I’m fat. I’ve been fat since the summer I broke my ankle, aged 11, and spent months sitting down eating too many biscuits. I’ve never managed to get rid of the fat and now, about 15 years later I’ve finally accepted that I probably won’t. The problem is, I’ve always been told fat is bad, fat is unhealthy, fat is a problem whether by the media, my friends – or, like more women than we like to admit, by my mother.
This week, The Evening Standard reported comments from a head teacher, who said that parents shouldn’t discuss dieting in front of their children. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. For as long as I can remember, my mum, a plus-size woman, has always commented on other women’s bodies and also my body. I remember my mother telling me she’d reward me with a dog if I could get rid of my “spare tyre” when I was around 13. Fifteen years or so later, I’ve not forgotten it.
Much of my own mother’s behaviour, I’m sure, stems from being unhappy about her own appearance – and it’s no secret that, for the majority of us, when it comes to body image, the media certainly doesn’t help. Until recently, I’d never seen myself represented in culture apart from as the joke fat character. The one who breaks a chair, eats too much and then faces inevitable humiliation. And my mum will have seen the same reflections of herself in popular culture. I suppose she didn’t want me to experience the same things she did. By making comments about my body, perhaps she was, in her own way, trying to protect me. Sadly, it backfired.
Do you know how many times I’ve avoided doing something because I’m scared the chair will break, the rollercoaster won’t work or I won’t be able to fit between the chairs in the restaurant? It’s a lot. Only in the last few months have I seen fat women appear in magazines, fashion shoots and on screen without being ridiculed, or be in relationships with someone thinner than them and not be called out. Being fat threw me into my first and, so far, last relationship, one which, six years on, I’m still recovering from and can’t quite face going to therapy for because I don’t want to dredge it all up. The relationship was an emotionally abusive one which I’ve only recently started to come to terms with. I accepted the relationship I’d been given because I couldn’t believe someone would be interested in a fat girl. That’s what I’d been told.
By making comments about my body, perhaps she was, in her own way, trying to protect me. Sadly, it backfired
Despite the comments I’ve had from my mother, which have remained constant, we have a very good relationship. I don’t resent her. I can talk to her about almost anything. I say almost, because I’ve never spoken to her about how her attitude to my body has made me feel. When I was younger I presumed she was right – I was being told as much by friends (I’ve always been the fat one), magazines, films and TV shows – so it didn’t occur to me to challenge her negativity. Still, it affected me. I shied away from activities, evenings out, standing out. At one point I couldn’t eat in front of anyone. During one difficult time I ended up on pro-anorexia sites looking for inspiration to help me lose weight.
Thankfully, I didn’t find it. Instead, I started to own my fatness and my path. Rather than the “fat” one, I became the funny one in my group, the strongest emotionally out of my friends, the fighter. I learned to define myself in other ways than around how I looked. As I’ve got older, I’ve added things to this list: I’m the grafter, the persistent one, the probably quite tedious feminist.
Now I’m an adult and have accepted myself, I don’t feel the need to discuss my mother’s comments with her. I’ve spoken to her about how sad it makes me when she comments on herself, but now she has two grown daughters I don’t see the point in upsetting her by dredging up the past. I’m a perfectly healthy size 18/20 depending on the store, have fairly stable mental health and am largely happy. However I do wish I’d brought it up with her when I was younger. I'm not sure how much would have changed, but maybe she would have been more careful with what she said around my sister and I.
Because the way we talk about our bodies in front of children has a lasting effect which has the potential to be incredibly damaging. Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are physically healthy, but that doesn’t mean they must be thin. There’s also a huge responsibility to children’s mental health which people only now seem to be taking into consideration. These things can stay with children all through their lives – just look at that “spare tyre” comment. We need to be so careful about how we discuss food, diets and body image around children and teenagers. If you must do so, do it in a constructive way. It matters.