Pizza. Pasta. Bread. Chips. Cheese. Pastries. Biscuits. I am well-known among my friends for my unapologetically beige diet of refined carbs. I have an intensely romantic relationship with custard creams and I can happily eat pasta for every meal. My long Easter weekend was spent eating and drinking with various friends followed by lying lazily on the sofa scoffing chocolate eggs. After seeing a few self-loathing posts on social media regarding the intake of a few too many chocolatey treats, I started thinking about my relationship with food and my own body image.
The first thing I need to make clear is that whatever I write here, I write from a position of thin privilege. This means that my body shape, no matter the personal problems I have had regarding it, is considered the desired ‘norm.’ I do not believe that ‘thin shaming’ is the same as ‘fat shaming’ no matter how much it hurt me as a child because society is built as such that I will never experience hatred, oppression or the refusal of medical assistance due to my size. This, however, does not mean that I have always been happy with what I see in the mirror.
Long and thin is how my mother described me as a baby. With no fat on me, it was assumed my health conditions had affected my weight (I was born without an oesophagus) and I was the only toddler with knobbly knees and a scarred body at the swimming pool. Because I was thin, everyone felt entitled to comment on my size and some of my earliest memories revolve around eating as much as I could to put weight on just so people would stop looking at me and talking about me as if I wasn’t there. Buying clothes was always painful and despite her jokes, I wasn’t allowed to sit on my mum’s lap for too long because of my ‘bony bum.’ As I moved through school, the jokes turned into whispered gossip about eating disorders and graffiti on the toilet walls. Sometimes, the accusations about my eating habits were directed to my face and at times, by medical professionals. My classmates even diagnosed me with an overactive thyroid after seeing a photo of a big-eyed person with one in a biology textbook. (I’ve since had it tested and I don’t have an overactive thyroid; just a speedy metabolism and large eyes.)
Meanwhile at home, my mum would reassure me that I would appreciate it when I got older and that she too had looked like me at her age. This was no consolation to me as I watched my mum and older sister dance around in their underwear and swimsuits making their bums and thighs jiggle about and laughing as no matter hard I tried, my tiny bum waved from side to side without so much as a wobble. You see, I grew up in a house where jiggly bums and wobbly, life-giving tums were celebrated and instilled envy in a young girl who would eat five Weetabix for breakfast in the desperate hope that her thighs would start meeting at the top. I grew up in a house where food was loved and enjoyed and we were never scolded for eating too much. Big appetites were something to be admired and food seemed to be the only thing to bring our fractious family together, whether it was around big plates of fresh pasta or a Sunday roast. I don’t ever recall my mum mentioning the need to watch what she ate, lose weight or express guilt over food. Her motto was, ‘we live to eat, we don’t eat to live.’
Even as I started to fill out and put on weight in my late teens and early twenties, my appetite did not abate and I continued to maintain a voracious appetite. I lovingly gazed at my fresh stretch marks that marked my thighs like tiger stripes when I discovered I could finally make my bum and thighs jiggle at the age of twenty-one. I am incredibly proud of my stretch marks and cellulite because they brought me the first body acceptance I had ever experienced. Perhaps I would have the Amazonian body of my dreams after all?
I still eat as though I’m trying to close my thigh gap (another massively happy achievement for me) because no matter what, I will always get more happiness out of eating a pizza with friends, scoffing bag after bag of crisps over gossip in the pub or lovingly preparing a dish of macaroni cheese with all the leftover cheeses in the fridge and scooping up the sauce with garlic bread. Kate Moss was very, very wrong about nothing tasting ‘as good as skinny feels.’ I’m not giving up chips just to be able to see my hip bones again because it never, ever made me happy!
As a teacher, I am very mindful about how I eat and talk about food and my body in front of children. I make sure they see me eating relatively healthily throughout the day but also enjoying chocolate and fizzy drinks in moderation. I make sure they know that I am happy with the way that I look and that I take pride in my physical strength. We tackle fatphobic language with the understanding that ‘fat’ is an adjective not an insult and being an unkind and hurtful person is worse than being a bit bigger than some of the other children because we all grow at different rates and we are all beautiful the way we are. Children learn how to relate to food from the adults around them so please think carefully about how you talk about needing to ‘lose a stone’; express guilt at eating an Easter egg; not being ‘allowed’ certain foods and talking about how much you hate how you look in front of them. Children hear everything.
I try to ensure I eat fruit and vegetables when I remember and now that I’m in my mid-thirties, I’ve started to exercise to ensure that my body remains strong and healthy. When I look in the mirror, I see someone who is so much more than a body covered in scars, tattoos and stretch marks. I see a warrior ready for battle. I think, as women, we forget how important it is to be physically strong to ensure that our bodies can fight what life throws at it. Our bodies are not museum pieces, clothes horses or trophies. They are part of us and who we are and they are a map of our experiences and journeys. Scars, tattoos, tiger stripes and all. It is the only body you will ever have so please, please take good care of it. Feed it good food and tell it just how much you love it.
“A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth. Her love for her body will be unqualified, which is the basis of female identification. If a woman loves her own body, she doesn’t grudge what other women do with theirs; if she loves femaleness, she champions its rights. It’s true what they say about women: Women are insatiable. We are greedy. Our appetites do need to be controlled if things are to stay in place. If the world were ours too, if we believed we could get away with it, we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional, and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands: payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, childcare, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want, in bed and in the world.” Naomi Wolf- The Beauty Myth