The simplest act of defiance to encourage in your daughter

"I counted every calorie and wrote down everything I ate."

"I counted every calorie and wrote down everything I ate." Photo: Damian Bennett

There are far worse things than being fat. You can be stupid or boring, for example. In fact, being obsessed about your weight and controlling everything that goes into your mouth practically guarantees you will be boring, even if you were once quite intelligent.

How would I know? I've been there.

All through my childhood and teens, I was skinny. My high-school lunch was two sausage rolls with sauce and a carton of chocolate milk, preceded at recess by a custard tart. I wasn't particularly sporty or active, I just burned up the calories.

When I hit my 20s, however, I began to put on weight. My boyfriend (now hubby) didn't care - but then I overheard myself being described at work as "the plump girl in the corner" and went on a diet.

Advertisement

I whittled myself down to a slender 45 kilos. Don't panic - I am only 155 centimetres tall, so that is not as drastic as it sounds. But the diet was rigorous. I ate one small evening meal, no breakfast and got through the day on a tub of low-fat yoghurt and a piece of fruit. I also exercised fanatically.

I counted every calorie and wrote down everything I ate. I weighed myself daily and if I reached 46 kilos I descended into despair and semi-starvation. I castigated myself to anyone who would listen every time I gave in to the smallest indulgence. When I felt hungry, I felt virtuous. When I felt full, I felt guilty. Frankly, I was neurotic, narcissistic and screamingly dull. I even bored myself. All I did was obsess over my supposed "fat bits" - in my case, my belly. It was never flat, no matter how thin I became. I even remember hitting this small protuberance hard over and over in a kind of absurd self-punishment.

I gave up that diet when I became pregnant because even I realised that such a tiny amount of food was not enough to grow a healthy baby. Even so, my top pregnancy weight with my first child was 55 kilos (admittedly she was born five weeks premature) and 57 kilos with my second.

But nature will win out. I am from a short, fat family and my sisters and I all put on weight when we breastfed. Weight I have struggled with ever since. There is hardly a diet I haven't tried. Some work for a while but eventually the weight always goes back on.

This is partly because I cannot raise the energy to obsess over food any more. I am fatter but much happier. I am fatter but far less self-absorbed and much more interesting to be around.

I watch with sadness the tendency for so many young women to do what I used to do: allow themselves tiny amounts of food to stay thin. Some of them topple over into full-blown eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.

I don't pretend to know what causes severe eating disorders, but I do know why I obsessed about my own weight when I was young: I felt out of control as a young woman trying to find my place in the world and being thin gave me a spurious feeling of power.

The Butterfly Foundation launched a campaign this month asking people to paint their middle fingernail to help raise awareness about eating disorders. They are also encouraging people to put that middle finger to good use if anyone should "diss" their appearance.

Flipping the bird is a healthier way of holding on to your own power than denying yourself food. It says, "I reject your judgment of me and I will not allow it to affect how I feel about myself." Even if it is just a gesture, it is a defiant one.

It is an entirely good thing to encourage defiance in our daughters. It may even become an act of defiance for a young woman to simply eat whatever she wants.