New year, new you? The selling of hope is big business – and none bigger than the business of getting smaller, says Vix Leyton.
I don’t know when it started, but I feel like I’ve always been aware of my weight, and it’s never quite matched what I wanted.
From pounding the step machine for an hour a day in the run-up to my school prom, through my difficult spell in uni involving subsisting on vodka and tins of sweetcorn to my, mercifully brief, dabbling with prescription slimming pills lifted from my mother’s cupboard (with ingredients from the amphetamine family – be still, my racing heart), I seem to have given a depressing amount of headspace to my size and my feelings about it.
The mood in my brain over the last two decades has swung wildly between Beyoncé affirmations of, ‘Girl, you own this!’ to the dark cocktail hour of the soul that is the cabbage soup diet. All with an underlying pathological fear of bread that I have never quite shifted since Dr Atkins ruined food for everyone back in the early noughties.
It all means I’m an expert on trying (and ultimately failing) to lose weight. I know the calorie count of most foods like I was born with the knowledge, and have been two to three stone both sides of where I currently am. One recurring theme in the endless conversations about diets that I seemed to be constantly subjecting myself to, was evangelism for ‘group slimming’, and I eventually bowed to the pressure.
Full disclosure: I’ve never put back on the first stone I lost the very first time I went to my ‘slimming by committee’ weapon of choice, so for the purposes of doing what it says on the tin, it stands up to scrutiny. Stick to the plan, you will lose weight. The rub is the psychological cost.
For me, what slimming clubs represent is very troubling because what they really sell is hope. It’s a plan that is almost too easy: you don’t have to give up the things you love, you can eat all the carbs you want! Five jacket potatoes for lunch? Crack on! And therein lies the rub: the plan requires no real introspection into your relationship with food and why you think losing weight might transform your life.
“For that stone (hopefully) lost forever, I have paid a very high price over six years. I’ve sat grumpily at the hen parties of beloved friends, refusing to touch cocktails and sticking to ‘gin and slim’, worried about upcoming holidays and how sad I would be to undo all my good work.”
For someone like me, who has spent years believing I was two stone away from living the life I dreamed of, it’s validation of that view. Come in! Sit in a circle and talk about everything you put in your mouth and we will make you thin – the holy grail for the image consciously insecure.
All you need to do is commit to following a plan that places a value on the things that make life taste nice, and follow it for the rest of your life, measuring each week not by the joy you had, but by how you controlled your food intake.
Coping strategies were developed in ‘group’ for things like family weddings, birthdays and holidays, turning them into obstacles to your end-game of ‘thin’ rather than exciting things you should be looking forward to. Helpful suggestions to make your life a socially awkward, shaming horror show included taking Fry Light on holiday and asking restaurants to use that instead of oil. The group also frequently involved tearful confessions from people who fell to the evils of the Big Mac, lambasting themselves for their moments of weakness.
But is it therapy? In the same way you wouldn’t take the advice of a shop assistant on commission on how good you look in something they want you to buy without a pinch of salt, just how much can you trust and rely on the slimming group ‘consultants’ telling you what you should and shouldn’t be eating?
By the time I’d gone back for the fifth and final time, having once again regained weight to my self-set hard limit, the whole thing had lost its gloss and got me thinking about what I was doing to myself.
Weight loss/diet groups are a huge industry. When you think about it, selling a plan meant to rehabilitate you and your eating habits and set you free to live your life is simply not in the business model.
What is lucrative is a critical mass of people like me who have tasted enough success to know it works, but left the groups light and smug with no better awareness of where the extra weight was coming from or why it went away. Like elastic bands, we keep coming back – rejoining, paying our £5 a week to be weighed and evaluated, repeat ad infinitum.
If you ask how the plan works, you get a vague answer: you don’t have to know how it works, it just does. And then when you leave, it just stops. I also found myself starting to vocally rail against what I perceived to be nutritionally dubious advice: shop-bought salads – even those that are full of the right, healthy stuff – are risky territory. Much safer to stick to Mug Shots or just-add-water couscous (to borrow from Mark Corrigan in Peep Show, “Misery sand”). Points/syns/whatever-wise, nuts and olives sit side-by-side with Mars bars, like all foods are created equal.
Even putting misery sand aside, ‘on plan’ I wasn’t eating healthily; not in what I ate particularly – I actually like vegetables and salads; my vices are mainly booze and cheese – but in terms of how I ate it. My week was in two halves; the three days before weigh-in, where I desperately went hard to correct for the other half, those halcyon three days post-weigh where I felt like I had a clean sheet and room to breathe.
All of this culminating in the dreaded weigh day itself. I got into the habit of eating nothing until after my evening weigh-in and stopping drinking at least three hours before; anything to put the scales gods on my side. If I stayed the same, gained, or lost less than I felt I deserved, the next couple of days were ruined.
It wasn’t any particular epiphany that had me quit after Christmas 2015. I genuinely thought I’d go back. It developed more slowly, like a Polaroid: the whole process was dominating my headspace even more than my weight consciousness did. It put the very trivial matter of what I weigh front and centre of all decision making.
“What slimming clubs represent is very troubling because what they really sell is hope. The plan requires no real introspection into your relationship with food and why you think losing weight might transform your life.”
For that stone (hopefully) lost forever, I have paid a very high price over six years. I’ve sat grumpily at the hen parties of beloved friends, refusing to touch cocktails and sticking to ‘gin and slim’, worried about upcoming holidays and how sad I would be to undo all my good work, dreading events where there might be a buffet.
I’ve eaten at some of the best restaurants in London (on expenses as a PR) and had salad, with the dressing on the side – and I can tell you with conviction that a salad is a salad wherever you go. I have been either ‘on plan’, or ‘off plan’. And off plan tended to involve at least a few weeks in a euphoric orgy of eating all that I couldn’t before.
It was like playing a very long game of snakes and ladders, and the disappointment of sliding back to square one was harder every time. I harbour the suspicion that for every amazing success story – and I know there are many, these guys’ PR machines are excellent – there are 100 people like me in a cycle of successes and failure arbitrarily measured by the capricious numbers on the scales. The process is reductive in more than the way that you pay for.
If this piece of writing in itself isn’t quite enough to get me blacklisted forever then let this serve as my official resignation from slimming by committee.
There is absolutely no criticism intended of the people who have done it or will continue to do it. I know why – and anyone taking any proactive steps to tackle the reasons for their unhappiness has nothing but respect from me.
But I needed to look at why my self-worth was so intrinsically linked to a machine that I could influence by moving around the bathroom floor, rather than simply have the opinion that it was so readily validated by people who have a vested interest in doing so.
Slimming clubs, it’s not you, it’s me. It just took me a while to get here.
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Vix is a financial PR and ginabler who lives and works in East London. As a result she long ago lost sight of whether riding a unicycle while wearing a monocle is par for the course on a normal day.