Somebody isn’t using Marvel: Growing up fat in the 1980s

Here is a picture of me, aged 10:
Okay, it’s a bit of an exaggeration – my skin was not that lily-white and I had shorter hair. Plus, I’d have killed for a genuine pink leotard. But beyond that, I’ll be honest, it’s a pretty good likeness.

I got this artist’s impression of myself – generic, miserable, cake-obsessed fat girl – from my teachers at school in 1985. It was in a booklet they gave out to everyone at the end of “the period talk”. Called Take A Look At Yourself, it was produced by the National Dairy Council and sent out to all primary schools in an effort to brainwash young girls into associating having periods with drinking milk and eating cheese. I don’t think there was an equivalent for boys.

By the time I received Take A Look At Yourself, I already knew I was fat. I can’t remember ever not knowing it. It was not a subjective self-assessment. The school nurse told my parents I was too heavy. The dinner ladies were told to give me salad instead of mash. The other children would sing the Marvel advert at me in the playground (“Somebody isn’t using Marvel, Marvel is over 99% fat freeeee!”), then launch unduly hard Special K “pinch more than an inch” pinch attacks. It was a nightmare. I knew that at some point I’d have to lose weight, to look at least a bit more like the girls in Bananarama. It was just such hard work, what with everyone around me being a total cunt. No wonder I regularly hit the biscuit barrel before stepping onto the scales, sadly, with the same old comedy knickerbocker glory thought bubble hanging over my head.

Trying to diet in the 1980s was no fun at all. I mean, it never is, but back then diet foods were exceptionally shit. There was crunch ‘n’ slim, One Cal, Lean Cuisine, Shape French Set Yoghurts and cottage cheese. Nothing else had the calorie count on the packaging, so most things were out of bounds. The only way to try and beat the system was to purchase a tiny yellow booklet called Count Your Calories, which gave calories per ounce of various generic foodstuffs, on the bizarre assumption that you’d be arsed to weigh them out. In the late 1980s the received wisdom was that 70s dieting (cutting out carbs, i.e. Atkins) had been total crap, and that the way forward lay in cutting out fat and gorging yourself on fibre. Only if you were ten and had parents who didn’t believe in diets anyhow, they wouldn’t listen and you’d be required to eat cheese regardless. And then the National Dairy Council would throw a complete spanner in the works by agreeing that this was okay, too.

I rediscovered Take A Look At Yourself recently and was surprised to discover it didn’t also contain the words “long” and “hard” in the title, given that I remember it as such a harsh, unforgiving book. It is only 24 pages long but the impact it had on my life was huge. I became obsessed with this book. Sometimes, in later life, I’d wonder whether I imagined it. What were people thinking, handing out this crap to impressionable, insecure girls on the verge of puberty?

The booklet contains loads of unnecessary bollocks – advice on clothes, hair, skincare, avoiding BO (“left to itself it can become quite unpleasant and unattractive and so every effort should be made to prevent it”) – all of it to hammer home the message that starting your periods, in making you a “real woman”, has to make you totally obsessed with your appearance. The stuff that really got to me related to diets, though. That stupid fat girl picture, and also the words.

The ‘Weighty’ Problems section tells us:

You won’t want to be overweight — not just because it’s unfashionable and unattractive, but also because it’s not good for your health (and remember, the same applies to being underweight).

It’s nice that a thought is spared for the underweight as well. Even so, there is not a picture of a skinny girl on the scales fretting about lettuce leaves. Perhaps there was an issue with space on the page. The book goes on to tell us:

If you are inclined to put on weight too quickly or too easily, the best thing to do is to cut down all round on the amount you eat. This means cutting down on the size of helpings at meal-times (except for most vegetables and fruit) and cutting out snacks between meals. Remember, you’re eating to be healthy as well as to be the right shape, so it’s important to have a variety of foods. Never go on crash diets – these can be dangerous. If you have eaten correctly from an early age, slimming shouldn’t be necessary.

I can see how to some people, all of this might sound fairly benign. To me, though, it wasn’t. It was the last line that killed me, the sense of blame and responsibility, as if at ten I had somehow already fucked up on the diet front. And the fact that, however much of a comedy leotard-wearing fat girl I was, I wasn’t permitted to ease the pain quickly with a crash diet. Oh no, these can be dangerous. And on top of all this, all the other girls got this booklet, the thinner and prettier ones. It was like a public shaming. And worst of all, none of the boys, fat or thin, had to deal with any of this.

Fuck them, I thought. Or rather, I didn’t. I didn’t think “fuck” back in those days. I don’t know if I ever got so far as to think into words the anger that I felt. Instead I just stopped eating anything. To do otherwise had just become too confusing.

Twenty-six days after my twelfth birthday I began the first of three long-term hospital admissions for anorexia. I do, in part, blame that fucking book. I also blame myself. And I blame the Nancy Reagan, 1980s Kylie Minogue, Special K and the whole of the Sweet Valley High series.* But mainly Take A Look At Yourself. Because it was given to me by figures of authority and I thought it therefore mattered.

On the bright side, it all meant I didn’t get those sodding periods after all! Way-hey! I didn’t get them till I was well into my twenties, at which point I forgot to stop eating and got fat again, only this time very, very fat. In particular, I ended up with massive, back-breaking breasts and eventually saw a consultant regarding a breast reduction. He agreed it was advisable, but also recommended trying to lose some weight: “Try drinking less lemonade and eating fewer jam tarts” (bizarre, I know. Do I look like an Enid Blyton character?). Anyhow, I didn’t answer him back, because fat people know their place (but that’s all they know, what with being fat and therefore stupid and doughnut-obsessed).

The happy ending to all this is that I did lose the weight, and I did it without developing full-blown anorexia again. Want to know my secret? Smoking! What’s dying of lung cancer in your mid-fifties compared to being a fatso? You know it makes sense! Or at least, it makes as much sense as all the diet crap does. It’s pointless and hurtful and mean. Anyhow, I don’t smoke any more. I’m now fat in the “normal” sense (in the same way that any woman who is not about to drop dead of malnutrition is fat).

I don’t really know how to end this post because I don’t think it’s any better now, not even with proposed “body image classes”. It’s just different. A different type of meanness. We don’t give girls stupid booklets but Heat and Closer body hatred is in their faces all the time. I suppose what I’m really wondering is, why, in all this time, in so many years, haven’t we just evolved? WHY AREN’T WE BETTER THAN THIS?

Well, that’s just what I think. But what would I know. Most of my thinking space is taken up with knickerbocker glories.**

* Of the Sweet Valley High books, the worst one is called Power Play. A fat girl called Robyn starves herself to Wakefield-twin thinness and gains the life she’d always dreamed of. Somewhat amusingly, a few years later (perhaps when the publishers realised just how monumentally awful this book was) a sequel was released – The Perfect Girl – in which Robyn develops anorexia. Only it isn’t that funny, really. I’d have preferred a book in which she got fat again and walked all over the Wakefields and their shitty little crew.

** A comedy foodstuff which no one ever eats. I’ve had two goes at being fat and still haven’t had one. Perhaps they’re mythical.