Five years ago, I was given an ultimatum by a doctor: lose weight or we’ll not be able to do surgery on your back. And without surgery, you’re going to be in excruciating pain for the rest of your life, your mobility severely restricted.
Huh. That didn’t sound much fun. I mean, I liked to move—a lot. And I distinctly disliked being in pain. Excruciating pain sounded even worse—especially as the pains that had brought me to the doctor were, according to him, a mild breeze compared to what they would become. Unless I had that surgery.
But losing weight? My intestines cramped: how was I to succeed this time when I had never succeeded before?
The doctor tilted his head and looked at me. “Of course you can do it,” he said calmly. “I believe in you.”
With that, our appointment was over, and I stumbled out (on crutches, because my back was really, really killing me, the sciatic nerve so badly pinched my legs screamed in protest with every step I took) somewhat shocked.
The first thing I did? I bought myself 200 grams of milk chocolate with whole hazelnuts.
Second thing I did? I threw most of that chocolate away, ashamed at myself for being so damned weak and sabotaging myself. Again.
You see, I’ve always had an antagonistic relationship with myself. Well, not always: childhood was OK, but come puberty and things happened to my body that I most certainly did not like. Plus, my mother took one look at my budding chest (already so much bigger than hers) and started worrying about my weight.
In retrospect, it seems to me that one day I was lithe and strong, lean and fleet, the next I had curves that made me clumsy and breasts I tried to hide and a mother who put me on a diet after being shocked when the soon-to-be thirteen-year-old me no longer could wear the shorts I’d worn the previous summer. Out went chocolate and biscuits, in came celery and carrots. To this day, I have a complicated relationship with celery…
It was evident my mother was no fan of my new body – she firmly believed in slim. No Rubenesque ideals for her! Neither was I, because the boys I used to play ball with, now mostly gawked at my chest.
I hated having breasts.
I hated not being able to sleep on my tummy.
I hated being served raw vegetables as a treat.
I hated no longer being me, that half-wild tomboy who climbed trees like a monkey, hung out with the boys and gave as good as I got in any soccer game.
I began to eat on the sly. I raided the pantry, the fridge and the freezer. I became adept at filching a biscuit there, a piece of chocolate there. Never too much, because I didn’t want to make it evident I’d been snacking on forbidden stuff.
My mother’s prophesies about weight issues came true. I was no longer lean and fleet. I was round and fleet. (It is somewhat sad to look at photos of myself back then and realise I wasn’t that big. Round and curvy, yes: seriously overweight? No. But my perception of self was severely distorted already at the age of 16) And I hated myself a bit more for being too round.
Not that I ever let on. Instead I developed a cheerful, extrovert personality. I made the “oops, I’m too big” jokes before anyone else did. To the casual observer, I was ok with being me, because seriously, how could anyone so brimming with self-confidence be anything but self-confident?
I succeeded at school. I succeeded at work. I even succeeded at love, being fortunate enough to meet the man of my life in my early twenties. But whenever I walked by a window, I made sure not to look at my reflection. Anyone produced a camera, and I sort of melted into the background.
Most of my adult life, I made an art of not seeing myself. I’d look at the mirror and adjust my clothes, but excelled at not really seeing me. I didn’t want to, constantly ashamed of being me. You see, it had been drummed into me that being fat was a character flaw, i.e. I had somehow chosen to be this very big person. After all, I constantly preferred chocolate to celery.
Except, of course, I hadn’t chosen. Somewhere along the way, I’d mislaid myself. I’d lost touch with me, and now I was just hiding—from the world, but principally from myself.
It is a somewhat terrifying insight to realise that for most of my life, I haven’t liked myself. No matter that I created a warm and loving home for my kids, that I nailed it at work, what ultimately shaped me was the fact that I was failing myself. I didn’t want to be overweight. I wanted to be strong and fit, to revel in being me, in the sheer physical joy of pushing my body to new heights. But every time I tried to lose weight, generally I ended up with more padding round my body. And every time that time, I hated myself a bit more: had I been stronger, less prone to succumb to temptation, I’d have been as sleek as a greyhound.
So to punish myself I ate more. And more. I bought bigger clothes and never, ever studied my reflection properly. Whatever for? I already knew what I would see. Failure. And to hide all that, I polished my smile, my witty comments, my self-deprecating wit, my cheerful, sunny personality. Inside, the real me howled. On the outside, Anna sang and danced.
Five years ago, that doctor told me he believed in me. Maybe it was the way he said it. Maybe it was the sheer agony of my back pain. Or maybe it was time, at last, to take on the one challenge I had never fully dared to face. Whatever the case, this time I didn’t fail. When the doctor saw me just before I was rolled into the operating theatre, he squeezed my hand. “Well done,” he said, and I felt tears well. Although that may have been me being scared. Me and needles—let alone the notion of someone using a scalpel to slice me open—don’t do well together.
Five years on, and I still excel at not seeing myself.
I know I am no longer big.
After years of determined physical efforts, I know I’m in great shape.
But I rarely feel great.
Mostly, I remain disappointed in me for not being a bit more focussed, a bit more persevering. That constant sense of failure lurks in the back of my mind, and on the days when I totally lose control over the rigid structures with which I manage my new, healthier me, when I binge on chocolate, on cake, there’s a cackling voice in my head that jeers. “See?” it says. “You’re so pathetically weak!”
For days afterwards, I punish myself by not eating, so frightened that I’ll somehow ruin what I’ve worked so very hard to achieve.
Other days, I am proud of what I’ve achieved. I’ll stand before the mirror in the gym and see a strong, kick-ass woman. Such moments, however, remain rare.
Sometimes, I meet the gaze of my reflection and see her peeping out at me from behind the walls of boisterous self-confidence I’ve built to keep her safe—and enclosed.
I hope one day she will forgive me. I hope one day I accept her—me—just as I am and learn to love this fragile being as I have loved so many others—but never myself.