If you look closely among the stones, you can see me running. This photo was taken on the eve of my 37th birthday. I was on a tiny island off the west of Ireland, surrounded by sea and limestone, with the vast sweep of the Atlantic ocean before me, and a storm coming in from the west.
When I was a child I was very small. Short, always sporty, often more like a baby bull than a little girl. When I had my long hair cropped on a whim, aged 11, I was always mistaken for a boy. I have many memories of enjoying endurance activities. I walked with my father along part of the Appalachian trail in summer, and dreamed about walking for ever, not just for a few hot hours. I cleared out a barn full of animal droppings and old straw, filling barrow after barrow, enjoying the feeling of achievement to see it cleared, and loving that my muscles ached with use. I would eschew the bus and walk miles, back in those innocent times when children were so much more free than they can be now. I adored my school cross country run, which was hated by most of my friends. I loved it, and with no training at all, would happily run the 10k (ish) course and revel in my tiredness at the end. On the track, I ran the 1500m for my school (the longest distance we were allowed), and developed a deep fondness for athletics tracks. I would swim until my arms ached, telling myself stories as I went up and down the green tinged, salt water pool of my childhood summer holidays.
Awareness of my body and its defects came early. I don’t know why, or what prompted this change. I was doing ballet. We had to wear pink leotards with a pink elastic “belt” around our midriffs. Suddenly, I was aware of the pressure of the belt around my belly. I held my child’s stomach in and got praised by the ballet instructor for my improved posture. That evening I had a stomach ache and refused dinner. I can’t have been more than 9. Suddenly one summer I decided to refuse the ice cream cone my grandfather always bought for me. I remember well that the act of refusing the ice cream, when I knew I wanted it, felt good to me, made me feel strong and grown up. Refusing it “tasted” better than eating it. I touched my pre-pubescent stomach and willed it to be smaller.
Where did I learn these things? I find it hard to understand where this way of thinking came from. One day I was a normal little girl, eating chocolate when I was hungry, not eating when I was full, totally unaware of how I looked. My body was just a body, for playing and running around and swimming. The next day my body was something outside of me, that had to be controlled. I grew up in Ireland, at a time and place where food was utilitarian and unremarkable. We ate typical 1980s dinners of pork chops, boiled potatoes, frozen peas. Treats were 5p chocolate bars or penny sweets. Portions were small, and my mother, who, unlike her own mother or sister, has never been overweight, was careful not to serve too much. But she didn’t talk about dieting, or express discontent about her own figure. My aunt and grandmother were both very large. My family spent every summer with them in America, and food there was very different. Portions were so much bigger, and the food tasted nicer. Ice cream, crisps (potato chips, as they were called there – so different from the small packets of cheese and onion Taytos we got in Ireland), hot dogs as long as my forearm, battered onion rings, sandwiches piled high with pastrami and swiss cheese. Perhaps it is no coincidence that my first awareness of the perverse pleasure of refusing food came while in this land of abundance.
In secondary school, I became adept at skipping lunch. Sandwiches rotted in my school locker. I would eat an apple and have a mug of instant coffee instead. At home, starving, I would sneak a lump of cheese, cut it up into tiny squares, and eat them on my bed while reading novels. I preferred my squares of cheese to my lunch, so my deal with myself was that I could not have both. I rode horses, and would spend all day at a competition without eating a thing, and congratulate myself for getting through the day. But when home I would sneak a fistful of raw egg noodles, run them under the bathroom tap, and eat them in my room.
I got a boyfriend who was not very nice. He would poke me in the soft part of my stomach and comment on what I was eating. But I had already internalised the dislike of the body that causes you to divide yourself up into good bits and bad bits. Good: lower legs, arms, bum. Bad: stomach, thighs, face. In reality, I have never been fat. I am exactly the same clothing size at 37 that I was at 16. Nor was I ever anorexic. But I have never had a healthy relationship with food. I would always do deals with myself: skip this meal and you can have that meal without the guilt.
I watch people with great envy. They can go into a coffee shop and have a danish pastry, or a muffin, just because they fancy it. I have never been able to do that. I can’t even imagine doing that. If I am hungry, unless it is at a time of day where I have deemed it ok to eat, I must stay hungry. If I am hungry and I eat more than I feel I should, especially on days where I haven’t exercised “enough to deserve my food”, the guilt floods in. I look at my body, which is strong and toned, and, if not thin, certainly athletic, and voices in my head tell me that my stomach is “disgusting”, it is “not good enough”. Even though I know I am healthy, part of me always wonders, if I could just manage to eat a bit less than I do, if I could manage my hunger better, how thin could I be?
This is not something that is easy to discuss. Especially because I’ve never had a clinical eating disorder. I have on occasion had bulimic moments, but luckily I did not allow those impulses to get out of control. Exercise became my way of allowing myself to eat. Because I like eating, the more exercise I do, the more I can indulge my eating. I don’t eat chocolate or cake or much in the way of sweet things, and I have trained myself to like mainly healthy food, but I am still conflicted about eating too much.
Yes, I am afraid of getting fat. But why? Logically, I know that it is madness. I see a certain type of body shape in women, long, lean, dancer-like. My shape is naturally different: I’m short, athletic, muscular. I want to be something I cannot be. I give value to something that doesn’t deserve it. The child who felt pride in refusing the ice cream her grandfather wanted to give to her, is now an adult who will not share a birthday cake with friends.