Yesterday I turned 32 and made a resolution. This is nothing new – in fact, as long as I have had a concept of my body as something that can be either good or bad (mercifully late, actually – my first diet started when I was about 18), I have been resolving and then working towards goals to change it. My birthday is usually a tide mark - as is Christmas and “the summer” – used to both work towards and, on failure, use to be better from. For the last 15 years I have been running an alternate calendar along side the calendar months which starts at Christmas or New Year with a resolution to be thin by Easter or Summer, usually fails and begins again with a resolution to be thin by my birthday or Christmas or New Year.
And in truth, I am not fat. I never have been. I am 6’1” which means I can carry a lot of extra weight - quite possibly more than is good for my heart*- without seeming to most eyes to be anyone’s concept of “fat”. Naked, I have cellulite and I have folds of fat that I don’t like and a proportionally large bum but my boyfriend finds all of that very attractive and is a big fan of the associated benefits in the breast department. And, in all honesty, I am not disgusted by my own naked body – I can see how it could be much much better and I know it is not like the bodies you see in magazines but I am generally on a larger scale that most women anyway and, of all the things to hate myself about, my body seems an odd choice.
All of which begs the question, why do I diet? And why doesn’t it ever satisfy me? The first answer to that is clearly that those diets never work. I have been “on a diet” in one form or another for 15 years. I have never reached the goals I set myself and I have never been less than my recommended BMI, but at the same time I have also never got fat. A few years ago my weight had crept up several stone and just pushed past the point at which I could use my height to get away with it – it was visible to those who knew me that I’d gained weight, but I still think most people would struggle to call me fat. I lost that weight in a very intense period of gym going (doing at least an hour up to 7 days a week) and eating one meal a day of steamed fish and courgette and “treating myself” to up to 5 small chocolate bars in bed late at night. It was unhealthy, and I knew it at the time but I stopped at about the point where I had got back to a weight where I felt comfortable (but not ideal, so I was still “on a diet” to get the rest off) and tried not to think about the damage I had done to my metabolism. I weighed myself every day while I was doing this routine, kept meticulous records of every fluctuation and obsessively ran an internal debate on how much I was likely to weigh the next day and, until a month or so ago, I kept this habit.
Boringly predictably the weight has started to creep back on and I am now not far off where I started. The pattern exactly mirrors my first ever “purge” diet, just after I graduated from University, although prior to that, from the age of 18 I had always been on some sort of vague, low-level “diet” that took this pattern on a smaller scale (starve, break, binge) which ultimately mean me eating either less or more than 3 meals a day and, in the long term, I gained weight.
The upshot of all this, what I have come to realise over the last few months, is that my weight and my body are not the problem. My relationship with food and dieting is the problem.
I love food, I am a good cook, who was raised by a good cook and my favourite foods are recipes that takes the very best ingredients and prepares and combines them in the simplest way possible so that they can sing. But for nearly half my life I have either denied myself the pleasure of enjoying it or gorged on it with a self-disgust so bitter it’s been less than worth eating at all. I have used food to satisfy or punish myself and it’s no surprise that’s made it hard to enjoy. I don’t want to carry on like this – it’s exhausting and it’s depressing using what is supposed to be one of life’s greatest pleasures as a stick to beat myself with, especially when doing that doesn’t actually achieve anything to make changes I’m not really sure I even want. I’m also aware that within the next few years my boyfriend and I are thinking about having children and, just as I want to be a role model for them as a working woman who sees her career as a priority, I think it’s important that they understand that food is something to enjoy and that doing properly that shouldn’t mean compromising your health.
I’m not going to go into the arguments about magazines and celebrity body culture, because this is not that kind of post and I don’t know enough about the debate to add anything to it. I’m sure it has a role to play but I am also keenly aware that that doesn’t absolve me of my personal responsibility and yesterday I resolved to take ownership of my relationship with food and make it better.
So that means eating three meals a day – healthy meals of a portion that seems in keeping with my level of hunger. It means noticing when I am hungry and when I’m not and what will satisfy my hunger and what will not. It means tasting my food and indulging only in the satisfaction of food, not the sensation of fullness. It means exercising to make my body strong and to notice the changes it makes to my sense of wellbeing and strength. It means not weighing myself more than once a month and using that measurement to adjust my routine only as a guide to how well my routine is nourishing me.
Perhaps I will lose weight, perhaps I will gain weight but I am excited that, for the first time since I have been eligible to vote, I am not on a diet and I will not waste any more wonderful food.