I Tried To Stop Eating My Feelings — And Now I Have Too Many Feelings
In the last six months, I have lost a substantial amount of weight. This is something I did on purpose. I have been following a diet, which involves preparing plenty of fresh food, restricting and limiting some things and eating an abundance of others. I have rarely been hungry, but I have been hangry. I have smiled beatifically at bowls of crisps, serene (and smug) in the knowledge that they do taste delicious, but I just ate dinner, and I can acknowledge the difference between gratifying a want and meeting a need. I have come close to tears at train stations because I’m tired, and I have wet feet, and I can’t think of a way to fix my broken soul that doesn’t involve 250 millilitres of cheap red wine and five hundred grams of Dairy Milk. I have felt proud and sad, energised and exhausted. I have started to come to terms with the fact that one of my most basic human needs — food — is also my drug of choice. In order to lose weight successfully and safely, I must feel my feelings.
This is what makes weight loss the easiest thing in the world, and the hardest. If our bodies are problems to be solved, they are Maths problems. If our energy output is greater than our energy input, we will lose weight! It’s just like an overdraft. Yet, we live in a world of wet feet, sick parents, jostled elbows, super successful peers on social media, suited bastards in charge of everything, laddered tights, missed busses, depression, anxiety, heartbreak and ennui. Just give me the fucking Dairy Milk. Humans are adept at finding coping mechanisms — and then demonising those coping mechanisms. To be glib, in the nineties we coped with cocaine, and in the noughties we cope by making milk out of anything that grows in the ground. We are extremely resourceful when it comes to finding ways to build ourselves up, and ways to destroy ourselves.
Initially, weight loss worked for me as an alternative coping mechanism, giving me the solace I’d sought from wine and Singapore fried rice. It is strange, living in a society where taking up less physical space makes it easier for people to see you. My sweet, well-meaning friends would comment and compliment coyly. “I know we’re not supposed to say this…but you’re looking really good!” My husband looked on, baffled, as I spent whole weekends “having a clear out” — my private code for “pulling old clothes out from under the bed and parading about our flat in slightly creased finery.” Here, the black silk cocktail dress that zipped up for a hot minute in 2012. There, the satin hostess gown that used to make me look like a late period Fellini extra, now rendered respectable by my diminished tits.
Yet, sometimes my dusty dressing up box let me down. I own plenty of clothes that used to look terrible, and still do. I imagined that I’d start to look like the woman I hope to become one day. Statuesque, but in a slightly waifish way. A bit more modelly. The reflection in my mirror says this. I look as though someone has stuck a pin in my skin and released slightly too much air. I’m not even a broken blow up doll, more of a deflated bouncy castle. The fact — something I have said dozens of times, but never truly believed, is this. A smaller body is not a better body. It is just a body.
The truth is complicated, and I suspect it will make some people angry: I am still glad that I lost weight. When I started eating differently, I had become estranged from my body. I could barely recognise myself in photographs. I had developed a way of seeing myself, so that I didn’t have to deal with it all at once. And I was using coping mechanisms that were quite harmful. I was drinking and eating excessively. Not so excessively that anyone else might notice, but enough to stop me from working through some complicated problems. I was eating my feelings, and I had so many feelings. The other coping mechanism was shopping. I was the Perseus of ASOS, on an impossible quest to find the frock that would bring my head back to my body. I wanted a mould I could pour myself into, a form of shape wear that has yet to be invented that would permit me to like myself.
Now, I am much, much happier. Partly because I’m proud of myself. I tried to do something, and I didn’t give up, even though it often felt extremely hard. Partly because I drink a lot less than I used to, and I’ve learned that my body can operate much more cheerfully when it isn’t processing alcohol. Partly because I’m quite vain, I love clothes and I am really pleased that I can wear that cocktail dress again. But perhaps I’m happier because I’ve got better at allowing myself to be sad, angry and frustrated. I’ve started to work out the difference between hunger and the ridiculous, crushing indignities of being a human being.
It is a work in progress. I’m imperfect. I will have more difficult days ahead of me. I had a vicious, tearful fight with myself on Pentonville Road on Tuesday, being exhausted, hormonal, an hour early for a dinner date and unable to work out whether I wanted to eat a sandwich or go home immediately. I am currently waiting to take delivery of a skirt I won from Ebay — I’ve already convinced myself that it’s going to be too small, and I am having many emotional reactions to this even though it hasn’t arrived yet. I’ve just started to sell some of my old clothes, and unsurprisingly I have a lot of feelings about that process too.
The obvious one is a fear of the jinx — who am I, as a woman, to believe I have any personal agency when it comes to my own body? I must keep these too big clothes under the bed, as a form of insurance, otherwise the weight will return in the night! Are these clothes really too big, or just slightly baggy? How can I have the audacity and confidence to wear smaller size? The biggest issue might be this one. I purchased many of these clothes as an act of hope that cut through a fug of unhappiness. Every brand new, unworn dress was an article of faith that reminded me of the woman I wanted to become. The person I would feel like, one day. When the dresses are sold, where does the hope go? Marie Kondo tells us to get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy. What do you do when all of your clothes are an expression of present despair, and a bet on future joy, floating on a washing line in the horizon? What will become of the imaginary woman?
We need to live for our future selves, up to a point. We need to believe in our dreams and projects and find some motivation beyond doing the work for its own sake. We think we could all be happier. It is very hard to resist the rhetoric that tells us this will happen when we’re wealthier, and slimmer. It is almost impossible to acknowledge that regardless of the number on your scales or in your bank account, you will always get caught in the rain, you will always have frustrating interactions with colleagues and the people you love will die. Losing weight has not protected me from pain. It has probably exposed me to more pain because I have only been able to do it by not using food as a numbing distraction.
Right now, I’m not just grieving for the imaginary woman — I’m mourning the me of six months ago whose dumb lizard brain believed that all of my sadness could be solved if I stopped eating bread. But I’m also excited for me now. I’m starting to realise we can’t wait around for permission to become who we’d like to be. Technically, I am still overweight, and it’s tempting to see my body as a problem that still needs to be solved, a task to be completed. In so many pounds, I’ll be done, and then I can learn the bass guitar and buy new kitchenware and pitch for the work I want and finish reading Anna Karenina. But facts aren’t feelings. My weight will always be a number. It will not make me any more competent, successful or musical. However, I do know that I didn’t lose the weight in a week, and I won’t finish Anna Karenina in one sitting. If we want to bring our imaginary future selves to life, we have to keep rising to meet them. There is no accomplishment that will cure us of being human. We can do anything, as long as we abandon the expectation that our achievements will protect us from feeling anything.