Maybe I’m deluding myself but I like to think that my mother’s and my motivations are not the same. Shallow as it sounds, I like clothes and the reality is once you stray above a size 14, you can find yourself in a bit of a style wasteland. Shopping becomes a nightmare because the High Street seems to stop at size 14. I wish I could say I don’t care whether I fit into French Connection trousers or Jigsaw tops but the truth is I do.
My mother is not big on self awareness but, in a rare moment of honesty, she confessed that she equates being fat with being dirty and has done for as long as she can remember. The only time my mum has ever been overweight was during the two years of my dad’s terminal illness, when she devoted herself unsparingly to caring for him. It was the only time in her life that her thoughts have not been dictated by food and the fear of being fat. On the day of my dad’s funeral, the worst part of it for my mum was that she felt overweight. Even now when she talks about it, the day was defined for her by how fat she felt. The day after the funeral, she resumed her starvation diet and was back to her idea of normal within a couple of months.
I have a lot of problems with my mum, primarily because we have nothing in common. If you watch Mad Men, my mum is Betty, which in a way is quite reassuring because it means she’s a type and there are lots of us out there struggling to find meaningful relationships with the person we are supposed to feel closest to. In my mum’s defence, however, she is not alone in this dieting madness. At the hairdressers recently, I read in a magazine how Joan Collins, who is eighty years old, has spent most of her life on a diet of cottage cheese and lettuce. Think of an average eighty year old and I suppose it’s paid off for her but what a very high price to pay. In the same article, it purported that Britt Eckland has brittle bone disease due to a lifetime of dieting, Kim Cattrall has been on a permanent diet her entire adult life and Liz Hurley exists on watercress soup. There’s no denying these are all fabulous looking women and I’m sure they don’t think twice about donning a swimsuit (I’d rather shoot myself through the head) but at what cost?
As I said earlier, you are probably laughing derisively right about now given that I’m on a diet as we speak. It’s a miracle, however, that my sister and I have reached middle age relatively unscathed by the eating disorder regime. All through our childhood, my mum never ate with us and I have vivid memories of cupboards filled with crisp breads and cans of diet soup. When we were children, we pretty much escaped her scrutiny although I dread to think what might have happened had we been chubby children. It’s during adulthood that we haven’t been so lucky. I remember returning home for the first time after being in America for two years and her first words to me were – you’ve put on weight. My sister takes on the characteristics of a rabid beast each time she visits Sheffield when, without fail, my mum’s first comment to her will be weight related.
Recently a doctor has questioned the focus that is currently being placed on obesity in children. He pointed out that statistically just as many children are underweight and this has equally serious health implications that are being ignored. I think I tend to agree with him. Having worked in lots of schools in impoverished areas, the children and indeed parents, tend to be either obese or emaciated. Obviously both of these come from the same source of a poor diet but only one is being addressed. At the same time statistics show that anorexia is on the increase and, a disease which was once associated with teenage girls, now includes growing numbers of males and women over the age of sixty.
It is a complex problem and one I’m certain that we all perpetuate. I buy Vogue magazine every month even though I know that such magazines are part of the toxic cycle. The media constantly bombards us with images of beauty which are almost always linked to being thin. Occasionally we are allowed to celebrate a Beth Ditto but only as a novelty and certainly not for too long. It’s little wonder that young people are confused when they are constantly being fed mixed messages.
There has been a concerted effort over the last few years to make young people feel good about themselves. In schools, whole schemes of work are devoted to positive body image and self confidence. I have friends with daughters who refuse to even mention the word weight for fear of triggering some sort of hypersensitivity. Frankly, I have never seen so many young women happy to expose their flesh regardless of their size. People who are clearly obese are euphemistically labelled curvy thereby dispelling any connotations of poor health. Is this any more helpful than my mother’s hypercritical approach to weight?
I have no answers to any of this, just a nagging fear that as a society we are getting it very wrong. Food has become something so much more than sustenance or even pleasure as we either deny ourselves nourishment or gorge ourselves practically to death. On the day that my mum had her fleeting moment of self discovery, sharing her attitude to food and acknowledging the self imposed misery it has caused, it was somewhat ironic that we were in a cafe at the time. As she sipped her tea and I enjoyed a sausage sandwich, the moment was ruined by the look on her face. She couldn’t have shown more revulsion had I been mainlining heroin at the table
So what is the answer? Why are we all so obsessed with food? Given that there are so many people in the world who are quite literally starving, why can’t we just be thankful that we have enough to eat and celebrate that fact, without eating ourselves to death?