My Big Fat Greek body dysmorphia

IS THERE A CERTAIN INEVITABILITY THAT WE ALL, eventually, just turn into our mothers? I’ve been well on my way for a while now – the creeping eccentricity, the hoarding, the compulsive need to hug people that don’t want to be touched – and the complete and utter obsession with my weight.

One of my first memories is Rosemary Conley’s Hip & Thigh Diet meal-plan poster, pinned to the inside of one of our kitchen cupboards. Resplendent in lime green, it was a fascinating 1980s diktat of foods that were decreed passable by ol’ Lycra-hips Conley herself – i.e: Ryvita, boiled eggs, and what looked to me like an avalanche of grapefruit. Also chicken, but never with the skin on. Skin was ostensibly the enemy, although it was never clear why. It still isn’t. Surely that’s just where all the flavour lives?

Skin wasn’t the only adversary in our household, though. It was just symbolic of a rather more oppressive, omnipotent overlord. Fat.

Let me be clear: No one in my family is, or ever has been, overweight. We’re actually relatively slim, although not exactly at our physical peak, being that my parents’ idea of fitness is buying an exercise bike, begrudgingly throwing it away 25 years later, and in the interim using it as the most ergonomically irritating clotheshorse of all time.

What we lacked in burning calories, however, we more than made up for in counting them; a neurotic yet weirdly enjoyable pastime which basically saw my mum and I sit in the kitchen at the end of every day and list everything we’d eaten, in mind-numbing, obsessive detail. If it sounds insane, it’s because it is.

We still do it now, though – the listing acting like some kind of cleansing ritual. If a problem shared is a problem halved, this would be the nutritional equivalent; posthumously slashing calories by virtue of having admitted you’ve eaten them. Being Greek to boot meant that life was one big, fat, amazing meal, but always served with a huge side portion of guilt. Not on purpose, mind you. And never, ever out of any kind of malice. It was just the way it was. Learned behaviour, perhaps, passed down through generations of equally ridiculous, body-obsessed women. And boy, are there a lot of us in my family.

I have four aunties and six female first cousins, all at least 12 years older. A joy in many ways, but also one of the strongest influences I had when it came to forming ideas about body image, identity and happiness. Everyone was always on a diet. Perpetually. Forever. Like some kind of familial Weight Watchers, but where you’re forced to watch giant, moustachioed men barbecue mountains of red meat while you hungry-cry into your taramasalata.

Conversations revolved around size: who’s piled it on, who’s fainting at the wheel but looking amazing while doing it, etc. I remember one of my cousins pointing at me in the sea one summer, saying I had terrible cellulite. I was 12. I locked myself in a toilet a year later as another one called me fat. My mum weighed herself every morning without fail, telling me if the needle on the scales had moved one iota. A brief, inevitable, flirtation with bulimia that followed was scuppered when I realised that I wasn’t really all that keen on vomiting.

Just to clarify, in literally every other way, my family – especially my mum – built up my self-esteem to the Nth degree. Probably too much, to be honest. I apologise to each of my parents’ friends who had to suffer through me standing on the coffee table and playing Nessun Dorma on the saxophone, by way of aiding their digestion. My mum, ultra-proud, insisted.

She always told me I was beautiful and clever, and could do anything I set my mind to. But her attitude towards her body, and her love-hate relationship with food, meant I grew up exactly the same way. Right now, at the heaviest I’ve been in five years, I wish more than anything I could rewire my brain to think it doesn’t really matter. So, as incredible an upbringing as I had, I know that when I have a daughter of my own, she will never hear me complain about my body.

Photo: REX