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Why it’s time to give up your ‘body goals’ with Katie Thistleton

How can you create a healthier relationship with your body? In this new column series, Katie Thistleton, presenter of Radio 1's Life Hacks, journalist, mental health ambassador and trainee counsellor, shares her words of wisdom

by Psychologies

Katie Thistleton Radio 1 DJ and mental health campaigner

Over the next six months, I am writing about the six main issues which dominated my twenties and there was never any doubt that my relationship with food and body image would make it in.  

Be assured, it’s not something I have completely figured out. Ha! I romantically imagined I would write this column and I would have somehow figured out all the answers but actually, my relationship with my body and with food is something I think about every day. 

Numerous times a day.

Constantly in fact. I have often wondered what my brain might have been able to achieve if so much of its energy wasn’t put into calories and cravings and getting back into my jeans. 

"I probably spent my late teens and early twenties with this same outlook on the female body"

Earlier in the year, at the beginning of lockdown, sick of being unhappy with my weight and unable to break bad habits, I decided to seek professional help and see a therapist. Mainly what I’ve learnt is that I should have gone down that route sooner.

I have an album in my phone called ‘inspo’. It’s full of pictures of hairstyles I like, make up looks I might want to try and inspirational quotes, but mostly, it’s full of pictures of women with great bodies.

Screenshots of Instagram models, celebrities, fitness bloggers, even some of my own friends. The idea is that I look through that when I want to eat a big fat cake and to mis-quote Kate Moss, ‘nothing tastes as good as looking like them would feel.’ I have had this album for years and surprise surprise, it hasn’t helped me get a body like any of theirs. It doesn’t feel motivating to look at, it feels punishing and depressing.

I can actually remember my first ‘body goals’. It was when Britney Spears’ greatest hits album ‘My Prerogative’ landed in my 15 year old hands. I remember thinking her shiny, oily, tiny, fake-tanned body on that CD cover was the best thing I’d ever seen. 

She was and is beautiful, of course, but she was also heavily produced to be what every teenage girl wished she could be. I remember thinking life would be so perfect if only I had a stomach with a pierced belly button that looked so great in low rise jeans.

Another album cover I ogled over with salivating desire was the Pussycat Dolls album PCD. I mean, THOSE WAISTS. Looking back at the album cover now, I’m pretty sure there was some photoshopping going on, but also, Nicole Scherzinger has since spoken about how she battled bulimia at the height of the Pussycat Dolls’ success. Teenage fans of course didn’t know this at the time, and oh how amazing it must be to be Nicole Scherzinger! To have those abs and that hair and the confidence to sing’ ‘dontcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me’. All the boys I knew in college fancied her and I couldn’t imagine a higher state of happiness than to be her, when clearly there was a lot going on behind the scenes that was much sadder than we could have imagined.

I probably spent my late teens and early twenties with this same outlook on the female body. I look back sometimes and think I had more body confidence back then, but then I remember that I really didn’t,  I just had a body that was much closer to the idealistic body standards presented to us so I felt I could wear a bodycon dress or take a photo in a bikini. I was a size 10/12 through most of that time and despite having always had a sweet-tooth I managed to stay at a weight that was deemed healthy for my height - running around in retail jobs and around the uni campus - and probably just a youthful metabolism – I imagine helped.

Despite being slim I didn’t like my body throughout my youth. I had spells of going on strict calorie counting diets for holidays or big events, I distinctly remember my friends talking about how they could hear my stomach rumbling from across the hall during our GCSE exams, when I was dieting after trying on my prom dress and crying in T K Maxx at the sight of my stomach through the silky fabric. I also exercised daily and a new piece of fitness equipment was always on my Christmas list, my poor dad was always building cross trainers. I remember thinking my torso looked a bit too long or my hips were too wide and even though I definitely wasn’t fat I thought I was. 

A classic. I see people share the ‘I wish I was as fat as I was the first time I thought I was fat’ quote all the time. Baz Luhrmann in his famous speech and consequent song says ‘you are not as fat as you think you are.’

The reality is we use the word fat synonymously with ugly. We are so scared of being fat in what is such a fat-phobic world that fat = ugly and therefore we use that word to simply present to someone that we are not fully happy or comfortable with ourselves. We are a species obsessed with weight over almost anything, and I certainly spent most of my twenties plagued by thin privilege. Believing everything will be ok if you JUST. DON’T. GET. FAT.

But, I did get fat. 

‘You’re not fat!’ I hear you cry like a supportive friend who is kind but ultimately lying. I don’t think most reasonable people would look at me and think my weight is cause for concern. But according to my BMI I am obese, and I’m at the far end of that scale too, I’m almost off the scale of obese which has been a hard pill to swallow for me. I know not everyone agrees that BMI is an affective judge of health either, but I can’t deny that a nurse has told me I should lose weight, and that I have encountered health problems since gaining the three+ stone that hinder my lifestyle – chafing, sweat rashes, indigestion, stretch marks, high blood pressure and actual cuts in my skin from my underwear digging in. I follow a lot of body positivity activists online and I have interviewed so many wonderful people who embrace being fat and this has made me feel guilty about wanting to lose some of the weight I’ve gained, but I’ve realised I shouldn’t feel guilty because even taking my BMI out of the equation, my relationship with food was making me depressed and was not ok. It wasn’t just about the food or the body. It was about what was in my head.

"I’ve learnt a lot about my struggles and my coping mechanisms"

Hence why instead of spending money this time on a diet plan or a new fitness app, I spent it on weekly therapy.

It has been the best thing I’ve ever done, and not because I’ve lost all the weight - which I haven’t yet, so please don’t for a second think this is another fad diet - but because I’ve started to get to the roots of why I began and continued to binge eat, and I’ve therefore been able to challenge those thoughts and behaviours. 

I have spent a lot of my career interviewing those with eating disorders, including spending a few days in a clinic with teenage girls with anorexia, but never for a second would I have self-diagnosed myself with one, until my doctor told me it sounded like I had binge eating disorder. I looked up the symptoms and I fit the bill perfectly – eating fast and alone and in secret, huge amounts gone so quickly as though I’d blacked out, eating to deal with the stresses of life. In fact, I had even spent some lonely nights in hotel rooms working away eating a huge takeaway followed by a pack of 5 large cookies and then purging afterwards to get rid of it when I felt sick and guilty – but I’d told myself that I wasn’t like someone who had an eating disorder. I was in control of what I was doing. My most embarrassing binges were done secretly when I was alone in hotels or my car, so to everyone else I just liked food as much as the next person, but I had felt ashamed and aware that something was wrong for a while.

The break-up of a relationship that I never really grieved, a huge change in lifestyle, a career which constantly attacked my self-esteem and was image based (did I mention ‘Katie Thistleton weight gain’ is a Google search and parents of kids used to tweet me to ask if I was pregnant when they watched me on CBBC?) and the constant pressure I put on myself were just some of the reasons to blame for me choosing food as my drug. My therapist helped me discover the source. I was bullied in my early years of secondary school. I explored with my therapist how safe I felt when I got home and closed the front door, sat in front of the TV and ate crisps and chocolate I’d bought from the shop, because I was old enough to make my own food choices with my own spending money. 

Funny though, no one ever questions your eating habits until you are too fat or too thin, something many eating disorder activists fight to change. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2018 found that 31 per cent of patients with anorexia nervosa had all the cognitive features and physical complications of the disease without actually being underweight. If the detrimental behaviours are there, help should be provided. 

I believe there is a hell of a lot of disordered eating out there: people who are overweight and stuck between the belief they are just greedy and the pressure from a growing body positivity movement to embrace their curves, despite no emotional education on how to do so in an unaccepting society; and people who may be perceivably healthy but engage in food or exercise behaviours that make them desperately unhappy or stressed. This is on top of the already high statistics showing how many people are diagnosed.

I would advise anyone who feels like they can’t find a solution to being happy with their body or feeling in control of their relationship with food to defy what the world has told them so far and speak to a counsellor. It’s never just about the food.

As I said at the start, I’m not quite there yet, but I’m feeling much more in control, and freer, and I’ve learnt a lot about my struggles and my coping mechanisms.

Oh and I’ve deleted that ‘inspo’ album off my phone. What a waste of time that was.

My top tips

Remember we are all different 

Eating is complex. Don’t let any fitness influencer tell you it isn’t and that it’s easy and just ‘calories in, calories out’. Sure we know that’s the science, but we’re not robots and we connect emotionally with eating.  It’s also different for everyone – I follow some amazing eating disorder activists but find their advice completely the opposite to what I need to hear – and they’d likely feel the same way if I started showing them my daily habits. Be selfish in your search for what is best for you, whether your best mate lost 2 stone on Keto or not. Your relationship with food might be more complicated than theirs and a fad diet won’t do any good and might do a lot of harm.

Get help if you need it

BEAT are an amazing eating disorder charity, if you feel you need help you can call their adult helpline on 0808 801 0677 or youth helpline on 0808 801 0711.

My recommendations

I love author and Behavioural Change Specialist Shahroo Izadi. I am listening to the audio book version of her book The Last Diet, on my lockdown walks, and have found it refreshing and valuable. 

In our back-catalogue available on BBC Sounds, myself and Dr Radha have interviewed many people on this subject for our Life Hacks Podcast. Our recent episode ‘Coronavirus: how can lockdown affect an eating disorder?’ with Laura Hearn might be helpful for those finding this time particularly difficult.   

What would you tell your twenty-something self? 

I asked my Twitter and Instagram followers this question; here are my favourites for this month:

@felicityranger – ‘Learn to be comfortable being you – putting on an act is exhausting!’

@tamsin_thelonelywanderer – ‘Don’t worry about what your body looks like, you’re worth more than that’.