And then followed
"how did you do it?! Tell us!"
Oh dear. I felt very sad with these beautiful, healthy-looking young girls in front of me, looking at me as though I was holding the Holy Grail. I wanted nothing more than to scoop them in for a big hug and tell them you're perfect the way you are. Just like I would have wanted when I was 16.
So, I pretty much did that. But I don't know if they believed me.
Seeing that the theme of my talk that afternoon was "things I wish I'd known at your age" (boy did I feel old!), I wasn't going to miss my chance to hopefully talk some sense into these kids, and spare them what I went through. Hating your body and hating yourself is no way to live, whatever age you are.
I spouted what I could remember of this post I wrote three years ago. I told them that, to me, they were healthy and beautiful. That starving yourself doesn't work. That there are far more important things in life than what you look like. That they should exercise and be active for the joy of it. That they should enjoy being young, and the freedom of being young, while they can.
I asked their teacher later if I could email her the post I did, and could she hand it out in class. She happily agreed, and felt sorry for me that I'd been ambushed by these girls when the reason for me coming to speak to them was not weight loss!
But I didn't mind really. I just felt so sad, remembering that once upon a time I was one of those girls. Thinking that being skinny would mean I would be happy - it would be some key to a magical land where I would be popular and cool and boys would like me. Oh, far from it. If you're confident and happy, people will like you, no matter what size you are! God, I wish I had known that then.
Speaking from my own experience, being slim has not brought me happiness. Learning to like myself and having the courage to follow my dreams has. Finding someone who loves me for everything I am, warts and all, has helped too :)
When I stood on those scales on that grey April day in 2005, yes I wanted to be slim, but I also wanted to be happy. I wanted to be proud of myself. I wanted to look forward to each day, instead of dreading it. I wanted to feel confident and young (I was only 23 at the time and felt about 50!). I wanted to stop being so afraid of life - and so jealous and resentful of other people and their achievements. I wanted to feel in control of my life. If I happened to lose weight in the process of gaining all these things, then that would be a bonus, as far as I was concerned at that very moment, with the men's size 40 jeans and size XL shirt sitting in the ironing pile.
I knew I had issues that had led me to where I had ended up. I knew that I would have to deal with them eventually. It wasn't until after I reached goal that I really started facing them though. While I was losing weight, I had my goal to focus on - and ironically, I still had my remaining fat to blame if I screwed up or something went bad for me. Fortunately, those moments were few and far between, because something inside me just wouldn't let me give up, made me hold myself accountable for what happened in my life, and wouldn't let me be negative for too long. What I wanted to achieve was always gleaming in front of me like the proverbial pot of gold.
The euphoria of getting to goal and its aftermath was sweet and wonderful, and lasted for well over a year. It was an amazing time, where I felt utterly invincible. I stupidly believed that my "issues" had gone for good. I couldn't have been more wrong.
It's really only been the last eighteen months that I've really got a handle on my issues - because they unexpectedly all came flooding back. The destructive, self-loathing thoughts and behaviour that got me to where I was all those years ago were all of a sudden part of my life again, when I thought I'd banished them to the land of wind and ghosts forever. It was truly terrifying to be feeling like that again, after the sweet-honey golden glow of the year before. Even though I didn't alter physically (well, I thought I had, but was assured endlessly to the contrary) my mental state was shot to shit. And if there's one thing I learned in that time it's that if you don't have your mental health, you don't really have much at all.
The mental and the physical cannot be separated - one always mirrors the other, and affects the other. I know from my own experience that until you're prepared to take a good hard look at your mental health, look at the reasons why you behave/react/think the way you do and are prepared to do whatever it takes to deal with your issues, then everything you do to improve yourself physically is just a short term solution. If I hadn't been prepared to find a counsellor, stay on top of my issues and really work hard at changing my patterns of behaviour and thinking, then I was going to end up right back where I was.
It helps that exercise plays such a vital part in my mental wellbeing. I feel amazing after a run, so I try to go as often as I can, and have running goals to focus on (like my half marathon!) to get me out the door when it's snowing or a block of Green and Blacks on the couch looks far more enticing!
It's really quite a simple equation.
Phil eats well + Phil goes for a run = Phil feels happy
Phil feels happy = Phil is more likely to keep exercising and eating well
Phil exercises and eats well = Phil fits into her small clothes
Phil fits into her small clothes = Phil feels happy!
Phil feels happy = Phil can deal with life's ups and downs better, and doesn't get upset about silly things that she'd normally get upset about if she was feeling fat/grumpy/tired/useless
I do these things in addition to working actively on my issues. It's hard work, because the negative thoughts have become used to having all the airtime, but slowly I'm replacing them with more helpful thoughts and behaviours. It's been a year of change so far, and I feel good! For most of last year I was in a bit of an emotional black hole, but now I seem to have climbed out. Once again, I've learned that reaching goal doesn't signal the end of the journey. If anything, the journey is just beginning.
As I was finishing talking to the girls, feeling hopeful I had convinced them that being healthy was more important than being skinny, I noticed another bunch of them and a teacher come into the sports hall and start getting set up for an after school exercise programme, including an aerobics DVD! I would have loved to have had something like that when I was at school!
"Go on," I said, "that's what you should do - be active and have some fun with your friends. Do it for fun."
And I saw them join in as I left the sports hall.
I saw them smile and look like they were enjoying themselves. I hope so much that I got through to them.
Image from Creature Comforts
Afterwards, my friends and I took the bus to Wimbledon and enjoyed Sauvignon Blanc and delicious thin crust pizza. Being able to enjoy my food without feeling guilty is something I never take for granted. It's a joy that everyone should be able to experience. I enjoyed every mouthful. I enjoyed the company of my friends. I felt very happy.
Life's just too fragile and too short to be anything else.