Thursday, 14 July 2011
Do you remember?
When I talk about my relationship with food and where it all started to go pear shaped, I often tell the story about the summer I turned 11 and my mother stood me in front of the mirror asking me if I wanted to go to the beach 'looking like that'. This was the start of my 20 year dieting career but if I think back there are other episodes that shaped my struggle with food and my body forever. And they go back to when I was even younger.
One such episode which is burned into my memory happened when I was about 6 years old. We were staying with my mother's best friend, P. P is a retired ballerina, she has always been stick thin, obsessed with her weight and bordering on anorexia. She was so controlling about food that she severely restricted what her children could eat. I remember lunches at her house. She would put one fish finger on each plate and then count out the number of peas she doled out to each of us. Yes, she counted peas. I never saw her actually eat anything. My memory of P as a child is of her drinking black coffee and smoking cigarettes all day long. Of course at the time I didn't have a clue what this all meant. I just knew that P was my mum's best friend and that I was always hungry when we went round there.
I remember sitting in P's kitchen on a warm, sunny afternoon. Maybe there was a dinner party planned because my mum had brought with her some strawberries and a big pot of double cream. I love cream and my mum had given me a spoon so that I could eat what was left in the pot. I sat there happily licking the spoon, enjoying the smooth, rich taste of the cream on my tongue. My mother and P were, as usual, leaning against the kitchen counter, cigarette in one hand, mug of coffee in the other chatting away.
At one point, P looked at me and then turned round to my mother and said in a loud whisper: "Well it's no wonder she's so...if you let her eat cream like that!" whilst putting her arms out in front of her belly and puffing her cheeks out in what is the universal sign language for the word 'fat'.
I remember this moment perfectly. I remember how the cream suddenly stopped tasting good. I remember the rush of burning shame that started in the pit of my stomach and flooded my whole body. I remember what felt like a huge, black hole of despair open up in my heart when my mum looked embarrassed and strode over to snatch the pot away from me. I remember suddenly hating my body, wishing I would crawl out of it and go hide under the table.
I was six. A beautiful little girl with dark, glossy hair, big brown eyes and a sunny smile. I was six and ashamed. Ashamed of liking cream, ashamed of my body, ashamed of my hunger.
This is not about pointing the finger and blame. After all, P had her own struggles and was only trying to be helpful. I know she loved me and my mother very much. This is about looking back and understanding how, and by whom, our relationship with food and our body has been shaped. It's about feeling compassion and love for that little girl who 35 years later still feels a pain in her gut when she thinks back to that moment in the kitchen. It's about giving myself permission to eat a whole pot of cream, spoonful by spoonful knowing that it's OK. That I am OK.
What do you remember?