Ask anyone who was fat and unlucky enough to experience when they were young, the miseries of being put on an involuntary diet and they’ll tell you – perhaps upon a moment of reflection – that it haunts them to this day if they think about it long enough. I would argue it’s one of the most obvious influences on the person I am today, these familial attitudes surrounding food. In pondering this relationship I have with food, and where it began, I struggled to find a general consensus that reflected my own massive appetite. A need to feed those around me, to share food, and to enjoy it. Something that forms the very basis of my relationship with my best friend – the comfort and celebratory nature of food being as healing as any closeness.
Growing up, we didn’t often have crisps and sweets around the house. Partially, I suspect, my Mother wanted to avoid the shame of having to take us to the dentist to have large holes in our teeth filled. Both myself and my two older brothers, however, would all come to benefit from an adolescence of braces. If we’d been the kind of family to take holidays abroad, I’d have understood her fears. It makes perfect sense not wanting to get held up in line at security because your five year-old son has a suspicious presence going on in his mouth. Of course, my suspicious oral activities didn’t begin until I was much older.
My earliest memories of dieting hark back to around age nine. The same time my mother told me that she and my father were thinking of getting two kittens. The very same evening, in fact.
“I’ve got ice-cream in the freezer if you want one.” My Grandmother told me, as my Mother dropped me off on one of my weekend sleepovers at her house.
“No, we’re being healthier,” said my Mother, her tone raised so high you’d have thought my Grandmother had just offered to let me jab knives into the toaster. Something I had done, aged 4, to brightest flash of white light – and screams from everyone in the room but me. Luckily my sensible Clark’s and their thick rubber soles had grounded the shock. I couldn’t understand the fuss until I realized I’d broken the toaster.
“Oh, I forgot you were on a diet. One wont hurt though will it?”
“It’s not a diet! It’s healthy eating,” said my Mother. God bless her for trying to turn this already humiliating situation into something even vaguely positive. “We had a big fruit salad for pudding, anyway.” A fruit salad is not something anyone in their right mind learns to appreciate until an adulthood of slowing metabolism approaches. I don’t care what the Change for Life leaflets told you.
It had worked to varying success over the years, although in hindsight to negligible results. It wasn’t until around age seventeen that I finally managed to drop down to a healthy weight for my height. To which I found teachers asking me to wait behind at the end of lessons, asking if I was ill – with a capital ‘I’. My interest in school work had reached zero and my weight was decreasing on a similar trajectory. My clothes, too big and swamping my newly sized S frame. I felt too proud of my accomplishments. I had done one thing with absolute commitment, to the betterment, or so I believed, of my self esteem. Neglecting any awareness for the needs of those around me, especially the one’s as emotionally under the weather as I was.
So what if I found myself self-isolating, obsessed with counting calories, academically a disaster, but I was thin. I was, for lack of a more enlightened point of view, finally sexually desirable. And absolutely clueless as to what I was to do about it.
It’s a personal belief that I hold, that when you experience the real brutality of childhood ridicule, there’s only two options for you to take later on in life. You’re either a far nicer person for having known the personal consequences it has on your own self-esteem, or a far crueler, bitter person for having been subjected to it. I credit it as the sole reason I work well in teams as an adult.
I remember with horrifying lucidity, meeting for a Pizza Hut lunch buffet, organized by a close friend of mine at the time, and ordering a salad. The waitress bemused, having taken such large celebratory orders from everyone else around the table, ecstatic about their AS results, handing me a plate free of charge. “Don’t worry, they all get a salad free with their meal so there’s no point in you paying for one.” Her generosity only further highlighting that I was doing something so remarkably different to everyone around me. That same friend’s home whom I had purged a slice of pizza at a gathering, earlier in the summer. Wandering up to the bathroom while the sound of the television and loud chatter masked my first venture into slamming away extra calories down the toilet bowl. I felt, at every turn, the beginnings of something sly growing at the back of my mind. Each time I got away with something in a social gathering, a confidence building. No one suspecting the former fatty.
Of course, ease like that cannot last. An obsession with exercise and having always conveniently eaten ahead of time at lunch, lead my best friend to a confrontation. The two of us, walking up Bangor high street towards Asda, my hands cramping in my sweatshirt pockets, unsuccessful at holding back the tears. Her own similar experiences with a cousin – albeit different almost entirely – felt as though they were smashing me back into real-life. A life where people ate to survive, and celebrate, ate for enjoyment as much as they did necessity. I felt, for the first time, how cruel this behavior was when heard it spoken from the mouth of someone I loved.
I left school following a summer of disastrous AS results. Picked subjects I felt interested in, in the college down the road. We began to meet up every Tuesday and Saturday after work, for coffee and a cake. Sometimes, just if one of us was having a bad day. Sacrificing our responsibilities for a shared love of food and sugary coffees. A ritual born out of our own needs for healing. No shame in crying with each other, we knew better than that.