By the age of 16, chubby (and not in a cheery way) with a tight curly perm and specs, I had probably been on every diet in the book. I’d done the Beverly Hills – pineapple, pineapple and more pineapple: heartburn and a lifelong hatred of pineapple; the Cabbage Soup: excessive wind; the Mayo Clinic: bad breath and constipation; SlimFast: fainting, extreme hunger, spots and a filthy temper. I could recite calorie contents the way others could recite the Kings and Queens of England. It was… Not… Good.
I dieted constantly from my early teens until I was 30 and was dumped by fax by a man who’d written a film called Halibut (don’t ask – as far as I know, it was never made). While I was on a business trip. To Thailand. Classy.
I was at my lowest. Being dumped always made me think about my weight. So I decided to go guerrilla and put myself through some Hardcore Weight Loss, dragging my friend Jan to a place on Koh Samui where we would be compelled to fast for ten whole days. More than fast. There were daily colema treatments.
For the uninitiated, this involves a slanted board with a hole in the middle. Carefully place the board over the toilet. Lie down on said board with your cheeks positioned above the hole. Insert a tube into your bum. Then pass 5 litres of kaolin-infused water into your colon. By yourself. So you can cut the flow off at any time. It is an extremely sophisticated contraption with a clothes peg as the off switch. We were supposed to do this until we were drained – literally and psychologically.
It was tedious, too. Jan, to her enduring credit, managed both to read and smoke on her slant board. (Skills.) Me, not so much. I found that you needed to be “hands on” with that clothes peg. (Accidents.)
Our slant boards came with a sieve. And we were encouraged by the staff to look, with chopsticks, at what it caught. I heard tales of crayons, marbles and small toys which had allegedly been buried in the mass of old filth and tar-like rot in people’s guts for decades. One woman swore she had retrieved a small animal, but I never saw evidence of it. All I had was a putrid mass, followed by a strange amber jelly once my system was devoid of discernible food. We would then have group discussions about our findings.
Our group consisted of Jan and I, a couple who made opium pipes and a man who sold double-glazing in Nepal. Which was enterprising, when you think about it. Their scintillating company notwithstanding, our real problem was that our room was right above a very good restaurant. As we lay in bed each night, stomachs grumbling, deep in the gin withdrawal, the smells of basil fried rice and fresh grilled fish would waft into our room. It was cruel. Very cruel.
And so we ran away – two 30-year-old women, giggling like schoolgirls, delirious with starvation – all the way to the nearest town for a tattoo and a bowl of khao tom, or rice porridge. Each mouthful was bliss. Silky smooth grains of jasmine rice, fragrant broth and minced pork, with pickled turnip and deep-fried garlic. The pleasure far outweighed the guilt.
We finished our meal, paid and… then I had to use the loo. Right, now you’re picturing the sort of toilet you’re used to. But this was rural Thailand, so we’re talking about a squatty. A Thai squatty is not like an old-fashioned European squatty. It comes with a hose to wash your nethers clean when you’re done, and a large bucket of clean water with a scoop to flush it manually. You have to learn, from an early age, how to balance just so, so that you don’t pee all over your feet. I hoicked up my skirt, pulled down my pants, looked into the pan to take aim… and came face to face with a massive rat, its fierce incisors mere inches from my bum.
I can’t speak for the rat. I imagine it looked surprised. I screamed, and burst from the bathroom, knickers akimbo, shouting “Noo yai! Noo yai!” (“Rat! Rat!”), crashing through a newly laid-up table and clattering to the floor.
There’s embarrassment. And then there’s accidentally flashing a full restaurant post a run-in with a rat. Karma is a bitch.
To paraphrase Jack Crabbe in the glorious Little Big Man, “That was the end of my dieting days.” Still, it makes me wonder: where did this insatiable need to be thin come from? How did this idea of being “the right weight” – whatever that is – get in my head? I have asked myself over and over.
When did it start? It didn’t stem from the fashion biz. I never compared myself to models. They are another species. For 5-foot, 1-inch me to compare myself to these gazelles would be like comparing a fish to a bird. No, it was definitely earlier.
I was always chubby. Which is not surprising, for I was a very greedy child, hobbit-like in my penchant for first, second and even third breakfasts – one inside for farang or Anglo food, then one or two outside for Thai. I had my cheeks pinched by everyone as they uttered “Gam jui” (“sweet cheeks”) so hard I had permanent bruises. My nanny and her friends loved my little white rolls of fat. So there was nothing there to create such a negative self-image. No. It came from closer to home.
It came from my mother, who was on a constant diet for as long as I can remember, and from my sister, who obsessed about her weight and still has the capacity, through no fault of her own, to make me feel a. Like a whale b. Outrageously greedy and remains very, very slim. But she works at it. And quite frankly, my dears, I don’t.
And it came from a cold and draughty English boarding school, where they weighed and measured us in the sports hall in front of our class mates. My cheeks would burn with shame if I had put on weight over the holidays. And more often than not, I had. It came from Grandad Plunkett telling me I was fat all the time. It came from a boy – nay, a young man – telling me that he might consider dating me if I lost 10 pounds. And it’s this feeling that lasted.
No matter how old I got and how much I talked myself into seeing sense and just “being”, I couldn’t help but have pangs of guilt. When I ate with both Kim and Mum, my insecurity kicked in. Yet, even as they shared a starter, I would furiously order two. Because, fuck it. And eat it all, eyes stinging with shame.
In practically all the telephone conversations I remember with dear Mum, her opening gambit was, “So… how’s your weight?” It did not start with her. Oh no. There was family form for this. Gran would always have a go at Mum about her weight, too. My uncle’s favourite saying is “an inch to the lips, an inch to the hips”. It was a constant growing up. It is conditioning. Even before he died, Dad said to me, “You’ve never been slim, have you? You are shaped like your mother. Round.”
But… finally… I think I might be there. Maybe it’s the loss of my parents; maybe it’s entering my fifties and no longer giving a damn what people think of me or, more importantly, what I perceive they think of me. I have accepted that this curvy body leans towards a UK size 12. I have thrown out all the size 8 dresses and tops that I would torture myself for not being able to squeeze into.
My skin looks fabulous – the fat is like a cheap form of filler. I understand that there comes a point in a woman’s life when she has to make a choice about which she prefers to look good: her face or her arse, and I am comfortable in Team Face.
I eat what I want – not to excess. I five-two. I drink the occasional glass of my liver-flush elixir when I have over-indulged on the martinis. I take long walks with the blessing that is wee Maya the dog. My husband loves me. My blood pressure is stable. I have a banging cleavage.
I am happy.
So, take that, DIET, you foolish four-letter word. It took me 40 years, but you lose.
Adventures of A Terribly Greedy Girl by Kay Plunkett-Hogge (Mitchell Beazley, £12.99) is out now.
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