I’ve spent my life trying to change my body – wanting it to be leaner, tighter, smoother. My body was never good enough and that lean, taut, smooth ideal was always just beyond my reach.
As a kid, I thought fat was comical and embarrassing. Thinness brought approval, fatness brought ridicule. Mince was beautiful and admirable. Fat was shameful and isolating. Thin was right; fat was bad. Nobody wanted to be a Ten-Ton-Tessie if you could be a Skinny Minnie. These were the messages from the company, from the advertisement – apparently from the ether – and I believed them.
I went from a skinny kid to a woman always wanting to lose 5 lbs. I joined my first slimming club when I was 20 and in size 10. I didn’t question this desire to be less. I thought not all women were happy with their bodies – it was normal for women to diet, plan a diet, or lament a failed diet. I remember hearing a woman say, “It’s the hunger I can’t stand,” and not finding this deprivation bad or strange in any way.
I thought the weight loss industry was benevolent, there to help me overcome personal failure and help me find the willpower to be hungry to achieve thinness. My favorite read was Slimming Magazine. I spent nights staring at a thin orange. Without realizing it, I had become immersed in the food culture.
Everyday life involved weigh-ins, food lists, calorie counting, no-fat this, low-calorie that. In a fatphobic world, I stuck pictures of fat women on my fridge to scare me and thin women to inspire me.
Over the years there have been occasional suggestions in the media that obese people should be denied elective surgery on the NHS and there have been endless discussions of the ‘obesity epidemic’ . This ties in with the general societal cacophony that “fat = bad, thin = good”.
I was unaware of the body positivity movement until I was 50. I praised their goals of accepting all bodies and centering the voices of marginalized people and applauded the idea of self-acceptance. But after a lifetime of diet culture, that didn’t seem to apply to me.
The pressure to conform didn’t let up with age – it just got harder. After gaining weight in menopause, I joined Slimming World and lost more than a stone. I was thrilled to still be able to club my fit body.
Then I had breast cancer and the shock was total. As I progressed through surgery, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy, I thought to myself, who am I now?
Faced with my own mortality, I wrote my memoir One Body and realized how my obsessive worry, guilt and shame around food had been messed up and that food is not an enemy but a friend. I’m lucky I’m still alive, in remission, and in the privileged position of having a choice of food – and my choice is to never eat a food again based on its caloric value. I choose to leave the body image battlefield behind and appreciate the body I am in right now.
One Body: A Retrospective, by Catherine Simpson, published April 7 by Saraband