When I was a teenager, members of my family – parents and aunts – grumbled daily about what they alleged was wrong with me. This included my weight and size. “Hefty” and “solid” are to this day words that make me wince.
I thought if I got to university I’d win their approval. During my first term I became afraid of food. We ate at communal tables and some of the other students kept up a running commentary about what those around them were eating and how much it cost. A youth said to a girl who was eating her supper, “My shadow has fallen on your food so you’ll have to throw it away.” He must have been referring to a religious belief which he thought she held. If he had said that to me I would have broken my plate over his head and rubbed the contents into his smirking face.
My parents lived in São Paulo, Brazil and after graduating I flew out to see them. The day I arrived my mother said, “Oh! You’re rather thin.” The joy of hearing that! When my mother and I went shopping for clothes, a well-meaning shop assistant said her, “Sua filha tem corpo de manequim” (your daughter has the figure of a model). My mother sensed that such remarks, though music to my ears, were bad for me.
After a few months in São Paulo I landed a job as an English teacher at the University of Brasília. During the term I had to live there, as the two cities are over 1,000 kilometres apart. Never in my life had I had so many boyfriends. This was probably because in those days the men outnumbered the women living and working in Brasília, but I thought it was because I was thin.
Somehow, though, my relationships foundered and failed. At 26 I returned to the UK, and struggled with a series of uncongenial jobs. Eventually a psychiatric hospital opened its doors. The authorities made me take largactil. Today when I tell young doctors that, they are horrified. Its nickname is “liquid cosh” because it befuddles the patient into a stupor. The hospital sent me back to work full of this vile medication, and through no fault of my own, I was useless.
Over the years I have thought about what caused my anorexia. I think it started with the relentless criticisms my family – parents and aunts – meted out. They meant no harm and didn’t realise I was hurt because I just retreated into my shell.
Adults must refrain from criticising, jeering at or nagging sons and daughters whom they think are overweight. No one should be shamed because of their weight, any more than because they are short-sighted.