It is a truth universally acknowledged
that you can never be too rich or too thin
, right? Well, actually, we're all pretty much aware now that in fact you can be
either, and being both
can be especially bad for you. And, in this post-feminist age of ours, it really narks our foremost prophets
that while women have finally managed to gain the wherewithal to start working on the former, in fact what most of us are obsessed with is the latter. How ridiculous, they berate us, to wallow in shallow inadequacies at the expense of our higher capabilities. How limited! How... Well, patriarchal!
I'm not going to re-enact the whole debate here. Some of it is well above my head, and some of it is too well known for a rehashing to be of any interest. But I have to come out and declare myself, though a committed feminist, not as baffled and enraged by this maddening navel-gazing propensity of women to put their bodies before their minds. In the first instance, I don't really think that "the fat issue" is some kind of modern ill. OK, so these days Western women are encouraged to be thin (forget for a moment if that's by their mothers, the realities of a pre-suffrage marriage market, or fashion magazines), but take away the specifics of aesthetics, and an innate need to alter or improve our natural form is as old as human culture itself. Ancient Egyptian women wore a great deal of makeup and heavy, oiled wigs that must have been a nightmare in their hot climate. In renaissance Italy, women stuffed little bits of cotton under their eyelids to achieve a heavy-eyed, languid look. Queen Elizabeth I's contemporaries died in droves from lead poisoning occasioned by their use of whitening cream (the same is true, and in more recent times, of Japanese geisha, just in case you thought it was only Westerners who are crazy). And we all know everything there is to know about corsets and bound feet. Yeesh.
OK, say my frustrated sisters, so we've been doing this body-image madness stuff for a very long time, but why not stop now? Surely we know now that we're better than this? That our worth is not bound up in our sexual appeal? Why aren't there fewer women beauty icons and more women leading politicians, dammit? Good questions all, and I in no way pretend to have a comprehensive answer to any of them. I can only speak to my own experience, and what I know is that while I am ambitious at work, and generally striving in my intellectual achievements, I also live in my body. All the time. My figure is just this thing that there is no getting away from, ever. I'm in touch with it and aware of it every moment of every day. And, while I can get smarter (education), better and more talented (to a degree, with application and good training), nicer, funnier, whatever - I can't make myself look any different to how I was born looking. My own unassisted efforts will not change the colour of my eyes, the length of my legs or the quality of my skin. Outside of temporary cosmetic applications, the only control I have over my appearance is by varying my weight.
Not that that's ever moved me to diet before. I was never really fat, not even slightly overweight (medically speaking), and my intense vanity has usually been blessed by a concomitant complacency about my looks. I had my little quibbles same as any girl, but by and large I was never much motivated towards serious efforts at controlling my weight. Then I hit thirty, and all sorts of things that used to stand up started to hang down a bit. More distressingly still, rolls and folds appeared in places where previously there was only smooth flesh. And then there came the cruellest cut of all: going into a dress shop and being told that they "don't carry that size". Yikes! Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued, as well as some public crying and a few holiday snaps I'd really like to burn (damned digital). Something had to be done.
I had two choices: learn to accept my new form and admit I'm not a hot young thing anymore, or diet. In fairness to my feminist credentials, I gave the first option a fair try. It just wasn't working out, though. No matter how much I told myself there was nothing wrong with size 12, or how much I railed against the tyranny of fashion labels, or how many delicious compliments I received from my wonderfully supportive husband ("it just means you've got even more curves, honey" being a favourite of mine for sheer inventiveness), I just couldn’t shake the middle age spread blues.
So I joined Weight Watchers, and lost some weight, occasioning the memorable criticism above. And in the process I found out all sorts of interesting things about myself, food, and life in general. Without meaning to tell anyone what to do, or attempting to lay out some sort of full theory of slimming, here are a few of them:
- People Lie: when I joined WW, I did so with a whole group of friends from work, and watching how they approached the challenge of shedding weight really got me thinking about self-delusion, and made me determined to be absolutely super honest with myself about what, how and why I eat. There was the girl who flatly refused to believe what the scales were telling her, and quickly dropped out of the program because, although she'd reached the point of not liking her weight, she had not quite arrived at the point where she could accept it and move on from there. Then there was my friend Kelly, who after a promising start seemed to decide that as long as she went to the gym an extra time a week, she could eat a bar of Dairy Milk every day and still lose weight. Another friend meticulously wrote down everything she put in her mouth each day in her food diary, and trusted that this in itself would be enough to reduce her calorie intake; more common and more counterproductive was the girl who wrote down her meals, but forgot to include her snacks - that handful of Maltesers, that garnish of crisps on her sandwich, that extra butter on her toast. And then there are the myriad women who just "put it off" - tell themselves that every scampi & chips in the pub at lunchtime is a special treat, only to come home and have another special treat for dinner, and another, and another - delaying the actual dieting while getting frustrated about not losing any weight while they wait.
- You Never Know: ...what's in your food. Unless you only buy fresh ingredients and cook everything from scratch, the content of your food is completely unintuitive. The same can of sardines from two different supermarket brands can have very different impacts on your hips, depending on all sorts of complicated things like salt & sugar levels, trans fats content etc. And it's not all about calories, either - a spoonful of sugar has fewer calories than a steak, but whereas the protein in the latter will keep you feeling full for a nice long time, the former will not only leave you feeling hungry, but will induce an insulin spike that will increase you feelings of hunger, induce cravings and lower your ability to make sensible choices. The macro result of this is that fruit juice, for example, while a healthy thing in and of itself, is rubbish for weight loss and should be avoided. In other words, common sense - or what you've been used to think of as common sense - is not your friend when you're dieting. There's plenty of advice available on the comparative metabolic impact of different foods from organisations such as WW or Slimming World. Unless of course you look at it and think "wait a minute! Nuts and seeds are really good for you, aren't they? This can’t be right!" And whammo, you're lying to yourself.
- Seriously? Seriously.: exercise is a rubbish way of losing weight. And not because you build up muscle which is heavier than fat - that's lying to yourself territory again! Sure, muscle is heavier than fat, but you would have to be a pretty butch bodybuilder to stay about the same shape and all of a sudden weigh 5 more pounds. The fact is that fat is a rich but ineffective source of calories: that's why your body stores it in the first place, rather than use it immediately as it enters your system. In order to supply your cells with energy, it needs to be converted to sugar first, and that process won't happen even during the most intensive 90 minute workout. The reason why you should include exercise in your routine if you want to lose weight is that over time it helps strengthen and speed up your metabolism, so the fat-to-sugar process happens faster and your body learns to let go of some of its emergency resources (also known as cellulite). Oh and by the way, there is no such thing as cellulite - it's exactly the same as any other subcutaneous fat, it's just that you have too much of it in a particular area of your body and the skin is not thick enough to contain it smoothly - so it puckers into orange peel skin.
- Eat something already!: you don't need to go hungry in order to lose weight. In fact, it's very counterproductive, because a) when you're hungry your metabolism slows down and your body is more likely to store what you eat as fat rather than use it for tissue regeneration, and b) you make bad choices when you're hungry, about what you eat as well as how much you eat. Obviously the best things to snack on are carrot sticks and celery; but that is not a realistic goal, because they don't provide the immediate carb fix that you crave when you're peckish. My best allies in fighting hunger were high-fibre things like cereal, Rivita crackers and cracker breads. Rice cakes are very low in fibre and don't actually fill you up that well. To keep sweet cravings at bay, I rely heavily on sugar-free candy & aspartame: not the healthiest choice, but then neither is sugar! The single most important tip I learnt from the WW guides is, however, to eat lots of protein. Forget the calorie count - remember, it's not common sense, this dieting lark - and eat some lean turkey breast, an egg or some proper meat with every meal, because it will keep you feeling full rather than running to the fridge in the middle of the night.
- Whose Bum Is It, Anyway?: all sorts of things people do will de-motivate and demoralise you. A lot of the undermining behaviours masquerade as supportive behaviour: your boyfriend will say you’re beautiful as you are, your mother will tell you that a real woman should have proper hips, whatever. If you’ve really made the decision to slim down, thank them nicely and be on your way. More difficult to deal with is the overt criticism of wannabe feminist buddies who resent your decision to go where they don’t want to follow: a lot of people will attack your decision, because if you fail to defend it then it will make their own choices more valid. My way to deflect that was to admit with (I hope) disarming candour that I’m terribly vain and I just want to be really hot. But the most subversive behaviours are those that don’t attack your diet regime directly, like a bunch of mates choosing to have a big evening out at an Indian restaurant (Indian is the most fattening cuisine) and employing peer pressure to make you have that extra poppadom, or just being impatient with how long you’re taking to peruse the menu or the finicky choices you make. For me, the most difficult was to go out and not drink, because in the UK it’s a really bizarre lifestyle choice which is seen as being antisocial by a lot of young people. There’s no easy way around this stuff, you just have to resolve yourself to a certain amount of being considered a high maintenance bitch. At the end of the day, slimming is just like any other dietary restriction, such as vegetarianism, kosher or a food allergy. People will learn to deal, and for every inconsiderate bastard out there will be a lovely friend who will turn herself inside out cooking you a dinner you’re happy with.
That's about it. Other learnings include things which are more to do with lifestyle, like for example that no matter how badly I fell off that wagon, I could never, ever make that an excuse to stop dieting. What, I'm going to feel myself guilty into that size 8 pair of jeans? I think not! Another one is that much like smokers and alcoholics, one never really stops being a dieter. Putting weight on is all too easy, and if you want to keep enjoying a glimpse of your silhouette in shop windows for years to come, you need to keep it up and watch what you eat. So, my name is Marina, and I'm an overeater. In size 8 jeans.