On Wednesday, I’m going on a diet. It feels like a weird thing to announce, as strange and unexpected as saying, “I’m taking holy orders!” or “I’ve decided to have hair extensions – in my ears!” I write and talk about body image constantly. Mainly the importance of keeping it positive. As a recovered anorexic, I have a tricky relationship with food, and I know it’s vital for me to stay on an even keel and avoid any activities that could lead to bingeing or purging.
Also, I’m a known glutton. I’ve teared up just remembering the bakewell tart in Scott’s, where I was taken for a 30th birthday treat and dream of returning. Once, I wrote a letter to M&S, asking them to bring back their lobster crisps, although I still haven’t heard from them. When my friend Amy watched me making mac and cheese, she looked at me in awe, murmuring, “I have never seen one human physically fit so much cheese into one dish before.” (I slice up mozzarella and stick it in the bottom, I add mature cheddar to the bechamel and then stir in more once the pasta is in, and I top it with 20 per cent breadcrumbs, 80 per cent parmesan).
To be honest, it’s because of the latter that I’m undertaking the former. I love food, but I need a period of asceticism in order to remind me that I must respect it, too. As Patrick Kavanagh wrote: “We have tested and tasted too much, lover. Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.”
That chink is my mouth and, when the only flavours it recognises are port, stilton and miscellaneous, it’s time to close it for a bit or at least introduce some kale. But I’ve noticed that every "New year, new you!" diet suggestion seems to trigger an equal but opposite reaction on social media. There’s a diet backlash. 2015 was undoubtedly the year of the wellness blogger but, by winter, they had become a source of criticism and ridicule. It started when blogger Belle Gibson admitted that she hadn’t cured terminal brain cancer with a diet of superfoods, because the cancer had never existed. Later, Instagram star Deliciously Stella attracted a following as big as some of the accounts she was satirising with her hilarious parodies of health and diet posts. She’s just announced the details of her "juice cleanse", involving four cans of Fanta.
Going on a diet is, at best, a bit of a “basic bitch” move. You can’t imagine Kate Moss going on a wellness cleanse, unless tobacco becomes a superfood. Consider the Cool Girl, who “jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2”. Effort is desperately unsexy, and effort is even more essential to dieting than a NutriBullet.
Going on a diet is, at best, a bit of a ‘basic bitch’ move. You can’t imagine Kate Moss going on a wellness cleanse, unless tobacco becomes a superfood
This might be why a friend reported that, when a Facebook acquaintance wrote about her own diet plans, the first comment came from a man advising her that she really didn’t need to bother, like Lord Flashheart announcing that he preferred having “something to hang on to!”
In the face of such comments, what are we supposed to think? “Hurrah, my hotness has been externally evaluated; eclairs all round!” Or is the well-meaning commenter missing the point and patronising a person looking to take charge of her life?
Before my wedding, I dieted. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit to, because I swore that I didn’t want to lose my mind, and the mass of my buttocks, just to get into a dress. I wanted to look like me – not someone who would forsake all canapés before she would forsake all others. But I also knew that planning the wedding would be stressful and exacerbate my anxiety. My standard techniques for short-term anxiety management – Sancerre and custard creams – would lead to sugar highs and energy crashes, as well as being bad for my skin and my sanity.
So, I gave up booze, I went to Bikram every other day, I did the 5:2 diet and spent the morning of the wedding wearing stinky trainers, running up and down the streets of Canary Wharf. Being in control of my body helped me to feel in control of my mind. I was project-managing my food intake, and I knew that, although some things were out of my reach, like the venue almost not providing seating for two-thirds of the guests, the way I looked – and the way I felt about it – was in check.
However, when I admitted to some of this (specifically the 5:2 bit), I may as well have announced that the marriage was taking place within a chalk pentangle. One friend forced me to reread Fat Is A Feminist Issue, “or I’ll have to hit you over the head with it". My diet plans became a catalyst for anger. There was no sense of “you do you”, and I felt lonely. Often, it was hard to stick with it, and I could have used sympathy and encouragement, not people telling me I was a silly cow and that I ought to shut up and have a Snickers.
I think that any diet is doomed to failure if it’s inspired by external pressure, particularly when something outside yourself has made you feel small, and you feel like punishing yourself and becoming smaller. However, when the idea of change makes you feel joyful and powerful, you find yourself thrilled by vegetables and vitamins, and you want to taste a beetroot that hasn’t been made into a Kettle Chip, dieting might make you feel great. Ultimately, a diet should positively change the way you feel before it changes the way you look. If people oppose your plans, it might be because their own feelings frighten them. By showing that change is possible, you’ve revealed the end of their comfort zone. But as long as you’re making a choice that makes you happy without being prescriptive about it, you’re doing something wonderful. You do you.