'Did I Inherit My Disordered Eating Habits From My Mum?'
The Debrief: Growing up with five aunties, eight female cousins and two sisters I understood from an early age that being slim was the end goal. As I got older I realised there was a gulf between what my family ate and how others lived
For me, there’s not much to remember from 1996; as a ten year old my life was a fairly unexciting carousel of school, homework and looking after my Tamagotchi, but every Tuesday at 7pm, me and mum would head to the local school hall, where I’d watch her - and countless other women – be weighed and appraised, before a pep talk on how to do better next week. The pattern was simple – lost weight, good; gained weight, bad.
Growing up, hanging out at Weight Watchers was as much a part of my weekly routine as Brownies and ballet; and it wasn’t just Weight Watchers. There was the time our kitchen was lined with Slim Fast, her brief brush with the Atkins diet and the less said about cabbage soup, the better. On any given Saturday morning, we could be found with our towels on the living room floor, me hopping around in my leotard while Mum did her Jane Fonda work out.
Being a household of just us two, our kitchen cupboards were a mile away from that of my school friends'; where they had crisps, fizzy drinks and thick-sliced white bread, we had fresh fruit, wholemeal loaves and as Mum would point out, ‘there’s water in the tap.’
While I was well fed as a child – probably better than most, given my home-cooked meals and lack of exposure to a Wall’s Vienetta – it's hard not to wonder if my upbringing has had an impact on my own eating habits. Fast forward 20 years and there’s not a day goes by that I couldn’t reel off the exact calorie content of everything I’ve eaten in the last 24 hours, while my twenties have seen me struggle with the simplest of human actions: eating.
Growing up in a family of glamorous women – five aunties, eight female cousins and two sisters – I understood from an early age, that being slim was the end goal. Family gatherings were often punctuated with comments on weight loss or gain, and I soon developed the competitive streak many of my female relatives possessed when it came to keeping in shape.
As I got older I realised the gulf between the way my family ate and how ‘others’ lived. One teenage boyfriend rarely came over, claiming ‘there’s never any food at your house.’ While at his we would tuck into vast portions of spag bol, before spending the evening scoffing crisp sandwiches, at mine it was a bowl of Special K if we were hungry after hours.
While Mum made sure I was getting full-fat milk and always had a hearty breakfast, our dinners would be bastions of health – salmon, new potatoes and salad. Hold the mayonnaise. Asking her about our eating habits back then, it’s easy to see both sides of the coin; obsessive dieter or just ahead of the #cleaneating curve?
'I never saw it as dieting; I saw it as eating healthily,’ says Mum (who, incidentally, is still a Weight Watchers devotee). ‘Yes, I was trying to keep my weight down but making sure food was good for us both was key as well. Coming from a big family – one of ten children - there was never enough food to go around when I growing up, so as an adult I hadn’t learnt portion control.’
As a child I was well aware that money was tight, so on the rare occasion that a meal out presented itself, I would spend hours agonising over the menu, aware that the opportunity wouldn’t roll around again for a while. 'Money played a huge part,’ agrees Mum, ‘we couldn’t afford to eat for the sake of it - I had to make it stretch, so nothing went to waste.
‘We never had biscuits, cakes and chocolate in the house; that’s how I grew up. To this day I wouldn’t buy them.’
I was 19 when I first lost weight; having piled on a few pounds in my first year at uni on a pauper’s diet of pesto pasta, I dropped half a stone on a girls' holiday, living on crisps and diet coke, while distracted by all the sun, sea and cerveza. On my return, I was congratulated for my new look, which fueled a keenness to remain slim that soon saw me counting every calorie.
Having tasted a hint of the admiration that came with being able to control my size, I was quickly hooked on the power I could wield over my body. Losing weight was easy – I simply adopted the rules I’d grown up with; no added salt, no added sugar, no smearing butter on everything. It would never occur to me to get a take away, it just wasn’t in my vocabulary. Eaten too much? Go on a run. Hungry? Have an apple.
Meanwhile my mother and sister would email me, week in week out, detailing their weight battles. My ever-shrinking frame was a cause of contention for my sister - a perfectly healthy size 10 - who asked me to text her my daily diet in order for her to copy it. She would often get by on little more than 400 cals before dinner, cutting out carbs or swapping lunches for shakes in her bid to shed pounds, while my mother would call me and detail everything she had avoided eating at a barbecue or dinner out. Family meals out became fraught with stress as I’d order salads just to flaunt my self-control.
One ex-boyfriend was horrified by my family’s attitude towards eating. Often an audience to our competitive diet chat while watching us pick at bird-like portions, he had on countless occasions, seen me leave a supermarket in tears, unable to decide on what to eat - or would watch on as I gave in to the desire for a treat, only to then torture myself with endless thoughts about the calories lining my stomach.
Whether a product of my upbringing or not, at 26, after a particularly bad break-up, I took control the best way I knew how; stepping up my exercise regime and cutting back on the cals. At my lowest point – just 7 stone 6 on my 5 foot 4 inch frame - I was regularly having dizzy spells as my body struggled to get by on pathetic portions, while my circulation had all but ground to a halt. I knew I was thin, but wasn’t that what everyone was striving for?
While some friends made murmurings about me being ‘on the thin side’ many accepted my disordered eating as just a very ‘healthy’ way of life, with some actively impressed by my walking the six-mile round trip to work or strict resistance of the olives and crisp bowls at parties. But I couldn’t fool mum.
‘When you first lost a lot of weight I was concerned and talked to you about it straight away,’ she says now, ‘even when you tried to brush me off I insisted we address it face on. I do feel partly guilty but at the same time I knew there were other factors.’
'Children soak up their parents’ neuroses at an incredibly young age,’ says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. ‘There is a temptation to mimic mummy, particularly amongst girls. The beliefs we inherit around eating and body image are incredibly deeply rooted as we’ve been exposed to them pretty much from birth. Even when our parents try not to pass on their neuroses, we still soak up what we see.’
‘If mum is encouraging our healthy, growing appetites but we see her nibbling on a Ryvita herself, the inconsistency between what she does and what she says will be picked up by us,’ confirms Hilda.
Luckily, we’ve always been incredibly open as a family and since those first conversations - and with the help of counseling – I was able to take control before my habits spiraled. Now, at 30, I still know the calorie content of everything I consume but back at a healthier eight stone I try to have a varied diet, where food is fuel to help boost my body. I love to exercise but actively encourage carb eating and there’s not a day goes by when I don’t tuck into a sugary treat. Educating myself on nutrition has played a huge part and nowadays I’m the first person to tell my millennial pals that their courgetti dinner just simply isn’t enough fuel.
When it comes to my family, old habits die hard, and as recently as Mother's Day, an argument began over lunch as mum kept repeating that the roast dinner she had ordered was 'far too much food', while my sister announced she wasn't eating bread. But increasingly we can laugh about our strange ways and tuck into pizzas and puddings together.
The irony hasn’t been lost on me that on bad weeks mum will order me to supersize my portions, while I, in turn, congratulate her for being two pounds lighter. But looking forward, I hope one day we can break bread as a family - and all dive into the basket.
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