I’m not sure when it began. I remember being high on self-esteem right through my happy, happy childhood. I think it was when I was about 13 years old, and put on my slender, elder sister’s short, sleeveless dress, supremely confident that it would look as good on me as it did on her. But it didn’t. Staring into the mirror, disappointed and confused, I realised that I had unsightly little bits of fat bulging out of the dress. I saw, with sudden, supreme clarity that my arms were thick, my legs sturdy, my nose lumpy, my lashes scanty, my cheeks grotesquely swollen and my collarbones non-existent. I stopped eating that day.
But not for long, because I loved food too much. So then I ate. And felt miserably bloated. My weight was just a little above the 50-kilo mark, which at 5ft 2in was no big deal — but when I looked in the mirror, there was that fat girl, uncool, lumpy, undateable.
After a few years of feasting, fasting, being miserable and still looking so faaat, I heard on the boarding school network that there was a way in which you could have your cake and not eat it too. And so began the mindless, lifeovertaking cycle of binging and purging.
How did I get out of it? Naomi Wolf hadn’t written The Beauty Myth yet. There was no counselling for such issues, no kind school psychiatrist to talk to, no sensational stories about Karen Carpenter, Princess Diana or Demi Lovato. Girls those days were on their own against the merciless onslaught of Pamela Anderson’s pneumatic assets, Jennifer Beals’ super-toned dancer’s butt and Jane Fonda’s 40-year-old, 18-inch thighs
God help us!
And He did.
The other thing that helped was knowing, deep inside, that I was harming myself. What I was doing was wrong. After that, it was just about taking a simple decision.
Enough. This has to stop. Now.
It wasn’t particularly dramatic. (And there was a lot of back-sliding.) It definitely wasn’t 127 hours or the siege of Sparta. I know there are much bigger triumphs in the history of the world than one privileged, middle-class Indian teenager beating the voice in the head that’s calling her fat.
But for me, it was a big deal. Every new day of healthy eating proved to me that I was strong, worthy, in control, not-about-to-disintegrate and, finally, on one sudden, miraculous day, beautiful.
That’s how it always plays out in real life. You just have to decide. Breaking up with a married boyfriend, kicking an unhealthy addiction, beating a defeatist attitude or negative spiral of thinking. You recognise and admit that what you’re doing is wrong and then you go about fixing it. Get help if you need it, and can afford it. Or go it on your own.
I don’t count those three grim years spent mindlessly counting calories as a waste. I learned something more than just the calorie count in seven shelled green peas and one pellet of Chiclets chewing gum. I learned that I could come back from the brink and regain control of my internal thinking process. I could make a decision and stick to it. I could show my brain who the bloody boss was.
Worse things have happened to me, since. I’ve had some spectacular failures at work, friends have been (to put it mildly) not-so-friendly, children have fallen ill. There have been some dark days. But the memory of that first early victory, won all alone when I was still a teenager, has stayed with me ever since — the comforting, cocky conviction that hey, if I could pull myself out of that, I can pull myself out of anything.
As far as the whole ‘looks’ thingie goes, I don’t feel I’m fat anymore. Well, not fatter than the next woman, definitely. I have gained that all-important thing on this stupid (but vital) issue — perspective.
Apologies for ending with a cliché and a truism, but then, truisms are truisms because they’re er… true. Mind is stronger than matter, especially when channelling Divine help. And what doesn’t kill you does make you stronger.