As night follows day, the ‘go on, treat yourself’ messages of December have been replaced with supportive little articles asking us which of our repulsive habits we’ll be ridding ourselves of first. Given the number of stock images of women in penitential white underwear wielding tape measures in our news feeds, the answer is evidently: stop eating, you greedy bastards! Not normally one to make new year’s resolutions or to deny herself a fifteenth roast potato, Charlotte has suddenly decided to call time on the senseless scoffing. But can you lose weight without passing all your hang-ups on to your kids?
‘What does dieting mean?’ the big one has just asked me. She overheard me telling David what this blog’s going to be about. Ally, like most four-year-olds, listens intently to a lowered voice. Shit! That was a bad start.
I’m terrified by the challenge of raising two little girls in a world that scrutinises women’s bodies – and finds them wanting – at a thousand clicks a minute. Up until now I’ve been busy attempting to be a body-positive role model. I don’t criticize my body; I try not to talk about other women’s appearances; and if you asked Ally what made someone beautiful she’d dutifully pronounce that it’s all about having a kind heart and a smile on your face. (Unless I was out of earshot in which case she’d pretty much just describe Cinderella in her ball gown; I can’t work miracles.) As well as showing love and acceptance for all the bodies in our family, I also model for my children a loving relationship with food. Rather too loving.
For some reason this year, nearly five years into motherhood, it’s finally hit me that I can’t carry on like this. Maybe it’s because I’m 35, or because I’m better at blogging about exercise than actually doing it, or just maybe it’s because after each healthy, nutritious meal I cook for our family, I eat every scrap of food remaining on my children’s plates and then go into the kitchen to see what’s left in the pan and polish that off too. I guess it could be that. Anyway, the upshot is I’m spreading. Slowly but surely. I can’t afford to buy new clothes and half the existing ones don’t fit. And, although I could give you a dozen reasons why fat is a feminist issue and I should accept myself as I am, right now – to me (no judgments about anyone else) – some of these have begun to feel like excuses.
Quite out of the blue, I’ve started to feel like I actually can change my habits – and that I probably should, before a small problem has become a massive one. More importantly it’s something I want to do – for myself. I would like to eat more mindfully. I want to enjoy my meals more; to eat more slowly, savouring every flavour; and to be more conscious of my immense good fortune that I and my family have enough to eat. I want to take control; I want to feel free to eat a biscuit or six if I truly want to – but I don’t want to feel that even when I don’t want to eat them, the very knowledge of their presence in the cupboard will somehow draw me up, out of the sofa and into the kitchen to waste my precious time either wolfing them down in a pleasureless frenzy (“Take that, biscuits! You can’t tempt me anymore, can you, not now I’ve eaten the whole lot of you! Ha!”) or to spend the rest of the evening thinking about them and congratulating myself for not eating them.
I’ve been telling myself: “everything in moderation; embrace a healthy lifestyle; diets don’t work,” for most of my adult life and for a long time that worked OK for me. And that’s the attitude I want my daughters to inherit. I desperately don’t want to diet in front of them. I want us to all eat the same food. I don’t want them to observe the slightest moment of self-conscious abstinence or tense, celery-versus-profiteroles psychodramas when we sit down at the table. What I really want is just to have the willpower to eat a bit less and to skip most of the puddings without anyone discussing it or even noticing.
But having had the pleasure and misfortune of being me for the last 35 years I’ve gained just a little insight into how to drive my brain. And I know that, when it comes to willpower, I find it much easier to work to a rule – even if that rule is flexible – rather than just vaguely trying to “be sensible”. Being sensible is what got me here in the first place – to this point where if I sit down in a tight pair of jeans I have to actively decide where I’ll be putting my tummy. So the whole, “just stop overeating” approach won’t work. Whereas some kind of programme – let’s not call it a diet – but some kind of thing that you sign up to and you say to yourself “this is what I’m doing” – might just kick-start enough in the way of results that my willpower would pick up the momentum and take over before I’ve morphed into someone who knows how many star jumps you have to do to metabolise a walnut.
So can it be done? Can I turn around my gorging habits and lose a stone or two without my children noticing? As a rule I go for excessive honesty in my chats with Ally. I can’t help myself. (When she asked me this Christmas why Mary in the nativity story is called “The Virgin Mary” my response was to outline the concept of virginity and then to distract her attention from my rather-too-full disclosure by holding an impromptu, under-researched seminar on attitudes to women and families in first century Palestine.) But somehow openness doesn’t feel quite right here. Don’t I need to protect my daughters from picking up my hang-ups? So I’m going for subterfuge. Here are my tips on how to lose weight when you’ve got young kids and you don’t want to fulfil Larkin’s prophecy on parenting:
- Make a simple plan that isn’t doomed to conflict with your family life. For me this meant being realistic that I just don’t have enough time to lose weight just through exercise so it has to be about reducing what I eat. But I didn’t want to commit to any sort of diet that would a) trap me in the cycle of losing and regaining weight and b) force me to eat different foods from the family and thus draw attention to my Secret Slimming Stratagem (and be a right faff too). I started out with a simple tactic: I won’t eat anything without writing it down first. The idea was that there would be no forbidden foods or rules of any sort – and I could have the most depraved of gorging days if I really felt the need – I just had to confess all to my notepad. The enforced hiatus between eyeing the morsel and gobbling it would, I reckoned, give me pause to consider whether this was truly what I wanted to do. Being a smartphone addict, I ended up downloading an app to help me do this (there’s always an app) – called My Fitness Pal. I recommend it. It has a huge database of foods so you can tell it what you’ve had (I guess you could go crazy and weigh everything but I’m going for guestimates so far) and it will track your daily calories and nutrition. What’s good about this is that my poor kids are so used to seeing me fiddling with my phone that they have no idea what I’m doing so my dirty little secret is safe from their lovely, innocent minds.
- If exercise is your thing, go for it. If it’s not your thing, you er… you really should go for it too – but remember that a teeny weeny bit is better than none at all. I do want to do it – it’s all about being healthy and setting a good example to the littlies. But family life is grueling – we can’t get enough childcare and our two-year-old’s sleep regression is causing havoc with “our evenings” as we fancifully call the hour or so of tidying before bed. So for me, exercise for its own sake can’t be at the centre of my Healthy Lifestyle. My fudge is to try to do more active play with the kids and to walk with them a bit more (yeah, yeah, yeah – it’s always raining in Cheshire – I’m not even convincing myself as I type this) but also to do micro-pockets of exercise throughout my working days. I work from home. I can normally manage an hour or two of focused writing before I need a breather. And now that I won’t be trotting downstairs for biscuits, what better break could there be than a five minute burst of step-ups listening to some 70s disco music? I’m not saying that three or four five-minute bursts of exercise a day are as good as a proper gym workout, but they are significantly better than doing nothing active at all. For me this business is all about starting with goals that you’re at least hopeful you’ll stick to.
- This last one’s obvious but here goes: stick to the positive body image talk around your kids (well, around everyone, really – surely humans developed self-consciousness for some more important evolutionary reason than that we could all gaze at our reflections in shop windows and worry that our perfectly healthy bodies don’t all look exactly the same?). Don’t use the D-word; don’t talk about wanting to lose weight; and respond to questions about your food choices in terms of health and wellbeing. So I don’t want pudding because I’m not hungry anymore and I’m piling vegetables onto my plate because I love them and they make me feel good. If you get to a point when other people start commenting on your weight loss in front of your kids then redirect “you look great” compliments away from appearance and towards health – eg “well I feel so much healthier and I guess that sort of thing shows in your face”. I’m afraid I don’t really believe that this is enough to stop little girls picking up on the societal message that our bodies are there for other people’s approval and they’ll meet with more approval the thinner they are but it’s a start.
I haven’t actually done much of this yet. I only downloaded the app two days ago. I’ll let you know how it goes. At least all the secrecy of the not-a-diet is distracting me from the howling chasm in my stomach…
What about you? What do you say to your kids if you’re trying to lose weight?