I have really struggled to know where to start with this series. It's not that I'm cautious or shy about it. It's that there is so much I want to say about everything. The second I decided I wanted to go ahead and start The Body Positive Diaries I whipped out my phone and tapped out about 20 post ideas on the trot. I want to talk about it all. Dieting, the diet industry, body image, disordered eating, feminism, women's bodies - there's so much I want to write about. Not because I consider myself an ultimate authority on any of it, but because I really believe that we don't talk about any of this stuff anywhere near enough.
But where to begin? I want to cover All Of The Things, but so that these posts make some kind of sense I should probably start with my own relationship with food and what's brought on this sudden need to share. So here we go:
I was very lucky as a child in that my mum didn't make a huge deal out of food. She didn't force me to eat things I didn't like. I was a picky eater who didn't like to try new things, but she didn't push me. Later in life I tried everything so no harm done there.
I was always very perfectionistic with food. I didn't like different foods to touch each other on my plate (like pasta touching sauce etc) and I didn't like to eat 'imperfect' foods like broken biscuits or bruised apples. My Grandma still tells a story about how, as a child, I once refused to eat any of the six chocolate tea cakes she offered me because all of them had barely visible hairline cracks in their domed chocolate tops. This may sound like a bit of a red flag but it honestly wasn't. I was very relaxed about eating, I was just a perfectionist in all areas of life. I remember other children going nuts at birthday parties because they were allowed to drink Ribena and eat ice cream. I wasn't fussed either way because no foods were 'bad' or 'off limits' according to my mum, so I didn't see what the big deal was. I liked ice cream but I also liked garlic and pasta and broccoli. I didn't really see any difference between them.
At school I became a vegetarian. I told people it was because I didn't want to 'kill animals', but really it was because I could not stand being made to eat things I hated. I absolutely hated red meat, but was forced to eat it quite often. Why schools do this is beyond me. I don't know why children aren't trusted to express their preferences in the same way as adults. To this day the foods I dislike the most as the ones I was forced to eat against my will as a small child (cauliflower and ketchup anyone? No, didn't think so). The only way I could avoid being sat in the dining room for hours in front of a now-cold plate of lasagne was to say I was vegetarian. I stayed veggie for ten years. Apart from the occasional bacon sandwich or Sunday Roast, I still don't eat much meat now, because it's just not my fave.
As I reached senior school I started to think about weight and the shape of my body more and more. Unfortunately my teen years coincided perfectly with that stretch of the noughties during which all the tabloids delighted in pointing out celebrity eating disorders on a weekly basis, along with accompanying close-ups of bony torsos. Alexa Chung and Kate Moss were the go-to fashion girls (anyone remember when waistcoats were a thing? Thanks for that Kate). I would have had to have stuck my head in a box and screamed 'la la la my mum said Ribena is fine and what you think is more important than how you look la la la' for 5 years solid in order to avoid that sh*tstorm. As a young teen I would embark on restrictive diets which lasted all of 24 hours before I gave up and defiantly ate a huge stack of buttery toast, reminding myself that Emily Davison didn't throw herself under a horse so I could spend my life trying to be a size eight (The Force was strong in me even then).
One occasion in particular which now makes me sad to remember, is recovering from a nasty infection which had kept me off school for weeks, looking in the mirror, about age 17, and wishing I had been ill for longer so that I could have lost more weight.
There's no getting around it. That story's a bummer. Fear not though, this post has a happy ending (promise).
University and early 20s
This was when my relationship with food really went downhill. Where once I had flirted with the idea of dieting, I now bounced from one restrictive plan to the next, with little or no pause in between. I never had what anyone would describe as an 'eating disorder', and I never lost or gained any significant amount of weight. What I'm talking about here is more disordered thinking than anything else. But disordered thinking is not fun, not inconsequential and not something I think we should accept as normal.
My new-found full blown card carrying feminism protected me from the worst of it, and friends who were less well versed in the patriarchal biases which encourage women to hate their bodies suffered more than I did. But despite all my feminist reading (and youtubing) my self esteem took a nosedive, and a repetitive, exhausting, and entirely joyless pattern started to emerge. I would promise myself I would change my diet, lose weight and improve everything about my life, then feel guilty for betraying my feminist principals, follow my new regime for a period of time during which food and body image would dominate my every waking moment and make almost every mouthful of food a conflicted and stressful experience, and then eventually snap back in the other direction by eating nothing but junk for a few days and not enjoying that either. I did this over and over and over again and it was pointless and awful and a huge distraction from more interesting things, but also just a part of my life like it was so many of my female friends'.
Food adopted a disproportionately lofty position in my life at this time and until very recently, taking up masses of my headspace and looming large over social occasions and important milestones. I remember at my 20th birthday worrying about the calorie count of a slice of caterpillar cake (best cake ever invented just for the record) and cringing at how not-skinny I looked in the photos afterwards (seeing them now it is plain that I looked absolutely boss in a black velvet dress and sheer black tights like a badass 80s backing dancer).
This kind of thinking around food is so normalised though, that this could quite easily have gone on forever. As in, my whole life. No one ever questioned me. No messages ever reached me which said 'you know what, this is not important. You don't have to do this' In fact, quite the opposite.
What's different now
Having gone round and round with dieting for years, sometimes feeling more kind to myself and sometimes less (sometimes a lot less), a few months ago I discovered the Food Psych podcast. It discusses body image, disordered eating, and our diet-obsessed culture from a body positive perspective, and it has honestly changed my life. It sounds cheesy but it is true. It has opened up a world of completely new ideas to me - from body positive activism to health at every size to the concept of 'diet culture' itself - and given me an incredible new set of tools with which to break down my food issues and rebuild my self image. And it's those tools that I want to share with you in this series.
The sad thing is, I know I'm not unique in this experience, and that mine isn't a particularly severe case of diet and media induced body image issues. But that's kind of my point. I want to talk about the struggles we all take for granted, including those of us who don't have 'eating disorders' or anything close. I want to look at the ideas and body image pressures which are mutely accepted as just part of being a woman - look at them, dissect them, discuss them honestly and break them down. Because worrying about food and our bodies constantly, even as a barely audible background hum, is not and should not be a fundamental part of the female condition (praise Jeebus!).
So now you know my story, let's start smashing diet culture to dust. I'll go get my tool box.