September 6, 2021

“I actually Wasn’t Fat at all”—Ending the Legacy of Food Shame & Self-Hatred.


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“Jo, Jo,

Round as an O,

Where does all

the porridge go?”


This cruel, taunting little rhyme was coined when I was young.

Each time I heard it, I died a little. But, what could I do?

What I did was embark on a lifetime of binge eating, yo-yo dieting, insecurity, and self-hatred. That 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.” 

That was me. As a teenager, I was terrified of meeting new people because 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 actually wasn’t 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 fulfill that 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 genetics), 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. My whole body 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 kilos pile back on, I felt profound shame. Whenever I saw friends, 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 others 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 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.

“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.” ~ Geneen Roth

So sod that f*cking stupid little rhyme. It can’t hurt me anymore. 

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.

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