As a small child, I was both a picky eater and a greedy one. Photos show me with a mop of dark curls and giant green eyes, pudgy, happy, brash, bossy, with barbecue sauce or chocolate cake smeared all over my Cabbage Patch Doll face. Me pleased as punch with a spare rib like a little caveman. A pizza the size of a table in an American food court.Eyes lit up with a sundae decorated with sparklers. A watermelon smile bigger than my face.
But there were plenty of things I wouldn't touch. Childhood illness and ENT surgery at the age of five left me assaulted by strong smells. Previous everyday facts of life - the fishmonger, the kosher deli, the butcher - were now a horrorshow of viscera, scales and slime, of foreign and alien weird food my family ate which my school friends clearly didn’t: roll mops and onion, cod roe, gefilte fish, taramasalta. And then there was the boak at all things dairy: the thick cream on to the top of the daily kid-sized milk bottles foisted upon us as nursery until Thatcher snatched ‘em, for which I was immensely grateful. The suitcase-size tupperware in the kitchen fridge full of cheeses which my father would work his way through on weekend breakfasts. The yogurts and up-chuck which dribbled down the chins of my baby sisters. De-skuzz-ting.
And then, imagine my indignation, on recovering from whatever tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy, fun-ectomy I had endured, to be carted off - every. single. day. - to school, where lunch was served in in chipped china bowls half-full of slop. Brown stew with boiled potato, white casserole with flicks of carrot. Perfectly good desserts (Cowboy Tart - a piecrust filled with Cornflakes and golden syrup - was a particular favourite) ruined with a bucket of oozing puss-coloured custard with a rubbery skin on top. Fish fingers and chips ruined by a peas which seemed to get everywhere: I was horrified by things which got everywhere. Peas, sweetcorn, baked beans, grated cheese. Wednesdays were Salad Days and Salad Days were the worst. The pervasive sour smell of salad cream, pickled cubes of beetroot, cold potatoes and iceberg lettuce.
When I changed schools at the age of 8 (and where I would stay to the age of 18), I could not believe that such a paradise could be considered a school. We would walk in pairs along the edge of the forest and beside the tennis courts us to a dining hall walled in dark wood. We would carry our own trays and could select what we liked from two long buffets - one for hot food and one for cold. Nothing was compulsory, only offered by kindly dinner ladies (Any beans? No thanks. Chips? Yes please. Help yourself to gravy). Many items we could just help ourselves to. A salad bar. Bread rolls. Fruit. Gravy. Ketchup. A full roast lunch on Wednesdays. Curry on Thursday. Fish and chips every Friday. A hot pudding everyday and a Creme Egg the day before the Easter Holidays. The reassuring option of a ham roll and tinned pineapple, always available should everything else go wrong.
The school was a somewhere between Malory Towers and Hogwarts, despite its location somewhere between EastEnders and Birds of a Feather, with batty professors and a Latin school song and more than one library. For us little kids, there was a brand new building, across an ocean of pristine lawns and cricket squares and a whole coastline of long jump sandpits. There was Cub Scouts for girls and boys alike, and members could wear shorts to school on Wednesdays. In the morning we’d sing modern hymns and in the afternoon do Maths with brand new text books full of multicultural cartoons, and after school there was a campfire and marshmallows. I thought it was more like a holiday camp than a school, a holiday camp being the highest compliment I could pay at the time. I was in heaven.
One break time I was walking the corridor at school, and was approached by one of the teaching assistants. I particularly liked this one, because she always seemed to take an interest in me and my habits, and I thought she was right to do so. I was interesting, and my family ensured I was used to the rapt attention of adults. Her curiosity about the little dance routines I would choreograph alone in the playground was warranted; I also thought they were excellent, and perhaps of a professional standard. The songs and plays I would write and perform to myself were likewise indicative of a precocious and burgeoning talent. I thought so, my parents thought so, my grandparents thought so, and that was that.
On this occasion, she wanted to know about my eating habits.
“Sara, can I ask you. What do you have for tea?”
I didn’t like this question. I could tell something was up. I tentatively offered the honest answer.
“Erm… crisps? And maybe cake or biscuits“
She was horrified.
“Just cake or biscuits?” she gasped.
I smile and nod as apologetically as possible. I think I’ve sussed out the problem, but don't have the social skills to clarify. There are people around and I’ve been singled out by an almost-teacher out of the blue. I just want the interview to be over before anyone else notices.
In my house, Tea was afternoon tea, which would would consist of, as I rightly said, maybe some cake or biscuits or crisps and a cup of tea or orange squash, and was taken with guests on special occasions. Maybe if someone was coming round after school but not staying for a proper meal, or for a birthday treat, or for a religious festival. Tea was not a frequent occurrence, but is was a pleasurable one. I also enjoyed the variety of teas one would get when visiting other people. At one house we’d have Mr Kipling’s Fondant Fancies. At another, we’d be allowed to make our own horrific confections of peppermint cream and chocolate crispy cakes topped with golden syrup. At one friend’s I tucked in to a Marmite sandwich only to discover it was Nutella. At my cousins’ there would be honey cake and marble cake. At my grandparents there would be chicken legs and little fried donuts called bubeles served with homemade jam from the quince tree in the garden.
At home we called the evening meal supper and the midday meal lunch. At school, lunch was called dinner, but I also noticed that most people also called their evening meal dinner. I had never encountered the term tea as a description of an evening meal. I had been fed generously at all sort of tables in all sorts of homes, in council flats and condos and millionaires’ mansions, and was a fledgling citizen of the world, with friend and relatives from a hundred different countries. But I didn’t really know anyone from Up North, and never - ever - had I encountered “tea” as an evening meal. So when I was asked about tea, I answered about tea as I understood it.
I have had the conversation several million times with friends from up and down the country and the class spectrum, and there really is no consensus, other than you’d have to be a bloody idiot not to realise that different people have different names for meals.
The school took it as a confession that I was subsisting on cake and crisps alone, whether out of child abuse or fussy eating, but it was made clear to me that fat children should not be eating cake and crisps. Fat little girls who liked to dance and sing alone were clearly being bullied - or were asking to be bullied - and needed to be normalised.
I was being called a fat little girl. This hadn’t occurred to me before. I was a fat little girl.
My eyes welled and reddened. Fat ugly tears spilled over my fat ugly cheeks.
Retrospectively, she may have got the wrong idea about me and my eccentricities. In fact I had lots of friends and was naturally very sociable, but every artiste needed time alone with the muse when it struck them, and so I unembarrassedly would take myself off to rehearse or improvise, the better to show off to my classmates later, over lunch.
But not any more. From then on, food would have to become my dirty little secret.
A letter was sent home, or a comment made in an otherwise glowing school report. My burgeoning chub needed to be nipped in the bud. Aged 10 I had a doctor’s note to get my prepubescent arse into Weight Watchers, and my mother took me to the meeting down the road from the school, as if to guarantee that teachers would would also be there. Aged 12 the same doctor thought it appropriate to give me amphetamine diet pills in a little brown envelope. It was like Requiem for a Dream set at St Trinians.
In our last term in the junior school, my best friends and I were the last in the changing room after school. I took the opportunity to show them my new set of underwear, of which I was immensely proud. It was an innocent moment. A matching crop top and briefs set, white with back spots and black with spots. I was proud of the size 12, which I equated with my not-quite age, rather than the grown up size. I awkwardly struck a pose, and in one, startling moment, realised that I was more and therefore less than these girls. They were lithe and beautiful, in their itchy gym knickers and and Lisa Simpson trainers. I had a sudden startling revelation of what womanhood was and what I was not. I’m sure my friends never batted an eyelid. I asked one of them recently; she’s still my best friend. She remembers the Simpsons trainers.
Meals become a minefield. For the next two years I wouldn't eat a meal in the school dining room, much to the concern of my friends, but the tuck shop lady knew I wasn’t starving. And by going to the tuck shop only when the rest of the school was at lunch, I missed the indignity of queuing up for sweets with my fellow students. Because god forbid anyone ever saw me in there. Two bars of chocolate, and a small bag of penny sweets, I’d always pretend that only one was for me, the rest for friends. I might in fact just be running an errand for my friends, and not indulging myself at all. It was very important to have a good cover story. Because fat little girls shouldn’t eat sweets. I would sit by my locker, calculating the Weight Watchers points of a Drifter or a Milky Way, reading Just Seventeen magazine or Marx for Beginners, drawing pictures of dogs, writing angry poetry, and having a good old cry.
At home it was a bit different. Eating en famille was important. The Friday night table piled with dishes. A slab of brisket, slow cooked all day whilst we were at schooling my parents were at work. Baked potatoes cut in half, scored, and brushed with butter before going back under the grill to crisp up. At least two gravies, one thick and meaty, the other a clear and shiny jus preferred by my middle sister. Tureens of cabbage - dark and bubbly savoy, pale and farty white, flaps of spring greens, bunches of curly kale (my personal favourite). another bowl of two of peas or beans or carrots. Pickles in jars and plastic bags or decanted in to bowls: new green, hamisha, Polish, bread-and-butter, spicy Israeli ones from a tin. A large round spiral of challah, the size of a newborn baby, that we’d cut in to fat slices and smear with butter, or just rip hunks of the twisted dough with our hands and dip it in gravy. A choice of desserts: always a big fruit salad, with melon and grapes and what ever looked good in the supermarket. Boxes of ice creams and lollies, straight from the freezer to the table, then anxiously taken back to the freezer before they melted. Maybe a Vienetta, or, if my cousins were in attendance, a Sara Lee chocolate gateaux (bleurgh). A homemade crumble or a shop-bough strudel or a pie, with a choice of custard or ice cream or cream. There might even be sweeties for after.
But I was getting mixed messages. Even at the heaving family table my abstemiousness would be praised and any divergences always commented upon or policed in someway. My grandmother’s warning “Nisht!” delivered as a hiss and with a smack on the hand. Treats doled out to the other kids and not to me. A smaller easter egg for Sara. The bizarre gifting of Diabetic Chocolate which tastes of shampoo and gives me the shits.
But self-consciousness once attained is hard to shake off. It was years before I felt able to eat in public. It took many more years than that not to be terrified of a friend or stranger joining us at home for a meal, and seeing all our peculiarities and overindulgences close up. And in a way I have never got over my horror of having to eat at someone else’s house. The etiquette, the assumptions, the menu. Of being seen as fussy or picky or greedy. Of having my plate and eating habits noticed or scrutinised.
As I hit my teens, I got more into my stride. I worked out what I liked and what I was like. I was a big girl, sure, but I was fancy and funny and fearless. Punky, gothy, neons, pastels, vintage, glitter, rock’n’roll. Britpop 90s London was a summer of love for indie kids. It was a great time to be fat or queer or alternative. It was a fucking awesome time to be a girl. We would stomp on school uniform regulations with platform boots. I dictated the terms in which other people would describe me. I was never going to be The Fat One. I was going to be The One with Pink Hair, the fairy wings, and memorably once The Green Eyebrows. I reveled in my The Girl Who reputation, which became my first ever email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
AOL I shit you not dot com. My parents are still on AOL. There are huge parts of the London suburbs where it’s always 1997.
No one ever commented on my weight or appearance for a great many years. I was happy, healthy, with good friends and good grades and some amazing outfits. Not until I went to University would I understand the bullying and harassment meted out to fat girls. The shame and humiliation reserved for those who just wouldn’t, couldn’t, fit in. But that’s another story.
It wasn’t until I lost a lot of weight that I felt permitted to enjoy food. It felt like coming out of the closet (larder). I try to be defiant. I take my picture eating an ice cream. I try to order what I want and what I need, not what I think I should have.
But even that is within limits. I am always aware of the optics of what I’m eating, where I’m eating, how I’m eating, and how much I’m eating. I honestly thought this was an experience reserved for fat people, but the more I’ve embraced food in my life and work, the more I notice the exhausting microbattles raging all around me. A table with four girlfriends can turn into a round of competitive abstinence. Just a starter please. Can I get this without the chips? Can you do a side salad as a main? A Sunday Roast piled high with a Yorkshire the size of a human head can provoke joy in some company and horror in others. One is now a Vegan, one is on Whole30, another is only eating now because she hast eaten anything all day. I admire how firmly and fixedly they stick to their regimes, where I will fall, fail at the first sight of the specials. I have taught myself to be disgusted by large portions: I can’t possibly eat all that. Desserts might sound lovely but are too rich. Maybe order one with five spoons. We signal our vice or virtue with every menu option. I am vigilant. I know what you ordered, what you ate and how much. I judged you on your choices. The pride I feel when I spread a banquet before my friends, the menu and lighting just so, is tinged with the shame of the fat girl at the feast. I pick at the dainty dishes I lay before my guests, unappetised, disgusted at all this bounty, all this butter, appauled at the gluttony that conceived of this feeding frenzy.
An embarrassment of dishes.