I’ve been on a diet since I was fifteen. (Which, by today’s standards, is actually pretty late. Girls as young as eight go on them now.) It’s not accurate to say that I’ve been eating nothing but celery for twelve years (I haven’t had it beyond that one time I tried it and decided it was yack) it’s far more appropriate to say that I’ve spent a decade in a cycle of being hungry, or being angry with myself for not being hungry.
And I know it’s not just me.
Before I wrote this I spent a lot of time thinking about every woman I know and concluded that every single one of them – no exceptions – is either on a diet, or feeling bad that they’re not on a diet. Even my nan, at the perfect age of 94, still famously swears by her motto of having ‘one or the other.’
So it was no surprise, on my recent trip to the hairdressers, to learn how every woman in the room was on a diet. It was exactly what my very unscientific, and very over generalised, theory had suggested.
Of course there was one ring leader. She was your textbook gym-obsessed, diet snob. The one who’s spent so long avoiding carbs she practically feints at the sight of a loaf of bread, who expects everyone in the salon to do tricep dips while they wait for their highlights to develop.
She overheard me whispering that I wanted sugar in my tea (yes, I really whispered. If you’ve ever had to ask for sugar in front of a group of dieters, you’ll know why) and of course she couldn’t resist the urge to say, ‘Oooh you can’t ask for sugar in here.’
Part of me saw her arm definition and almost started doing those tricep dips, while choosing to forgo the tea altogether. Her body is spectacular. Another part of me wanted to jump up and put my hand in her face to say – in my most exaggerated midlands accent – ‘look lady, if I want sugar, I’ll have sugar.’
The biggest part of me remembered I’ve been her. I’ve been her a lot. Therefore I have no right being mad at her. (Stones and glass houses. You know how it is.)
So instead I just laughed it off saying, ‘sorry, but I’m having the sugar.’
Later on in the conversation another girl (who is basically the personification of every single style crush I’ve ever had) admitted that she wants to lose weight but hates getting up for the gym and cant give up her afternoon Twirl. I’ve been her too. A lot more than I’ve ever been the other one.
Naturally the gym-obsessed diet snob had to shame Twirl girl, pointing out – in cringe worthy, arrogant rhetoric – ‘it’s not just the Twirl though, is it? We went out and you ordered chips instead of salad, that certainly won’t be very forgiving on weigh day.’
It would have been really easy to hate this woman, but as I watched it unfold the only thing I felt for her was sympathy. Just like I felt it for Twirl girl. I felt it for both of them because I’ve been both of them. And neither was great.
When I was the gym-obsessed diet snob I was always – and easily – the most annoying person in the room. I knew the macronutrients of every item in the fridge and ate five times a day – all meals carefully devised to contain at least 40% protein.
More annoyingly I condemned everyone else for not doing the same. I outright shamed anybody who even dared to sidewards glance at the biscuit tin, and spoke about my obsession with superfoods as though it was a revelation akin in brilliance to the invention of the wheel. I felt a smug kind of pity for anybody who thought otherwise.
You don’t need me to tell you that’s lame, but it wasn’t quite the arrogance it appeared to be. It actually came from a place of deep down insecurity. A fear of what would happen if I didn’t do those things. I thought life would basically be over if I ate a doughnut.
When I was the Twirl girl I would have rather French kissed a cactus than go to the gym, and I’d never contemplate eating anything that contained less than 90% sugar. If I’m being completely honest this is probably the truest version of myself, yet I don’t ever remember being happy about it. I wanted to be someone who loved eating salad and didn’t have such a compelling aversion to exercise – but the only oxymoron I ever knew was fun run. It left me painfully self-conscious, and ultimately quite miserable. Oh, and I would have ardently detested anybody who claimed to be a gym fanatic.
The stories of these times span an entire decade, and for me they’re the most difficult ones to tell. Whichever mindset I was in, it always contained a lot of negativity and a few too many scary measures taken to be skinny. So it’s quite rightly a sensitive issue.
I keep waiting for the time when I’m in a happy medium, but I’m not quite there yet.
It’s true that I don’t sit around eating Kitkat Chunky’s until I feel like throwing up, just like it’s true that I don’t go to the gym twice a day, six times a week either.
But I still I get jealous when someone eats biscuits on a day when I’ve promised to deprive myself of any food that can’t be categorised as healthy. Equally I still secretly laugh when someone genuinely believes that bread makes them fat.
It means I can’t conclude this with quite the definitive words of wisdom I’d like. When it comes to diets I barely have enough wisdom to fill a single grain of wholewheat quinoa.
But I will say that the one thing I’ve learned in that decade of being at both ends of the dieting spectrum – and just about every place in between – is that dieting is a paradox.
In the sense that it consists of a desire to be healthier, but it ultimately leads to one of the unhealthiest things of all. Whether that be dangerous obsession, or crippling self loathing. It impacts everyone – or at least everyone I know.
I wish I could provide some resolve to that.