A woman who thinks that unless she’s thin, she has no value… “Well I find chocolate a much better companion…at least you don’t have to do its washing and tell it how fantastic it is in bed!”~
She’d never get into it! How did they expect her to?
She held the dress at arm’s length gripping onto its hanger, willing it to miraculously expand enough for it to slide over her blubbered body – it hadn’t seemed quite so small, but filled with promise, when she’d grabbed a selection from the ordered racks.
She’d almost given up her search when she’d spotted the sign ‘extra sizes’ in the shop window, but was this what they called ‘extra’?
I couldn’t fit my leg through that, she thought, as she continued to gaze at the misguided attempt at ‘bigger clothes for real women’.
She wondered what they meant by real women, while thinking of how she could leave the shop with the minimum of fuss.
Hooking it over the peg, the doomed dress joined the fray of other choices, each untidily abandoned along with any hope of finding what she needed.
All she needed was a simple black dress, or maybe even an evening trouser suit (though maybe her bum wouldn’t cope with that) – anything that would be suitable for her husband’s work’s Do.
How hard could it be?
Sweating badly now (why were these shops always so hot and stuffy, and why did others never seem to drip as much as she did?), as she struggled to change back into the shapeless, black jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, with ‘Whatcha looking at?’ emblazoned across the front, Andi felt near to tears.
Lacing the trainers, she wondered why there was never enough room in these places, and the curtain never quite fit the gap. Though she considered it was preferable to those communal changing rooms, where hordes of slim bodies paraded half-naked, with smug, satisfied faces, while glancing at those extra lumps of those less fortunate.
“No good, dear?” said the sympathetic, yet somehow supercilious voice from the other side of the curtain.
As Andi revealed her presence and shame, she couldn’t help but think that the staff in clothes shops seem to come in three categories; the immaculate, older, ‘string of pearls’ type, with a false smile plastered on their faces and disdain dripping from their words, or the ‘customers are such a bore’ variety constantly filing their nails while talking in huddled groups waiting for clock-off time, or the younger, sniggering ‘you’ll never fit into that, why did you even bother coming in?’ brand – the most typical of ‘fat’ snobs.
She usually just grabbed what she could from market stalls or Menswear outlets, where clothes were always a little longer and wider, but felt most comfortable at home in easy, slip on clothes with expandable waists and slack bottoms.
What was she going to do?
She could hardly turn up in the latest zip up the sides jogging pants – even with the jaunty stripe they wouldn’t pass muster.
There was always the ‘old women’s clothes’, as her daughter put it, made of nylon and came in a range of nasty patterns and colours of brown or orange – but at least they came in bigger sizes.
She longed to visit one of those shops that were singled out for twenty-somethings (despite her great age of thirty-nine) and slip on something sexy and revealing, shocking her husband right out of his ‘I never take off my socks’ mode (what was it about Englishmen and their socks?).
Though the ‘reveal’ idea took the colour right out of her cheeks – a feat in itself, as they were usually in a bright state of high crimson.
Sighing to the inevitable, she trudged along to where she might be lucky – maybe they’d have something in black?
Everybody knew black was slimming. Or did it just make you invisible?
She’d decided to have a coffee first and one of those delicious slices of cheesecake, and as it cheered her taste buds, her mind mulled over what had brought her to this state.
Surely 9lbs 2ozs wasn’t that heavy?
Yet she’d read somewhere that it was above average and maybe that was where the fault lay; big baby, big woman?
She didn’t kid herself, why say big when she meant fat?
For years she’d denied the word, cringing at its screaming assumptions – greedy, lazy, dirty slab of meat!
Yet she was none of those things.
And where had it come from?
Her mother was tiny, though her father over six feet tall.
However, investigations into the family tree exposed where the fat gene lay, in its entirety, amongst her mother’s clan – they might have been short but they certainly wobbled.
Even her mother had piled on the pounds when carrying her two babies and wobbled for a while, yet determination and twenty cigarettes a day helped reduce it to a minimum. Yet it had never entirely gone – the fat legacy, a constant reminder in the small tyre around her middle.
The fat gene persevered however, amongst the family, causing one poor soul to literally burst to death!
So, coupled with the tall gene, what chance had she, Andrea May Wallace, nee-Worthing, (once Stafford), of fighting the inevitable?
She knew all about willpower, but for the most part it remained smothered under the temptations of everyday eating, to be unearthed and polished for short periods of time, until shards of desperation punched holes in her reserve.
She didn’t feel greedy, eating either toast or cereal for breakfast, sandwiches or cottage cheese salad for lunch and ‘meat and two veg’ in the evening.
But maybe it was the in-betweens that were the sins?
That mid-morning packet of crisps or nibble of chocolate, or the occasional appeal of strawberry cheesecake, or chocolate muffin, or chocolate ice cream during the afternoon, just before the school run or maybe it was the munchies in the evening, while unwinding after a hard day’s graft?
Yet, even then, she could never have eaten that spread of immeasurable goodies that lay denounced across a large table, during those confessional TV programmes, where brave souls allowed themselves to be humiliated by their weaknesses.
Despite her sympathy for them, she always wondered how they’d manage to find the time to fit it all in.
Willpower dusted, she’d exchange the snacks for fruit for a while, but Red Imp on her shoulder would talk her into ‘just one bar of chocolate or ice cream…it wouldn’t hurt’, pushing her back onto the jelly-wobble road.
And she certainly wasn’t lazy!
Okay, she didn’t march to the gym everyday or pound the streets for hours on end – the considerations of these activities had ended in visions of her lumps being laid open for public ridicule – but she was always on the move.
Between the daily grind of house, garden, two kids and a part-time job helping disabled adults group wing their way around a computer, time vanished, the days gobbled up amongst temptations of food.
As for dirt, well, she’d challenge anyone to find a speck of it in anything to do with her.
In fact, one of the things that drove her husband and kids to climb the walls of insanity was her constant need for neatness and cleanliness.
From a family of ‘leave it until later’ and ‘that’ll do for now’, her husband, Ray, had soon learnt that for an easy time it was better to ‘to the job immediately for a quiet life’, yet was still not fully trained. As for the kids, who unfortunately followed their father’s lead (despite only one of them being of his bloodline), they rued the day when their paraphernalia was left unattended for too long.
She had to agree with the slab of meat theory, however. For when she forced herself to look in the full-length mirror (one she’d purposely bought for the humiliation ritual that prompted yet another stab at a diet) she’d recoil at the figure that unfortunately belonged to her.
Standing in bra and knickers, she’d wince at the way her stretched-marked stomach protruded, trying to remember if it had ever been flat, denying that it had always been like this.
Having children hadn’t helped, though now, at seventeen and twelve, she’d known that enough time had passed for her to have ‘tightened up’ the slack.
Turning sideways, she’d continue the examination, seeing how the folds down her back nearly matched her front – though not quite, because she knew that if they were allowed to escape, her breasts would lay large and drooping, like overripe sagging melons, far outreaching their counterpart.
She didn’t think the size of her legs were too bad, and if she disregarded the red and blue tram lines and small craters that she knew became deeper around her bottom (which disappeared if she squinted) she could be reasonably satisfied with them.
Yet overall, she felt in proportion (albeit those proportions were oversized). Her waist did curve inwards and when the right clothes could be found, then she looked quite presentable – yet they were never quite what she wanted, as being over average height for a woman was an additional handicap. Trousers were never long enough, tops never quite reached their target and dresses were either too long or too short, despite the manufacturers finally realising that ‘real’ women came in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
As she resisted a second slice of cheesecake, but lingered over a second cup of coffee, Andi continued searching into her past, not only answers for what brought her to this point, but also for something that would tighten her resolve and make her the person she always wanted to be.
From the moment of birth, according to her mother, all she’d wanted to do was eat, crying non-stop for the first few months of life, with nobody understanding why. Not for her the meagre offerings of milk and by the age of six months was demolishing a whole egg, working her way into the delights of everything available. After that first egg, however, much to everyone’s relief, she slept for the entire night.
The first stages of life are somewhat hazy for most people, so they rely on second-hand knowledge, photographs and vague feelings.
For Andi, snatches of early life came in shadowy representations of prickly heat, enormous insects and dark skins that smelt of lemons and spices, not forgetting a new baby brother. At the age of two she’d lived in Singapore and water was the most exciting thing in her world.
Sipping her coffee, she remembered the delicious coolness of the midday rain, drizzling over her naked body, the delighted freedom of plunging, fear-free into the huge depths of the local open-air swimming pool, memories, which are helped by numerous photographs taken by her father all those thirty-seven years ago.
Smiling, she remembered her first real adventure, when she climbed the enormous ladder (it must have been more than thirty feet high) to the top diving board and shouting, ‘Dump, Daddy, dump!’ before jumping, feet first, into the water – much to the horror of her parents far below. Her father had told her that while his heart was in his mouth, the only thing to do was to let her jump, as the alternatives seemed far more dangerous.
She survived of course.
As she mulled over the memory, what struck her was the utter confidence she’d had in her abilities, and those early pictures captured the only time when weight was not an issue. It also made her realise that she’d not been fat at all – then.
What had changed her?
Had it been the morning ritual of being dragged into school for the first few weeks by several teachers from the age of four?
That fear never leaving her as she stood head and shoulders above the rest, as lines of children were inspected and filed into school each day.
Her ungainly presence then shoved to the back of the class, where the writing on the board became a mirage of white lines and no understanding.
She needed glasses of course – that other bane of the perfect society.
It had taken years for her to accept them as a necessary evil, remembering with a shudder, those first, horrendous, round pink ones, free on the National Health.
Misadventures began early for Andi as she thought about the struggle to pass unnoticed through school life, but never quite managing to blend into obscurity.
It still made her blood boil however, when she thought of the unwarranted blow from the teacher who thought she deserved a slap for mere curiosity. How was she to know it was against the rules to linger in the steaming cloakroom full of coats and smelly feet, to watch her administer impatiently to a child with a nosebleed? Even now she wondered if that teacher remembered what she’d done.
She’d denied it of course and Andi remembered the feeling of total fear and dread standing between her mother and Miss Bird arguing the point, and how those feelings had made her deny the truth.
She was glad that her mother had always believed her.
Sometimes she’d lie in bed and think of all the things she could have said or done – but realised that the past could never be changed.
How many people, she wondered, lay awake in those lonely hours thinking of how it could have all been so different?
As she sipped from her cup, she pondered on whether that was the moment which set her future thinking? Was that the time of setting the seeds of ugliness, growing stronger as their tendrils drove deeply into her brain?
It hadn’t helped that her brother’s growth spurts seemed a long time coming.
Despite the two and half years between them, she remembered that at the age of eleven she’d towered above him, a testament which is logged forever in the brutish photograph, where she appeared like a giant next to a tiny waif from Lilliput.
Her family had been back in England for some years by the time of that photograph and lived knee deep in the countryside, where school was a thing to be endured until the long holidays allowed an escape from those evil terrors of slapping teachers and humiliation.
Adventures would start early during those summers, where food was crammed into used bread wrappers and bottles were filled with tap water (soon to be joined by bobbing breadcrumbs) and if they were lucky, a few coins tucked deep into pockets for ice cream.
Legs pumped easily, riding side by side with her brother along country roads, racing towards the promise of sun and sea, where the whole day would stretch in exciting vapours of warmth and fun.
Sometimes they’d meet other kids from the neighbourhood, exploring all the places they’d been forbidden, where a group of six or seven would tie a rope to an old tyre and swing dangerously across a ravine that was filled with the rusty daggers of farmyard machinery.
Best of all was the haymaking.
Careful to avoid the heavy hooves and follow the carthorses that would plod effortlessly along the lines of bales, pulling behind a long cart, the gathered groups would toss bale after bale of straw and hay into mighty piles, until full enough to take back to the farm.
Andi reasoned that it wouldn’t be sanctioned now – too many dictates from Brussels or Health & Safety – but at the end of a long day, the farmer would allow them to sit atop the bales during the last journey (and sometimes hold the reins). Languishing in the dusty smell of the trembling bales, mingled with the pungency of the horse, tired and happy, they’d revelled in the last of the day’s warmth.
Between exploring woods, picking bluebells, haymaking and bike rides to the sea, those summers had seemed to last forever in one sense, yet whizzed by in another, and strangely, it never seemed to rain until the thought of school reared its ugly head.
She’d always found eating to be a pleasure, yet it soon became a sin.
Was that where it started, she wondered, always feeling hungry even after mealtimes and so, helping to clear the table would clear the plates too of the last piece of bread or biscuits, all the while hating herself for doing so. That must have been the time when guilt about food began.
However, apart from school, where instances of humiliation ranged between verbal condemnation and physical punishment for seemingly trifling transgressions (she still remembered the sting of that wooden ruler across her knuckles), the rest of her life at that time seemed free of burden.
She had always marvelled at the expression, ‘school being the best days of your life’, pondering upon the fact that until the age of sixteen, she’d withstood its tyrannical barrage and heaved a sigh of relief when it was all over.
The irony was that she loved learning, but it wasn’t until many years after leaving school that she truly understood just how much.
As Andi finished her second cup of coffee and ordered a third, she realised that her early life was a mixture of fun and terror, resulting in home being the only place she wanted to be – until boys reared their spotty heads.