Fat, thin, fat, thin…oh bugger it…just me

Fat, thin, fat, thin…oh bugger it…just me

As The Light in the Darkness begins distribution I am, with some relief, beginning to turn my attention to other subjects. Specifically, I am starting to look at what it means to live large in a skinny world. This is a bit of a crossover piece, in that there are some cancer reflections embedded in there; it’s hard to escape.


A version of this appeared in Elephant Journal, but with all mention of my father and my family omitted. This was necessary, but I feel no such constraint here. My father is an integral part of the story, and the meaning behind it.

Jo, Jo,

Round as an O

Where does all

The porridge go?

 This cruel, taunting little rhyme was coined by my father when I was just four years old. Yes, only four! It became part of our very dysfunctional family culture. My father would trot it out whenever he found a new audience, always with the same self-satisfied, smug little smirk. And each time, I died a little. But aged four, what could I do?

What I actually did was embark on a lifetime of binge eating, yo-yo dieting, insecurity and self-hatred. His crappy, malicious little rhyme was prophetic, and I have spent a lifetime fulfilling it.

Over the years I have tried everything: Eat Fat, Grow Thin, Atkins, meal replacements, juice fasts, a breakfast diet…need I go on? I also discovered Geneen Roth, author of Breaking Free from Emotional Eating and many other books delving ever more deeply into the psychology of food and eating. I soaked all this up, but somehow embraced the freedom without ever quite reaching the breaking free point.

In Women, Food and God, Roth wrote:

“When you believe without knowing you believe that you are damaged at your core, you also believe that you need to hide that damage for anyone to love you.”

(from Women, Food and God, p.82)

That was me. As a teenager, I was terrified of meeting new people; I thought they wouldn’t like me because my legs were fat. My only criterion for buying clothes was that they shouldn’t show the bulges, they should hide my shape, indeed hide my Self, and somehow make me acceptable.

Impossible much?

I look at pictures of my younger self now and realise that I wasn’t actually fat at all. If only I’d known. If only someone had reassured me that I didn’t need to change to be loveable. Or even just accepted. But no-one did, so I just carried on eating and dieting, eating and dieting, trying to fulfil my father’s sh*tty little rhyme.

Imagine my joy when, upon receiving my cancer diagnosis, I was given a drug that would likely cause weight loss. One of the potential side-effects was anorexia. My much younger half-sister died of anorexia (yes, we shared the same father), so I knew this was no small thing. But it would be years, I reasoned, before I needed to worry about it. And my life expectancy was only four years, so go figure.

As I watched the kilos fall off I felt proud. Imagine! I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, yet I was still obsessing over this profoundly unimportant transformation. I shrank from a size 20 to a size 14. Despite the fact that it was none of my own doing, that I undertook no heroic feats of self-denial, the pride persisted. What a distortion of right priorities!

Then, about six months after I was supposed to have died, this miracle drug stopped working. Over the course of a few weeks, my skin started peeling off in strips, I was the colour of a tomato, and my lips became so dry I couldn’t form my words. I worried that the weight loss might stop.

My new drug made me miraculously well, with abundant energy and glowing, smooth, healthy skin. But it also restored my appetite.

I ate as if to fill myself up before the world ran out of food. I ate to make up for five years of being unable to eat more than a few mouthfuls. I ate good food and junk food. I loved it. I hated it. I couldn’t stop.

As I watched the kilo is pile back on, I felt profound shame. Whenever I saw people I felt the need to explain the fat away. Explain that it was the drug, not me. Explain that the disapprobation I expected to feel from them was undeserved.

But of course there was no disapprobation. What people saw was a woman who looked healthier than she had for years. A woman who was carving out a new career in journalism, aged 62. A woman who was publishing her first book. What I saw was  a woman who yet again had failed life’s greatest challenge. The kilos were back. Once again, I was a fat woman.

How crazy. How ridiculous. How very, very sad.

This is where the voice of reason finally asserts itself. Maybe for the first time ever. I am living on a dying planet in a global pandemic, and I have an incurable cancer. So food is a weighty issue (pun intended)—the health of myself, my world and my planet depends upon it.

Today, I eat according to the dictates of my conscience. My food choices are informed by animal welfare, food miles, emissions and nutrition—in no particular order. This feels as if I am finally establishing some dominion over my life. Through my small contribution to the health of the planet, and my larger contribution to the health of my body, I am beginning to feel worthy. And—effortlessly—I don’t overeat.

 Geneen Roth wrote:

“You are not a mistake. You are not a problem to be solved. But you won’t discover this until you are willing to stop banging your head against the wall of shaming and caging and   fearing yourself.”

(from Women, Food and God, p.84).

So thanks Dad, but sod your f***ing stupid little rhyme. It can’t hurt me any more. I hope that wherever you are now, you are looking down and feeling some remorse for your thoughtless words.

And I hope that someone, somewhere, will read my words and put the legacy of their own unkind  little rhyme behind them, without needing to spend 62 years working it out.

4 Replies to “Fat, thin, fat, thin…oh bugger it…just me”

  1. All that pain, when all we see is a very talented, positive, loving person. Thank you for sharing such an honest account of something you have had to endure your whole life.

  2. I always wondered about that little rhyme we chanted when we were kids. Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me. It’s not true, is it? Words can either harm or heal. We need to be so mindful of how we speak, especially to children. Fantastically raw, fantastically real! Thanks Jo.

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