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12 June 2024

I’ve lost weight. Why do I find that so hard to admit?

My generation have tried to rebuild our relationship with food, exercise and our bodies – but old anxieties persist.

By Pippa Bailey

For a long time I have been wary of telling people that I have lost weight. When someone commented on how well I looked, or asked what was different, I would tell them that I had given up alcohol, or that I’d been sleeping well lately, or that I’d changed my skincare routine – all of which were, peripherally, true. Only once have I answered: thank you, I’ve lost ten kilos this year.

Wary in part because there is nothing more tedious than having to listen to someone talk about their virtuous life choices. Oh, you feel so much better after giving up coffee, you can’t understand why everyone doesn’t do it. Inject that caffeine directly into my veins. Wary, too, that saying I felt I needed to lose weight might somehow suggest that I judge others for not doing the same, or for making different lifestyle choices. After growing up in a culture in which the messaging was essentially “God help you if you don’t disappear when you turn side-on”, I fear being accused of fat-shaming for saying I was unhappy with my own body.

Society has – to an extent, rightly – rejected the heroin-chic waif look that my peers and I were as teenagers led to believe was the only way to be beautiful. The toxic diet culture of the Nineties and early Noughties, under which our mothers repented of their “syns” at Weight Watchers and used spray-on salad dressings lest they add too many calories to their iceberg lettuce, has been roundly rejected. Is it any wonder that when, in my early twenties, I started to put on weight, I could not see it? You have always been fat, my brain told me, nothing has changed.

My generation have tried our best to unpick it all, and rebuild our relationship with food, exercise and our bodies. To embrace the rolls and wobbles that gossip magazines once railed against from the shelves of newsagents. Forget counting almonds: eat that pizza; time is too short to be wasted worrying about the nutritional value of an apple versus a banana. Even the fitness industry has rejected its former “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” mantra, embracing instead exercise that improves your body’s capabilities, rather than seeking to make it smaller. Discovering weightlifting in my late twenties shifted my perception of my body and what it can do; made me feel stronger, more capable. But still, the recidivist in me never quite let go of the possibility that I could reshape it.

I have lost count of how many times I promised myself the diet starts Monday. I remember, as a child, looking down at my body in the shower and swearing that I would swap Mini Rolls for yoghurts in order to lose weight. Based on the crush that was motivating these efforts (I wish I could say it was the only time I told myself: he’d fancy you if you were thinner), I can’t have been older than 12. I cannot say why this time it has stuck – except that, perhaps, with age has come a modicum of self-control.

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I am still finding new ways my body feels different under my fingers, still putting on clothes to find they are no longer wearable. Is it wrong to say that I enjoy staring down the mirror while I change, rather than turning from it? Putting on clothes that were once snug and now fall away from me? Perhaps, at some point, it might become so. As a teenager I would comfort myself by lying in bed and poking my fingers into the hollows beneath my ribs and hipbones; I know I do not want to go back there. The draw of addiction is never far away: in place of comfort eating, I comfort exercise. But how many times a day is too many to work out? Two is OK, I decide, drawing the line at three.

But above all, I am wary of admitting I have lost weight because it feels like suggesting that past me had, in some way, failed. That my attempts to convince myself and others that I was free of such un-feminist concerns as dress size, that I embraced myself the way Bridget Jones told me I was supposed to, just as I am, were a transparent lie. I fear that saying I saw fit to lose ten kilos might invite others to agree: yes, she really needed to. Oh, the shame.

[See also: Not all memorable meals should be photographed]

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This article appears in the 12 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The hard-right insurgency