I’ve been on a diet for 18 months now – but it’s OK, I’m not really talking about it.
I’m not talking about it out of embarrassment, fear of being a terrible feminist, fear of being a diet bore and, to begin with, the expectation it would probably fail before you can say, “Dr. Oetker’s pizza on BOGOF”. I’m also not talking about it because nobody is asking me to, because I’ve hardly really lost any weight.
In the get-thin-quick-lean-in-15-drop-a-stone-in-an-hour world of the modern eating plan, we still expect quick results. Nobody starts out on these things thinking, “Maybe, if I manage to stick to this plan, I’ll be half a clothes size smaller in a year and a half!” I didn’t. But I did and I am.
Those I have told – in the sheepish, cough-cough way of one who knows she’s betraying her personal brand or maybe the sisterhood – have looked impressed at first and then disappointed. “Wow, 18 months?” they say. Then they glance me up and down, calibrate it with a mental picture of me 18 months ago, think, “Why bother?” and then they have some more wine.
In the before and after picture of 2015 Me and 2017 Me, you’d be more likely to notice the evolution of my eyebrow-grooming game or the new post-Brexit-&-Trump slump to my shoulders than the fact that my jeans are an inch smaller round the waist and my bra is digging in a tiny bit less round the back. And, to tell the truth, I barely notice it myself. I shouldn’t be surprised, but my new clothes have turned out to be the emperor’s new ones, too. I’m still whirling outfits frantically round my room every morning, still wincing in horror every time I open my phone unexpectedly in selfie mode.
I am, at best, three to five per cent more likely to find a dress I like in Whistles and zero per cent more likely to be able to afford it. No marching band arrived to fanfare me getting a zip up. Not a single paparazzi turned up to capture my bikini debut. It’s been just… fine. I don’t know. Fairly nice? Basically, OK. Not exactly the big reveal we’re supposed to be working towards, us dieters. Not the “Thin Monica at Thanksgiving” moment I dreamed of all those years while I ate fruit for lunch, celery for breakfast or, during three seriously misguided days in teenagehood, baby food for dinner.
I went on my first diet aged eight or maybe nine. I know this because I remember I was sat at the back of Mr Marchant’s Year 5 class, with my half a Marmite sandwich.
Until then, I’d had a full Marmite sandwich – two slices of bread – for my lunch every day, with a packet of crisps, an apple and whatever lunchbox chocolate bar had been wheedled into the Tesco trolley that week. Breakaway or Blue Riband on bad days, a Gold Bar or an Echo on good. But not today. On the day of my very first diet, I decided I’d just have half the sandwich (one slice, folded), half the crisps and half the apple. (Little did I know the Just Eat Half Diet would later be an actual thing, pushed on the internet by qualified web developer and amateur nutritionist Phillip Simon, and briefly in an earlier time by Sandi Toksvig).
That diet didn’t stick and nor did the many, many attempts that followed. Not the diet of my own devising that mainly involved eating Matzo crackers for every meal, until I felt too faint and had a Yorkie, nor the one in Sixth Form where I ate one meal a day, bolstered by six cups of black coffee. I did SlimFast for three days and can still almost taste the three days of synthetic, powdery burps that went with it. My attempt at Atkins dried up in a day and a half, when I’d eaten all the wafer-thin ham in the house and ended up weeping over a saucepan, trying make dinner out of melted cheese, margarine and lettuce.
As a teenage binge-eater, trapped in a perpetual scoff-and-starve cycle, my longest phase of dietary peace came when I went to uni and had to pay for my own food for the first time. Everything I ate, I’d have to replace – and, besides, I was having too much fun to stay at home and eat eight rounds of white toast on a Friday night. I was still eating crap but, for the first time, it tasted like freedom.
It didn’t last though, of course. My twenties brought more diets and more earnest ones – healthy-eating plans “for life”. I did Weight Watchers for a smug month and the sugar-free diet for another, even smugger, but both ended out of boredom and incompatibility with a social life that now involved eating and drinking my way around London’s hot new places, rather than rushing home at 5pm to make a guilt-free Quark lasagne. I juiced. I spiralised. I flirted with veganism. I spent so much in Whole Foods Market on bounce balls and spirulina that I will probably never buy a house.
It’s been the slowest progress in diet history. Brexit will happen quicker than I lost half a stone
Then, finally, I did nothing. I read Fat Is A Feminist Issue in 2013 and followed it with the most radical plan I’d been on since the day before the day of the half Marmite sandwich: two full years of no dieting at all. Just eating what I wanted, following the book’s guidance, trying to feed my cravings and stop when I was full. I won’t say Susie Orbach magically fixed my relationship with food – there would still be binge days, still moments of indigestion and regret – but, in the time it took to read even a couple of chapters, the scales fell from my eyes and everything shifted a little.
Everything except, funnily enough, the scales. Two years of eating pretty much whatever I really fancied (which, it turns out, is sometimes vegetables and not always a Pret brownie) had almost no effect at all on my waistline. Or, if it did, I didn’t notice.
Maybe the story should end there. It’d be neater if it did and definitely more empowering. But it doesn’t, because after that came the diet I don’t talk about.
I felt guilty for having another go at a diet after my two years off and I expected it’d be the same as ever – a determined start, a hard week or two, a sluggish denouement and then a miserable, hungry tumble off the wagon and into a waiting pile of soft carbs. But, no. Instead what happened was a slow, curious plod into a slightly different way of eating.
I don’t know why it stuck this time and I don’t really know why I’m telling you now, because I’m not meant to be talking about it. I don’t know if I’ll keep it up for another 18 months. I’m not even going to tell you which diet it is because I never want to be that wide-eyed evangelist, trying to recruit you for my cafeteria table, assuming that what fits for me would also fit for you. Besides, I’ve barely lost any weight! It’s been the slowest progress in diet history. Brexit will happen quicker than I lost half a stone. Take A Break magazine is not calling me for a cover story.
But the feeling of steadiness, and incremental progress, and appreciating what I’m eating when I’m eating it? That, I like. That’s probably why I’m still going. It isn’t so much the results or even the feeling of success at having finally stuck to something and made it work – it’s just being at peace with food. After 20 years (blimey, writing that just made me shudder) of trying to be a dietary hare, I might finally have accepted life as a tortoise.
Give me another decade and maybe I’ll have the big “ta-dah!” moment – or, more likely, I won’t. More likely, the moment is a myth. Because, while everything else in your life is changing and shifting and whirling too, from your haircut to your happiness to your points of comparison, you will never be the exact mirror image of the person you were a year ago, except thinner. You just won’t.
And I reckon that’s what I’d tell my eight- or nine-year-old self, if I could go back. Not give her the secret code to future diet success, or tell her that she’s failed the sisterhood (while society, let’s be honest, fails her). I’d tell her that the “ta-dah!” moment doesn’t really exist. That there’s a post-diet future if she wants it and it’s fine. Not amazing, just... fine. But she’s just fine as she is then, too. And to eat the whole sodding sandwich.