Starving might be too strong a word to use. While before I would have stress-eaten until I bloated, during dieting I would simply not eat. When university became stressful, when I argued with a friend, when I was a pound heavier than I wanted to be, it was all the excuse I needed not to eat for an afternoon – for fear of one comfort biscuit turning into the comfort binge so many people had warned me about: ‘That’s the problem with losing weight, you’ve got to keep it off then…’
Having been through this experience, I heartily disagree with the above sentiment. The problem with losing weight is relying on your brain to catch up with your body – which is why, even though I am six clothes sizes smaller than I was when I started dieting, I can still look in a mirror and see myself as fat. The problem with losing weight is finding a healthy middle-ground between what you were eating before and what you’re eating now, and the middle-ground doesn’t always need to be a deficit space (because that’s actually not how real life works, I’ve discovered). The problem with losing weight is that how eating used to be a compulsive behaviour, dieting also becomes one.
The problem with losing weight is that no one praises you for comfort eating, but everyone will always say well done for not being a “big girl” anymore…
Chapter Three: Having feelings
No one can teach me how to do it. It’s (self-)discovered wisdom rather than something that can be passed on, but food and feelings do not have to be inextricably bound together with a gag. It’s possible to enjoy food without feeling a modicum of guilt after a too-hearty meal. I know, because I’ve done it – I just haven’t cracked the code for doing it consistently. When my weight creeps too high – by my standards – I feel hugely uncomfortable and my immediate thought is that I must diet. What’s especially frustrating about this now is that enough people see me as “just the right size” – whatever that means – for them not to validate my need or want to diet, which causes even more inner conflict, which makes me want to eat/not eat/eat/not eat…
I don’t believe that society caused these food problems, for want of a better term, but I do believe that certain societal beliefs didn’t help them. There was an unspoken assumption on the lips of strangers that I was lazy, indulgent, morally reprehensible, among other things I don’t doubt, when I carried weight. If those unspoken assumptions are still there, then I certainly don’t see them in strangers’ glances anymore. Although, there’s always the possibility that my awareness of those looks, from before versus now, says as much about me as it does about the people who used to be looking. Are they still looking, and I just don’t see it now? That might be a question best left unanswered.
The record should show that I don’t regret dieting. My organs and bone structure are in a much better place than they were five years ago. What I do regret is not being allowed to get to the point of dieting on my own, without the not-so-gentle nudges from people who I knew – and people who I’d never even met before, but who were somehow entitled to comment on my size all the same. For clarity, if you are one of the people who comments on strangers’ sizes, let me assure you that they are definitely already aware of it. They certainly don’t need you to tell them how much they weigh or how much space they take up – they can decipher the comments from your glances alone. (Don’t even get me started.)
The problem with fat-shaming – or whatever the preferred term is, assuming one exists – is that it causes more problems than it fixes. While I’ve lost weight and subsequently become healthier according to my body mass and various other scoring systems, other chronic health problems I have, ones that pre-date weight-gain and weight-loss, haven’t been at all improved by the change in my size. Furthermore, my relationship with food is actually no better than it used to be. Before, I was in love with it, and now I’m sometimes scared by it, neither of which seem especially desirable perspectives to me.
Admittedly, I now understand logically that not every argument has to end with a packet of biscuits. I’m trying to understand that when an argument does end with a packet of biscuits, it’s just one of those things and I’ll make up for it by making the next day a healthy one. I’m assured this is the balance to strike when it comes to food and eating, but also when it comes to feeling things and living.
To conclude, and to reiterate: no, I don’t regret dieting. However, I do wish someone who had dieted had had a sit-down conversation with me about what losing weight does to your head, rather than exclusively discussing what it does to your body.
So, with this journey on-going, I have to believe that, at the end, there’s a final point at which feelings, self-worth and food-consumption do not exist together in a Bermuda Triangle of body-hate where logic mysteriously disappears for the duration of a (skipped) meal.
I have not yet reached that point – but I plan to.
Charley Barnes is an author and academic based in Worcester, UK. She lectures in Creative Writing and English at universities around the West Midlands. Barnes is also widely published as a fiction author and poet, and her most recent poetry pamphlet, Body Talk, discusses eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and recovery.