This is going to be a long one. In fact, if you haven’t got your feet up with a cuppa you might want to come back to it. Or in fact, you might not want to read it at all if it’s just me ranting again… but I’m going to do it anyway.
If there’s one thing the last few years have taught me, it’s that you don’t need to be plus-size or unhealthily overweight to have body-image issues. I used to look at people who were slimmer than me and be jealous. I used to think they were lucky. I even told someone that once when talking about our respective sizes – that she couldn’t possibly understand my struggles with my weight because she was so slim. What she told me resonated with me and impacted me and still does now.
It went something like this: “Really?” She asked. “The fact that I’m clinically underweight and that I can’t gain weight no matter how much chocolate or ice cream or pasta I eat, doesn’t cause me any problems? The fact that doctors think I’m anorexic because I’m so slim. The fact that I’m anaemic and get ill all the time? No. You don’t understand that either. So don’t presume to think that ‘I’m so lucky’ or that no-one slim has issues with their weight. You’re wrong.”
And she was totally right. I, of course, apologised. But it was the start of something much bigger and deeper for me. (Thank you – you know who you are). It was the realisation that the vast majority of us have body image issues of one form or another. I know very few people in this world who can stand naked in front of a mirror and honestly say they wouldn’t change a thing. It helped me to realise that although we are all on our own journey and all have to deal with our issues in our own way – I’m not alone in having issues in the first place.
I don’t remember exactly when the problems with my weight started, but I do remember the first time I made a conscious effort to do something about it. I was 14 and already a size 16. It was when I started to really notice boys. I went to an all girls senior school so there were few opportunities to meet them, except on the bus home from school. But far from attracting the kind of attention I wanted, the ‘fat’ jokes abounded.
So I started to diet. I started the cycle that would then occupy a significant proportion of my life. It goes something like this:
- Body image issues – start to feel self conscious about weight (and/or other issues)
- Decide to take action
- Start latest diet or healthy eating or exercise plan
- Start to lose weight
- Start to feel depressed and trapped by the restrictive nature of said diet or plan
- Start to push the boundaries of said diet or plan so it doesn’t feel as bad
- Weight loss stops
- Comfort eat to console yourself
- Regain weight lost and possibly a bit extra just for good measure
- Return to point 1…
I remember a few years ago when someone very close to me told me “it’s simple – eat less, move more”. I also remember exploding at them. It is really NOT that simple. And then the irony of it all is that the person who once told me “eat less, move more” was simple, is now battling with her own body-image issues. Would she say the same thing today? I don’t know, but I doubt it.
For every one of us with body-image issues, whatever they may be, the main problem is psychological, not physical. It’s about how we perceive ourselves and how we think other people view us. Yes, for some of us it is physical too, like being clinically under or over weight, but the problem, and therefore the solution, goes way beyond the physical.
For me, dealing with my weight is a constant battle between me and the food. Or rather my beliefs about the food. How it will taste, how it will feel, what the impact on my body will be, what the impact on my mood will be, will it be worth it, what are the alternatives. I think about food ALL THE TIME. And that’s not a joke. I go to bed at night planning what we’re going to eat the next day. I spend my mornings wondering what to have for lunch. And I am constantly arguing with myself between indulging my taste buds and trying to get healthier.
My weight, and therefore my body-image issues, have been so bad in the past that I have self-harmed as a form of punishing myself for my bad choices. You don’t have to be a genius to work out that that’s a psychological problem, not a physical one.
My book shelves are filled with self-help and diet books with titles such as: ‘On eating’, ‘The sugar addict’s guide to total recovery’, ‘When you eat at the refridgerator, pull up a chair’ and ‘Overcoming overeating’. I’ve tried Weight Watchers, Atkins, the 5:2 diet, the Daniel Plan, the healthy eating plans from the NHS and British Heart Foundation. I’ve joined Overeaters Anonymous and seen doctors, nutritionists, dieticians, counsellors and psychologists all to help me deal with a problem I created myself.
Because let’s face it, I’m the one who over-ate in the first place. I’m under no illusions about the fact that I have done this to myself. BUT what I needed was a way to break the cycle.
Eventually, after reaching my highest weight of almost 23st in 2014, at a size 30-32, I consulted my doctor about weight loss surgery. The idea terrified me. But after being told I was pre-diabetic and would need medication if I didn’t lose weight, and after ending up in hospital more times than I can count in the last seven years – either with health problems caused, or at least exacerbated by, my weight – I couldn’t see any alternative.
I was then put on a diet where I was restricted to 1500 calories a day and only lost just over a stone in six months. It was totally demoralising. And as a result, I was convinced that surgery was my only option.
Enter the wonderful Kate Harrison.
Lovely Kate had been doing Slimming World for a while, and a couple of months before I was due to attend an information session about weight loss surgery, in January 2015, she posted on Facebook that she had lost over 3 stone with Slimming World. I congratulated her and asked her the secret of her success.
Bless her, she sent me a private message telling me all about her own story and about why Slimming World was different. She also said something very important to me – that if I really was considering surgery, didn’t I owe it to myself to try EVERYTHING before I went under the knife?
Well it took me until March to join up. Ironically the day before the information session about the surgery.
I sat there listening to my Slimming World consultant, Emma Allott, as she explained the plan to me, giving her that skeptical, raised-eyebrow look when she told me pasta was a ‘free’ food (meaning you can eat unlimited quantities of it if you want to) and thinking ‘this is a load of rubbish’. However, I took the books away and read them all and explored the Slimming World website. I still ate what I wanted that night as I struggled to get my head around it all straight away.
The next day I went to the information session about weight loss surgery. I can honestly say it is one of the most terrifying and depressing experiences of my life. I couldn’t imagine going through what they told me and the subsequent impact on my eating habits and social life.
At the end of the session you had to tell the nurses whether you were a ‘yes – I want to go ahead’, a ‘no – this isn’t for me’ or a ‘maybe – i’d like to go away and think about it’. I told them I was a maybe. I knew at that point I didn’t WANT the surgery. But I still didn’t believe there was any other option. They told me I had 12 weeks to come back to them, or my case would be referred back to my GP and I’d have to start the whole process all over again (including the 1500 calorie a day diet for six months).
I walked away determined to throw myself into Slimming World and see what happened.
My first week I lost 1.5lbs. It wasn’t the huge losses I had read about, especially for someone my size. But it was a loss, and I was happy. I set myself an interim target of 1.5st and hoped I could reach it before I had to tell the doctors what I wanted to do about the surgery.
When I got home my amazing husband said something that has become a kind of motto for me now. “You’ll always be the tortoise” he said. “But you’ll get there eventually”. (For those looking somewhat confused, he was referring to Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare – SPOILER ALERT – the tortoise wins).
Within 10 weeks I’d lost a stone. More than I’d managed in six months under the care of doctors, dieticians and psychologists. Needless to say I was happy to walk away from the idea of surgery and commit to Slimming World long-term.
In six months I lost more than 3st and four dress sizes. I’m no longer classed as pre-diabetic and my other health issues are improving, as is my general fitness.
I know I go on and on about Slimming World. But honestly, it’s like finding a miracle cure! This is the first time I have ever stopped at point 4 without continuing the cycle.
For me it is so much about the psychology – and I worked out the difference. With all the other plans and diets I’ve tried, the focus is on restriction – what you CAN’T have. But with Slimming World the main focus is on inclusion – all the wonderful foods you CAN have, and even better, some of them in unlimited quantities.
There is always something I can eat if I want to. To some people this might sound unhealthy – surely I’m trying to ‘cure’ my unhealthy relationship with food right? Yes, true. But this is the means to the end. This is the way I learn what foods are healthy, what foods are filling, what foods taste sweeter than they used to, now I’m not filling my body with unhealthy quantities of sugar and MSG. This is the way I learn to enjoy eating healthily, rather than learning to despise it.
And for the first time, I feel like it’s working. I feel like my end goal of being slimmer and healthier and not ‘addicted’ to food is actually achievable.
Because make no mistake, this is a battle between me and the food. In fact, it’s all-out war. And I AM going to win. After all, I’m the tortoise.