Wednesday, 16 January 2013

An Obsessive's Guide to Diet and Exercise Part 1

Give me a number between 1 and 47 and I can tell you what I weighed at that age. That's how long I've been aware of my weight - probably not unusual for a woman.

My Mum was 10 when World War II started and 16 when it finished, and rationing carried on for a long time after, so she was used to making do, and used to not having the luxury of large amounts of food. Once rationing was over, she carried on not 'wasting' food, and making up for all those years of small portions. This meant that she'd pile our plates high and insist on us eating it all. To this day, she doesn't understand that food is just as much wasted if it ends up as excess blubber as if it were thrown in the bin. To this day I struggle to leave food on my plate.

So by the time I went to school, I was already fat. Looking back, I don't look horrendous on school photos or anything, but I was probably the fattest girl in my year. I was already large enough that I felt self-conscious in PE, and I noticed I couldn't do things that other children could do - my balance was rubbish, my co-ordination was appalling, and I couldn't run fast. Sports Day was an absolute ordeal. Let's invite all the parents to see Karen come last in every race. Yes, it was character-building. But fuck's sake, I could have managed without having such a bloody big character.

My lack of co-ordination also meant I was rubbish at netball. I still can't reliably throw or catch a ball. I really shouldn't have been surprised my Son has dyspraxia - it's probably inherited from me :-(

By the time I went to Secondary school 'everyone' knew I was rubbish at sport, and that I was fat. 'Everyone' carried on knowing this even though I was pretty good at hockey, actually, and even though during school I lost weight to become like everyone else. By Sixth form I was probably thinner than two-thirds of the rest of my year. But no-one noticed. My nickname was still 'Miss Piggy' (though admittedly this was partly to do with my overly-dramatic tendencies, and my love of a good flounce) and of course, I had been able to abandon any attempt at sport.

I had lost the weight by not eating at school. In theory I took a packed lunch: in practice it was a tomato. I kid you not - my lunch really was a tomato, every day. There was no way to avoid my mother's huge teas, so I decided I'd just not eat in the day - and oh look, it worked!  HOORAY!

I went to physio school weighing just over 9 stone. And it was here that I was introduced to competitive dieting.

I should point out that I am highly competitive. I have this huge urge to be the best - at anything that my attention is drawn to. At school I had to come first in my year in every exam. I knew this wasn't really achievable, but I still aimed for it. 2nd was acceptable, but only if I was mostly first. HOW MAD AM I????

So, here I am in residences with 24 girls my age (18) or thereabouts. In my corridor, there are six of us who are all highly driven. We are all living away from home for the first time, and on a highly pressurised course. Then one of the girls starts dieting. She actually went on to develop anorexia in third year, one of three girls on our course who did (one had to leave because of it, one had a nervous breakdown after finals). But for that first year, when we all jumped onto the dieting bandwagon, I was easily the winner.

I dropped to 8 stone within a few months, on a diet of tea and such delicacies as cereal with yoghurt, egg on Ryvita, and Heinz soup with a potato. There was the occasional salad involved, and at the weekends I would have a mars bar. One a day, and no other food - I would freeze it so it would take longer to eat. I stayed at that weight for most of the rest of those three years, apart from a spell when I was dumped by my first Big Love, when, amidst all the misery, I was overjoyed to reach 7 and a half stone (I'm 5ft 5). I was a size 10 in Chelsea Girl and Miss Selfridge - the size of magazine models at the time (yup, more evidence of how sizes have increased over the years) - I was officially underweight, and this was a HUGE silver lining to the cloud of being unloveable and destined to remain a spinster forever.

At physio school, I also learned I was actually quite good at exercise. This was in the early 1980s, and the Principal of the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital School of Physiotherapy had some strange views on education. She believed that it was good for us to attend something called 'Movement Appreciation' - this was a two hour exercise class, in leotards, every Thursday - an hour of aerobics and an hour of skipping. Yes, skipping. I can synchronised skip. I was good at it - and good at the exercises.

There was also a module where we had to do circuit training for three weeks. I pushed myself hard, and beat my personal best every time. I realised that I have quite an athletic physique - at least the bottom half of me. I only have to think about exercise and my legs get muscly. My gut and arms are a whole other story, always have been.

Off to work in Wales, and I gradually crept up in weight to just over 9 stone again. But then, someone came up with the fab idea of dieting to raise money for charity. I was the lightest person taking part, but I still lost the most weight. Cos you know Monica off of Friends when they played table tennis in the Caribbean? That girl needs to work on her relaxed attitude to winning.

Back down to 8 stone, and stayed there til I moved back to Birmingham. and then my drive to compete was all taken up with working and going out and generally burning the candle at both ends. Always being conscious of my weight tho, cos I was very goth, and proper goths have to be thin. Having excess flesh really didn't fit with the 'Victorian waif dying of consumption whilst on acid' look that I was aiming for at the time.

I remember one day I went into Boots to weigh myself, and came out in tears because I was such a heifer. I was 9 stone 3. Today I literally would have to give my right leg to get there. It seems impossible, I can't imagine what I was thinking. By this time I was living a strange sort of 'binge and starve' life, where I would stop eating for ages, then lose all control and pig out on anything I could find. On the plus side, for the first time in my life, I had joined a gym.

I joined because lots of my friends did, and it was convenient - just down the road from the Accident Hospital. Gradually, everyone else stopped going, but I have no problem at all with self-motivation, so I carried on, for well over a year. I mostly went for the exercise classes, but I did use the weights too, just to fill time. At this time, I wasn't obsessive about my exercise, because I was too busy obsessing about food. The exercise was just something I did to burn calories, something I'd got into the habit of. I also got in the habit of walking home from work (to Moseley), because it was as quick as catching two buses and I loved the scenery - and it burned the calories. I remember feeling resentful of one boyfriend, because he could eat three meals a day, plus a bag of chips and a mars bar, and still be rake thin. I was also resentful because I'd have to wait for him to leave the house before I could stuff my face on a binge. Eating was something I felt ashamed of. I'd live for days on three tangle-twister ice lollies a day (think they are called twister now, still only 80 calories), then undo it all by gorging on the contents of the fridge and cupboards. Or by buying pots and pots of pasta salad and potato salad (hey, it has the word 'salad' in, it must be healthy) and eating the lot. Or by getting enough takeaway to feed two people and eating it all myself. My weight varied between 9 and 9 and a half stone.

Then I changed jobs. I didn't work near the gym, so I stopped going, and I was working in mental health, which meant I was working with people with eating disorders. This really pushed me to sort it out, because I shared a lot of their attitudes to food. I couldn't carry on basically being a bulimic who didn't vomit. Especially as I was now living with the man I would marry. So I eased off the starvation, tried to eat 'normally'.

The weight gradually crept up to around 10 stone, and stabilised there. It's the weight I was when I married at 28. It's the weight I am as I write. That makes it sound like I have been that weight all along - I haven't. The biggest fluctuations and the crazy exercise obsession was still to come - but that will be the next part....

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