Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘diet’

Sugar and spice and all things nice…

My daughter is 4 years old. Because of her age she receives a free drink of milk at school each day; once she turns 5 DH and I will have to pay if we wish this to continue (only 22p a day as it’s subsidised). I don’t know what the take-up rate for this is but today the company that provides the milk (Cool Milk) held an assembly at the school. From what DD tells me it was a fun assembly with singing and a bit of dancing. At the end of it each child was given a sticker to wear and a booklet was put in their bookbags for them to take home. The booklet had a comic strip in as well as a quiz, poem etc.

However, at the back of the booklet was this:

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Now, you and I know that too much sugar isn’t good for us. And I’m all for encouraging healthy eating in childhood. But do 4 year olds really need to be worried about how much sugar is in their drink? That’s for parents to worry about, surely? As a result of reading this booklet DD is now convinced that consuming sugar will make her fat. DH and I have tried to reassure her, explaining that our bodies need sugar for energy and that some sugar is ok. This is the stance that we’ve always taken, that everything is ok in moderation, but I don’t know whether we’ve reassured her or not.

I’m livid about this. Children live in a society where appearance is valued above all else and this has enough of an impact on them. A survey carried out last year by GirlGuiding UK found that 71% of girls aged 11-21 would like to lose weight and that a fifth (a fifth!) of primary school girls have been on a diet. I have no doubt that similar pressures are felt by boys as well, though probably to a lesser degree. Children need to be encouraged to value who they are as individuals, to value substance over appearance, and yes they do need to learn about healthy, nourishing food. However they do not need to be fretting at the age of 4 about whether what they eat and drink is going to make them fat. They certainly don’t need to be told things like that by a company who are merely trying to increase their profits by encouraging children to keep drinking their milk. (I concede that there may be a genuine desire here to help and educate children stay healthy but my cynicism leads me to suspect that money is the overriding concern).

Statistics from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show that in 2010/11 more than 6,500 children were treated for eating disorders (up from 1,718, in 2007/8). This includes 79 who were less than 10 years old when they began treatment, and 56 children who were aged 5 or under. Of course the causes of eating disorders are many and nuanced, but idiotic marketing ploys like Cool Milk’s certainly aren’t going to help matters.

I appreciate that these children are far from the norm, and I also realise that I may be over-reacting a touch here. But I was one of those children who don’t make it into the HSCIC’s statistics, the ones who have an eating disorder but remain undiagnosed. I’m not sure when it began but I clearly remember secretly bingeing at the age of 7, gorging on any kind of food I could lay my hands on. I also remember tightening the belt on my school dress until I could barely breathe, convinced that I was fat. I don’t want my children to walk the same path as me and if that makes me over-sensitive to things like this booklet then so be it.

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How to get the perfect body

You can tell it’s the start of a new year when the supermarket shelves are groaning with books on how to lose weight, and every other television advert seems to be for yet another weight-loss company. Social media becomes overrun with people discussing how much they hate their bodies and their preferred methods for that miracle fix. Magazines, especially those aimed at women, feature photographs of celebrities who dare to be less than airbrushed perfection at all times (for a great article about this phenomenon have a look at this post by my fabulous friend Pols).

I’m not immune to all this hysteria – in fact, as an obese woman with an eating disorder I’m very sensitive to it. I too hate my body and wish that I could magically transform it into a shape that I, and society, deem to be acceptable. Over the years I’ve probably tried most of the well-known diets, and although my spinal problems limit the amount of exercise I’m capable of that doesn’t stop me poring over fitness magazines, desperate to find a way to change my appearance.

But do you know what? These companies who promote their diets and weight-loss plans make millions, if not billions of pounds in profit from people like me. Because inevitably dieters fail (there’s a great discussion of the reasons for this here). But our society is so obsessed with bodily perfection that even knowing this, many of us continue to try new diets. Because we know that if we just try that little bit harder, obsess a little bit more and deprive ourselves of an assortment of foods, we can get the perfect body that society requires us to have. And then we’ll be happy…

Absurd isn’t it? And this kind of attitude is considered normal! But over the years I’ve come to realise that although it may be normal it certainly isn’t healthy. I have children now and I’m very careful not to talk negatively about my body when they’re around. They don’t even know that I have a set of bathroom scales, let alone see me use them. We don’t talk about good foods and bad foods but about foods giving you energy; some give you energy that lasts a long time and some give you energy that your body uses up quickly. My children (currently aged 4 and 2) don’t care what their bodies look like, only that they work. Sometimes that involves running, sometimes jumping around, sometimes climbing and sometimes contorting themselves into positions rarely seen outside a circus!

It’s dawned on me of late, as I’ve become increasingly irritated and impatient with the avalanche of body-hatred on social media, that we should all try to be more like this. After all it’s not what your body looks like that’s really important but what it can do. And I’m not just talking about physical activities either but the things our bodies do that we take for granted. Our bodies breathe, they give us information about the world around us, they absorb nutrients from our food and expel toxins. The majority of us are fortunate enough to have bodies that are pretty functional, enabling us to walk and talk, to think and feel physical sensations.

So to hell with the obsession about physical appearance. Yes, we should all eat as well as we can and exercise as much as we’re capable of in order to keep fit, but the perfect body is the one that enables you to do as much as you want to. While the popular “real women have curves” trope helps women larger than the ideal to feel more positive about themselves, it does a disservice to the hordes of women who don’t have curves. They’re just as real and just as prone to hating their bodies as their larger sisters.

The perfect body can be fat or thin, tall or short, apple-shaped, pear-shaped, in fact pretty much any shape! What I (and you, if you’ve been nodding along in agreement) need to do is start to respect our bodies. Ok, so my body is flabby and wobbly and parts of it don’t work as they should but it’s the only body I’m ever going to have. It’s sustained me for almost 33 years and hopefully will continue to do so for many decades yet to come. I have no wish to lie on my deathbed, looking back on my life and desperately wishing that I’d spent less time hating my body and more time using it to enjoy myself.

On being fat – a revelation

I first remember being unhappy with my body when I was about 7. I remember standing in the playground at school and cinching the belt on my dress as tight as it would go so that my stomach wouldn’t look so fat. I remember spending the rest of my school years miserable that my thighs were fatter, my bum was bigger and my stomach was more wobbly than most of the other girls. I remember being at university and feeling like a balloon next to my slender friends. But the stupid thing is that looking back, seeing photos – I was never fat. Not as a child, not as a teen, not as a student. I was built differently but I wasn’t fat.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have struggled with disordered eating and weight gain for many years. My most recent post was about how much I dislike myself. But some of the responses I had to that post really made me think. I had a lot of supportive comments from followers, Mumsnetters and Twitter friends; I was linked to a couple of amazing and inspirational blogposts about being fat and the fantasy of being thin. And as a result, over the last couple of days I have had a bit of a revelation.

Firstly, how I look isn’t the most important thing about me. It doesn’t even come second or third. It baffles me that I have let this define me for so long. As Georgina (the author of the “Being Fat” blogpost I linked to) says “I have fat on my body, but I am not fat – a mere lump of the stuff”. And she’s right. I have fat. I also have muscle, skin, nerves, bones – that just tells us that I have physical form. It says nothing about me, about who I am.

Secondly, my body is pretty amazing. In my younger days before the degenerative disc disorder really kicked in, this body was very flexible and I did a lot of dancing – mostly ballet, jazz and contemporary modern. This body has done bungee jumps, white water rafting, a skydive. It has carried and borne 2 babies. This body has been solely responsible for sustaining those infants until they were ready for solid food, and then continued to supply sustenance for as long as was needed. This body is awesome, despite its structural issues. 😉

The third part of my revelation was that while my body may be fat/big/obese/however you want to put it, it is merely incidental to who I am. I need to stop saying “I am fat” and start saying “I am me”. I am Sam. I am kind, friendly, intelligent and frankly a bit daft. I am a woman; a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister. I am a graduate, a stay-at-home-parent, a role model. I am so many different things that I can’t list them all – why then should I focus only on my physical appearance?

That appearance has to do with the fourth and final part of this revelation of mine. For the last 15 years I have been trying to lose weight. I have followed exercise plans and all kinds of diets. I have promised myself that I will be more confident when I am thinner, that I will be more outgoing and that I will be happy with how I look. I now realise that unless this weight loss comes with a free personality transplant these things are very unlikely to happen. I have wasted 15 years being miserable about my appearance. I don’t want to waste any more time; I don’t want to lie on my deathbed and look back on a lifetime’s misery about a few extra inches.

I need to stop wishing for a body that I am never going to have and learn to be comfortable in the body I have. I do need to eat more healthily and tackle my disordered eating, and hopefully that may have the side-effect of losing a little weight but you know what? If it doesn’t that’s ok.

I am what I am. And I am fabulous.

My big fat problem

I was always a very active child – dashing all over the place, climbing trees, cycling, digging holes. I took numerous dance classes including ballet, jazz and contemporary modern. I was a Brownie and then a Girl Guide (as they were known then) and loved the camping, wide games and hikes. In my first couple of years at university I did a lot of extreme sports including skydiving, white water rafting and bungee jumps.

When I was 15 I started getting occasional twinges of pain in my lower back. By 17 I’d had to stop dancing. By 20 I needed to use crutches every now and again. At the age of 23 an MRI showed that I had 2 prolapsed discs in my lumbar spine. I was told that surgery was not an option so I tried all sorts of treatment, from painkillers and pain management clinics to various kinds of physiotherapy and acupuncture. Nothing helped and I was starting to gain weight.

It didn’t bother me too much. I was still fairly mobile and active and although my pain was constant I was able to ignore it most of the time. However as I got older my mobility decreased and my pain increased. By the time I was 26 the only exercise that didn’t exacerbate the pain was swimming and walking. So I did those; I swam twice a week, a mile each time, and walked whenever possible. Still my mobility gradually decreased though, and my girth increased.

I am now 32. I have been diagnosed with degenerative disc disorder; I still have 2 prolapsed discs but now my lumbar vertebrae are calcified as well. I use a walking stick most days or crutches if it’s really bad. And I am obese. Really, properly obese – about 5 stone over a healthy weight (according to BMI). I’m seeing a spinal surgeon next Friday and I know that one if the first things he’ll say is that I need to lose weight (as though anyone could be this fat and not realise!).

But how do you lose a large amount of weight when you can’t exercise? By eating less and eating healthily, of course. But (there always seems to be a but and I feel like I’m just making excuses) I can’t afford lovely healthy food and my mental illness is yet another hurdle. I comfort eat when I am stressed, unhappy, tired or in pain – so a lot. The psychiatrist who recently diagnosed me with cyclothymia and generalised anxiety disorder also said that I am a compulsive binge-eater. I merely nodded my head in agreement – I’ve been like this since childhood.

I know what I need to do. I need to stop bingeing, eat less and try my hardest to exercise when I can. And at night I lay awake plotting how to do this – I’ll only snack on fruit, I’ll eat mints when I get the urge to binge, I’ll stop baking with DD for a while, I’ll really cut down on portion sizes. Hopefully as I lose weight my pain may decrease, allowing me to exercise more.

But the next day I wake up and my first thought (after “Why is my 16 month old blowing raspberries on me at six in the morning?”) is always of food. I think about it all day. I think about what I want to eat, what we actually have to eat, whether I can bake anything today. While writing this I am mentally going through the kitchen cupboards to see if there’s anything I can snack on. I am obsessed with food and I have very little self-control. I know people who can open a packet of biscuits, eat one or two and put the remainder in the cupboard. I admire these people with something akin to awe. Because I can’t – I have one more, and one more, and one more, and then they’re gone. This applies to any junk food – sadly not to anything helpful like fruit!

I know what I need to do but I self-sabotage. You know the cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other? That’s me. I am constantly torn between what I know I should, must and need to do, and what my treacherous bingeing self wants me to do.

I can’t carry on like this. I am in constant pain, I struggle to lift and play with my children, I can’t remember the last time I cuddled up to DH on the sofa because it just hurts too much. I don’t want to have this relationship with food any more but I don’t know how to change. I don’t know how to quell the demon and let the angel win for once. I don’t know how to not be this person.

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