Illustration: Alexander Bertram-Powell
Illustration: Alexander Bertram-Powell

LIFE HONESTLY

Three generations of women who worry about their weight

Is it inevitable that neuroses surrounding food are passed from mother to daughter, even if we do our utmost to avoid it?

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It’s a soggy Sunday afternoon in November and Mum is loading up the lunch plates: roast chicken, peas, carrots, broccoli and potatoes. The men – Dad, my husband, my younger brother – get hearty servings: great slabs of meat, piles of peas and carrots swimming in onion gravy and five chunky roast potatoes. The women get more modest portions: just three golden nuggets for us girls.

Or not "us girls", as it turns out. Three roast potatoes for Mum, still a size eight in her late fifties, and my taut, athletic sister-in-law. But for me – four weeks off giving birth to a daughter and, I admit, roughly the size of the dining table we are seated around – just one little, lonesome tattie.

Because, you know, gestating a baby for eight months is NOT an excuse to look fat. Or, as I snarl at Mum, my inner 15-year-old roaring shrilly out of my mouth, “bloody pregnant".

I demand four more potatoes, eat them in silent rage and vow to myself, again, that I will never, ever let my soon-to be-born daughter feel this anxious about what she eats and what she looks like.

Ha!

Skip to the sweltering summer of 2016 and, having just devoured three Weetabix for breakfast, my perfect, beautiful 10-year-old daughter is badgering me for biscuits. This will be the first in a relentless, daily onslaught of requests, where every couple of hours she demands cake, ice cream or sweets, and my brain vacillates crazily between not wanting to deny her and not wanting her to eat them.

***

How the hell did I get here? Certainly not, I know, by repeating my mum’s behaviour around food. But thought patterns – now they are less easy to manage. And whatever words I am saying to Charlotte*, the anxiety in my head is obviously speaking way louder to my little girl.

Mum’s relationship with food was despotic – she had strict rules and managed her diet with rigid precision. Black coffee with sweetener for breakfast, a light lunch at campus, where she lectured in civil rights, and for dinner, while the rest of us ate a cooked meal, a wedge of cheese or hard-boiled eggs followed by a piece of fruit.

This was because food, while necessary, was also a source of conflict. Too much of it in general, and any of the "wrong" type, would lead to the unforgivable crime of being Fat or, rather, not Very Thin, which in Mum’s world was very much the same thing as Fat. She kept up a frequent, low-level monologue on other women’s weight. Their faces never really attracted her attention, but their bodies were fair game. Anyone over a size 10 was deemed less-than, lazy, deluded (should they dare to wear anything other than a shape-concealing marquee) and undesirable.

Mum sends me to a dietician, who weighs me like a prize cow every week and records my poundage in a little notebook

I was a smart kid. I KNEW this was fucked up. But I FELT like it was true. Whatever I said to the contrary, I also only liked the look of pencil-thin limbs and flat stomachs.

So, although I criticised Mum’s attitude vociferously, as I hit my teens and my body changed I became anxious about food, too. I thought about it incessantly and ate it rebelliously.

Mum watched with obvious distaste and, in response, attempted to control my food intake, managing my portion size at family meals. “It doesn’t matter,” I’d snap. “So what if I put on weight? So what?”

But, secretly, it did matter even to me and, to punish her, or myself, or just through lack of self-control, I ate huge portions of stodgy carbs at school and, when I got home, I’d sneak a box of Mr Kipling something-or-other into my school bag, leg it to my room and scoff the lot reallyreallyreallyfast so I didn't have time to exercise self-control. A whole box – five or six cakes – in one five-minute sitting!

The week before my 16th birthday, I was in the bath, while my best friend perched on the loo, discussing the night out we had planned. This was Manchester in the mid 90s, so "legal drinking age" and, for that matter, "legal nightclub entry age" were not going to be an issue. What to wear, on the other hand, was definitely worthy of concern.

Enter Mum, to ask what I want for my birthday. “I’m not going to get you clothes, because… you know,” she said, glancing very pointedly at my body.

“But I have nothing to wear this weekend,” I wailed. To which Mum responded, “Well, don’t eat so much.” Then, more gently: “I can’t lend you anything of mine, because you’ll stretch it.”

It shouldn’t be relevant, but I was 5ft 4in and a size 12. Again: I KNEW I wasn’t Fat. But I FELT like I was. Pin-thin limbs only, remember…

Mum sends me to a dietician, who weighs me like a prize cow every week and records my poundage in a little notebook. “Oh dear,” she says sympathetically if I have gained weight. “What happened?” I am given a little notebook of my own, in which I am to record everything I eat and drink, and after weigh-in, she will read it with sighs and frowns and eventually smiles.

I lose weight and Mum "helps" by maintaining a hawk-like vigilance over me at meals, which doesn’t silence any of the voices in my head. So when I leave home for university, I toy with bulimia to manage my inevitable weight gain.

Eventually, thankfully, a career, love and an awareness of more important things reconfigure my priorities, so my relationship with food – although I still eat very fast and still crave carbs and sugar – normalises. At least I think it does. Then I give birth to a daughter.

***

I remember reading a survey of teenage girls, which correlated their body images and dietary habits with those of their mums. Unsurprisingly, the daughters of women who dieted regularly had much lower body esteem. So, when Charlotte was born, I was determined she have a different, better upbringing. My strategy, loosely translated as Do Everything Different To Mum, was as follows:

I never diet.

I never, ever dissect my own body size or shape, or any other woman’s – either to praise or to criticise.

I don't watch "lifestyle" TV talk shows, or read horrible body-shaming celebrity magazines (not just for Charley’s sake – I really can’t bear them).

I don’t even own weighing scales, so she doesn’t witness me monitoring my kilos, and when I talk about food with her, it’s always in relation to health – which foods make you stronger, faster, smarter.

When explaining why she can’t have a second slice of cake, I reference her teeth and her health, not her size.

I have even banned my mother from using the word “diet” in Charley’s presence and, to be fair, I think she has done as I asked.

And yet, and yet… my little girl has food issues. I’m not entirely sure what they are, or WHY they are, but what she eats and how much she eats has become our battleground. Yes, it’s normal for kids to want cake, and a responsible parent needs to stop him or her from eating too much of it. But I have never seen a child want cake as much as my Charley. Ever since she was three, she was the kid at the party ignoring the fun and games to hover by the kitchen door, waiting for the cake to come out.

This has got to be my doing – it’s hardly going to be a coincidence that a mother desperate to have a child with a healthy relationship with food has the child with a noticeably dysfunctional one.

All I wanted for Charley was that she not care about food – that she eats it because she is hungry, and enjoys it because it is delicious. But to ingrain that attitude in her I, of course, need to model it for her. And I can’t. I mean, how do you learn NOT to care about something you care about so deeply?

I came up with my food and body-image strategies with good intentions, but now I can see just having bloody strategies is hugely dysfunctional. Even though I have never told Charley about them, or my own crazy upbringing, she is also not a stupid kid and has probably picked up on it.

There’s also the wider world to deal with. Charley doesn’t look like other girls her age. She is ridiculously tall (over 5ft 3in with size-six feet, at just 10) and strong with it. She was never little and birdlike, like her friends, always a strapping girl who looked four years older than her peers. She began to notice it at when she was just seven, after some little charmer at school told her she had a fat tummy (let’s not go there with what I want to do to THAT kid).

My little girl has food issues. I’m not entirely sure what they are, but what she eats and how much she eats has become our battleground

I tried to diffuse it by brushing it off: “Charley, you are gorgeous. Don’t listen to that rubbish. And can I tell you a secret? [I drop my voice to a whisper] The girls who worry about that stuff are the really boring girls.”

I felt pretty smug about that for a while – I had been breezy, I didn’t make it a big deal, I implied body consciousness was for losers… no way my kid was going to think tummy size mattered. But then I noticed Charley would only wear loose clothes; I caught her tugging down her T-shirts or tucking them into leggings so they didn’t ride up. Instead of reassuring her, I’d just made her feel embarrassed for caring. My poor girl.

So now, if she mentions the F word, I just refer her body back to her health: “Do you eat lots of fresh, healthy food and play lots of sport? Then your body its beautiful.” I’ve explained all bodies are different by the time we grow up and that she is just growing up faster than her friends. And I talk about famous women she loves. “Look at Jessica Ennis-Hill, Charley. Serena Williams. Look at Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Do you think Beyoncé worries about her bottom? Does she hell. She’s Beyoncé!” It works for a while, but the fight over food rages on.

At one point, I actually decided to leave the battleground altogether, just letting her eat what she wanted, based on the idea that denying her the crap must make her want it more. Maybe it would have worked over a long period of time, but I threw in a towel after a week, having watched Charlie at a party eat – along with the usual sweets, crisps and sandwiches – eight cupcakes. Eight.

I have even called numerous eating-disorder helplines. No, I explain each time, my daughter isn’t anorexic or bulimic. Yet. I’m just looking for advice on how to stop her binge-eating, without giving her an eating disorder. You’d think there would be advice for anxious parents with their own hang-ups, but I haven’t found it yet. Generally, I am just told to regulate what she eats and don’t mention her size. Yep, thanks, I hadn’t thought of that.

So, these days, I just try not to say yes or no too often, and always suggest a healthy alternative. I tell her she is smart, funny, kind and beautiful all the time. And I try not to think too much about the fact that I am a mum who is watching what her daughter eats, panicking about her feeding habits and trying to stop her going overboard. Because I know where that leads…

*Names have been changed

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Illustration: Alexander Bertram-Powell
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long read
Body image
food
Diets

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