Skip to main content

I’ve been on a diet (almost) my whole life

Here are just some of the times I believed I needed to lose weight

This person thought she needed to lose weight. (Me in 2005)

Hello and welcome to this free monthly newsletter from The Shift. If you're already a paying member, thank you. If not, and you'd like to get this newsletter in your inbox every week, plus a weekly culture roundup, access to the archive, community and more, why not become a member?

My name is Sam and I have wasted a large part of my life on a diet. There, I’ve said it. I’m sure I’m not alone – particularly amongst women of my age and stage, which is to say women 40+ who grew up in the 70s and 80s (not to mention the skinny-chic 90s). When you couldn’t move for the F-Plan diet and Jane Fonda in Lycra. When thin was in and calorie-counting was not just the order of the day, it was practically compulsory. It was the age of Nimble and Slimcea (remember them? If not, they were loaves of very small airy slices of “bread” that unsurprisingly possessed very few calories. Like eating cotton wool, although that's doing cotton wool a disservice), Ryvita and Special K's ubiquitous “Can you pinch more than an inch?” ad. I guess it’s a sign of, erm, "good" advertising that despite the fact that society has moved on substantially (depending which way you look at it) I can still quote it and can even catch myself doing it, occasionally. And for the record it is now far more than an inch. 

I’d like to blame the fashion industry and the fact I worked in magazines my whole adult life. That would be easy. But, although the fashion industry can be blamed for plenty of things, in this case, entirely untrue. Because it started way before that. (Although by the same token I can’t say sitting in the front row looking at 7 stone 6 foot Eastern European 16-year-olds for several years helped my sense of perspective. In the space of a couple of seasons I went from thinking those girls were horrifyingly thin and someone should stage an intervention to hardly noticing. Not something to be proud of, I know.)

This person thought she needed to lose weight. (Me, in Paris, in the early 90s.)

But to get back to the point. It wasn’t the fashion industry that started it, it was the warped 1970s world I grew up in. I was wee, probably six or seven-years-old, when I decided I had a big bum. I wasn’t an especially overweight kid but I was definitely not skinny. I was blocky, husky as I later discovered it was called in Gap Kids, meaning, I suppose, still age 7-8 but with an extra inch around the middle. What made that very average freckly ginger six-year-old look at the lanky girls around her, invariably blonde, more often than not never picked last for games, and decide she was fat, I still can’t put my finger on, beyond having already absorbed society’s messages, but she did. And from there on in she/I refused to wear jeans or trousers of any kind. Or even shorts for PE. A pair of stretchy turquoise pyjamas bought from my mum’s John Moore’s catalogue went straight back, not because they made me look like an extra from Star Trek but because my dad made a joke when I came downstairs in them and I decided they too made my bum look big. (Ironic now, since I've barely been out of jeans since about 1995.)

I was in my teens before the dieting started in earnest. (I’ve been trying to think of a word to use other than dieting. Restricted eating? Calorie counting? Disordered eating? Starving?! But dieting, toxic as it may be, is so all encompassing that I think I’ll stick with it. We all know what it means.) I'd spotted my mum's calorie book in the kitchen junk drawer and had been sneaking a look at it for as long as I could remember. By the time I was 12 or 13 I could tell you the calories in pretty much anything. No Google required. (Test me in the comments if you don’t believe me.)

By the time I was 15 I weighed between seven and seven and a half stone (which I thought was too much. I know. It makes me weep now. When nine is an aspiration) and had discovered the power that came with being in control of my body. Cue hollow laughter. 

Unfortunately it also coincided with an unexpected surge in popularity. Previously an unpopular swot, I suddenly had a group of close friends and out-of-the-blue acquired a boyfriend who was captain of the school football team and who I heard some girls muttering in the loos was far too good-looking to be going out with me. (A fact I can't say I ever disputed.) Unsurprisingly I connected the two: I was popular because I was thin! (Instead of the more probable and logical explanation that I no longer had to suffer lessons with the girls who had been making my life a misery and was now grouped with other teenagers taking GCSEs.) But as anyone who’s ever been in thrall to weight loss will tell you (form an orderly queue), the power was not mine. I existed in a twilight world of knowing, somewhere in the back of my head, that I was thin but believing I could be thinner. Or maybe it was the fugue state that came with eating only a Weetabix, Ryvita and an apple before 4pm.

This person thought she needed to lose weight. (Me, starting at Cosmo, in 2004)

I know that sounds extreme, and it was, but remember this was an era when standard weight loss advice advocated 1000 calories tops as healthy intake for an adult woman. It took another couple of decades for anyone to stand up and say, "excuse me, but WTAF?"

This pattern of eating / not eating (let’s call it what it is: bingeing and starving) continued through university and into my so-called adult life. I would give you visual evidence but I have successfully purged all photos of me during that time from my collection.

This was long before emotional eating became a recognised thing, although I'm not convinced that knowing I was alternately eating and starving not because I was hungry but because I was angry or sad or frustrated or powerless would have stopped me doing it. And so. Another 20+ years of constant calorie counting and either being on a diet or “cheating” on a diet. Or in the parlance of 21st century wellness: I spent my entire life on a healthy eating plan. Better?

TBH, whatever you call it, it’s embarrassing to write. I should have known better. I know that. But when does knowing a thing is ridiculous ever stop us doing it?

For over two decades, I eschewed butter. I literally wouldn’t eat the bagel I’d bought for breakfast if it had butter on it by mistake. I know how insane this sounds. (Butter is great! It makes everything it touches taste yummier!) I persistently ate salad without dressing – and yes lettuce does taste like grass without it. The same went for anything resembling a sauce. Chocolate was banned from the house as was everything else fun (except alcohol but that’s a whole other conversation). I rudely mocked the French fashion PR who took me for lunch and, after the meal, produced two squares of chocolate (dark, n’est ce pas) from her handbag to eat with her coffee. And no, she didn't offer to share. Who in their right mind ate two (small) squares of chocolate at a time? Who carried the rest of the bar around in their bag for days and didn’t scoff it? I was a no chocolate or all the chocolate kind of girl. I didn't even think that was strange.

Things began to change when I realised the disproportionate impact scales had on me. That standing on them first thing in the morning could make or break my day before I even left the house, regardless of hormones or anything else.

This person thought she needed to lose weight. (Me – not Lisa Faulkner! – at a Red event 2012.)

The scales went. They’ve been banned from the house ever since. Whenever I found myself in a hotel that had a pair in the bathroom, they’d be outside the door before I so much as unzipped my case. I know that made me the butt of jokes on work trips, but I don’t see the difference between me and the former-alcoholic Editor of a fashion magazine who demanded the mini bar be emptied of alcohol before she arrived. It was bad for her health. Just as the scales were bad for mine.

Anyway, you don’t need scales to tell you if you’ve put on or lost weight. Your clothes do that just as well. And, let’s be honest, a pinching waistband can be just as tyrannical.

The irony is that it was only when my body really got away from me that I managed to break the cycle. After what I call the flesh duvet years – those three/four/five years at the start of perimenopause where weight seemed to go on overnight in places where I’d never had to worry (Back! Below my boobs, bulging round my bra strap! Stomach!). And it’s not because I reached some fateful ideal weight and stayed there. Far from it.

I think more than anything I just got tired. Tired of existing in a constant state of attrition with food. Tired of watching everything I ate like a hawk. Tired of the credit/debit mentality that meant I had to "repay" every time I ate something “bad”. (Bad! What is that about? And who got to decide what was good and bad?) Tired of judging myself on the gap between my jeans and my stomach. Tired of knowing the calories in every single little thing I ate. (I still do, but I try not to let that influence whether or not I eat it. Try being the operative word.)

Frankly I no longer have the energy not to eat a Mini Magnum (almond please) if I want one. We have some in the freezer and I have never once been tempted to eat all six in one go. (Not even two or three.) That's progress for you!

By the time this picture was taken for The Pool about 2018, this person was finally realising how exhausting diet culture is.

It’s only now, well into my 50s, that I truly realise what an utter waste of life those dieting years were. How much energy I wasted thinking about my weight when I could have been expending that energy doing something more important instead. That’s not to say I couldn’t stand to lose a few pounds. That I wouldn’t like to fit into my old jeans (fat chance, quite literally). That I don’t catch a glimpse of myself naked and wince when walking past a mirror. It’s not even to say that I won’t ever go on another diet (I mean healthy eating plan). But what it is saying is that finally, at 56, I no longer spend every waking hour on one.

• Diets, healthy eating plans, wellness... whatever you call it, what's your relationship with food and your body? Let me know in the comments.

If you enjoyed this newsletter and would like to get one every week, why not become a paying member?


Topic long reads