12th December, 2021
Dear Sergeant Shame,
I am writing with regard to your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image. This will take a while to read, so sit down, make a coffee, shed your mind of prejudice and try to focus. If you are not interested in learning through reading, it doesn’t matter. Over the next few weeks, you will realise that your role has changed, because I will keep reminding you until you learn.
First, I would like to thank you for all of your incredibly hard work. You have kept me safe in so many ways. Because of the little guilt trips you put me on regularly, I am a good daughter, I remember to send cards and messages to people I care about, I am a good mum and a reliable worker. I have positive relationships in my life and everybody I know would describe me as a person with a good heart, even if they don’t personally like me. For this I am grateful to you. You’ve done a good job of keeping me safe, secure and firmly rooted in social connection within this society. I know how to behave. I can hold a knife and fork. I even know which soup spoon to use, because I’ve observed others and you have reminded me to follow the lead of those in the know. I’m not sure about cheek kissing and general etiquette among the more refined in society, but you have tried to help me to fit in, so thank you.
You have accepted a lesser role in many areas of my life and I hope you feel more relaxed because of that. For example, you stopped making me feel ashamed about not believing the Bible and not being a fundamentalist Christian pretty much straight away once I pushed back and informed you that this wasn’t your place. You did put a fear of Hell into me at a young age and you haven’t quite stopped doing that but you’re almost there. I will be getting back to you on that at some point, but for now, it’s not important enough to worry about. It’s not your fault; you were only going on what you heard at church and at home. I know you were trying to keep me safe.
What is of crucial importance now is your role in my life about food, exercise, weight control and body image, which you started to take over when I was 13. I went on holiday to Eastbourne and a lad there fancied me. The excitement of being desired for the first time made my stomach go funny and I could barely eat all week, so I inadvertently lost weight and got visibly thinner. On my return from that holiday, everybody and I mean everybody (!) praised me lavishly for my slimness. ‘Wow! You look amazing!’ people said. ‘You are the slim one in the family!’ said my Auntie. And there you were, Serge, taking it all in. You witnessed how loved I felt, how accepted I was and how this slimness was a cherished status and a prize to be attained.
I didn’t know any better. I was thirteen and my Mum gave me ‘The Greatest Guide to Calories’ to help me continue my weight loss journey. She had struggled with weight cycling all of her life, too, and she was ruled by her own Sergeant Shame, a relentless witch who had her believing all sorts of tripe. But neither she nor I knew any better. Before I knew it, I was eating a ridiculously small number of calories every day and became very slim indeed. I was driven by you. ‘You must get a flat stomach’. ‘Imagine how much people will love you if you are tiny’. ‘Don’t even think about cake’. ‘Eat even less and you will get even smaller’.
I became a shadow of my former self. I struggled to walk upstairs at school. My legs were weak. I thought about food all day. I fantasized about big, sugary, fatty snacks. And, at weekends, I began to binge them, which kicked you into overdrive. ‘No!’ you screamed. ‘You are pathetic! You are so weak!’ As I slowly but surely began to gain the weight back, you shamed me relentlessly. I didn’t know that the voice was yours, Serge. I thought it was my own. ‘I am disgusting’, I said to myself. ‘I hate my legs. I hate my thighs. I hate my stomach. I am a shameful thing’. I thought of nothing else.
I know you were trying to help me. Up until that weight loss, I had felt a nothing girl. Nothing special. I knew my mum loved me. I wasn’t entirely sure that my dad did – after all, he spent quite a bit of my childhood smacking me very hard – hard enough to leave bruises on my skin and in my mind. I thought he probably did love me in some unusual way, but it didn’t feel like love. I was clever at school but in the assemblies that was not worth a bean. Women couldn’t speak, or preach, or do anything other than wear a head covering and learn in silence. I wanted to be a teacher one day and I worked hard at school, but the lure of being slim and staying that way became more important, because it was the only thing that seemed to give me the status and attention that I needed. I know why you took over in the way you did. I get it.
Since then, you’ve stayed in charge with food and body matters. Through my life, as I escaped the religion and fought off the false guilt, as I got my first class honours degree and became a teacher, as I studied for a masters and took on different work responsibilities, as I made relationship choices that affirmed my developing self, as I learned and grew and thrived, you stayed on guard in this aspect of my life: restless, dominant and hypervigilant.
Because of you, I have swung between food control and food freedom but never escaped your drills and sayings. I have heard them every waking minute of every day. When I have obeyed you for years on end through tracking and exercising and limiting and fencing in, you have whispered in my ear: ‘you are OK now but don’t get complacent’. ‘You are acceptable like this but careful with that cake’. ‘You’ve eaten too much. You’d best go for a long run tomorrow’. ‘Oh, you can’t run? You can go to the gym then or bloody well eat less’. Once again, I heard that voice as my own.
When I had years of freedom with food, which I did in my teens and again in my forties, I generally gained weight and your whispers became a shout, reminding me that I didn’t look as good, that my legs were too big and my stomach stuck out and I had cellulite and chubby arms and my boobs were embarrassing. So it wasn’t really freedom because there you were, with your loudspeaker turned up, marching along the fence line, hopping over it and in my face, yelling, in my way, blocking me. Serge, you have ruined my experience of food and my body. You have taken away the pleasure that food and my body should have given me. You made me want to hide, and shrink, and turn off the light, and cover my stomach, and apologise for my womanliness.
When Covid struck, I returned to obedience. It seemed inevitable. I lost weight, trained for marathons, once again received lavish praise for my strong, toned, slim appearance, and achieved the shiny status of a smaller body. How tragic is it that, as women, we are praised for taking up less space? Amid fear, anxiety, panic, shouting news stories, the Coronavirus Daily Update, doom and gloom, the decimation of the NHS and the shock of racist uprising, I returned to the comfort and safety of your rules. I gave in to the lure of tracking and counting and working out and shrinking. But I had read the books, listened to the podcasts, learned the possibility of freedom and lost the complete faith that I once had in you. The compliance was an inconvenience and a chore. I wanted out. I reluctantly complied for the duration of the pandemic and then I started my counselling course. I learned about the mind and applied the psychology that I learned. I realised what was happening here. Your cover was blown and I cannot unlearn what I learned.
Serge, it’s over now. Your time is up. I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt. Imagine that the rest of this letter is being shouted through your very own megaphone. I am not angry at you. But you’ve done your job and you need to hear this.
Sergeant Shame, there is no room for you in my decisions about food or the way that I see my body. There is no morality in food. It is just food. There is no superiority when it comes to doughnuts and lettuce. If I ate doughnuts all day I would be sick. If I ate lettuce all day I would starve. I need them both. A varied and satisfying diet is what I need. It’s what we all need. A diet that is boring results in rebellion. Rebellion leads to shame. And you are no longer welcome.
I have obeyed you for long long long enough. I obeyed you at 13 and I obeyed you at 51. When I disobeyed you I suffered the whiplash of your disapproval. But I am no longer living my life according to your strictures. Remember something. I am your superior. I am YOUR boss. You are not mine.
And as your boss, Serge, your higher ranking officer, I’m here to give you a few facts about food, body image and weight. Ready?
- Eating food that is tasty is better for digestion, enjoyment and satiety. For example, putting butter (in my case vegan) on my vegetables, makes them easier to digest.
- Eating a wide range of food that I enjoy is healthy.
- Shame about my body makes my brain hurt and it’s bad for my health.
- Societal fatphobia is a curse that should be kicked to the furthest depths of all darkness.
- Weight gain is not a moral failing.
- I have the right to be fat and stay fat. And so does everybody else.
- I don’t owe society a slim body. I’m not here to be admired.
- If I have to count every calorie and log every bit of exercise that I do in order to maintain a slim figure, then I am not meant to be this slim.
- Even if weight gain is bad for the health – even if that is true – even if (which is dubious) – so is a life of obsession, shame and guilt around food and body.
- I don’t owe anybody my health, anyway. Health isn’t a moral obligation, so go deal with that.
Finally, Serge, I am here to tell you that I’m going to finish my counsellor training, and become an eating disorder therapist, inspired by the likes of Jennifer Rollin, Christy Harrison, Laura Thomas, Megan Jayne Crabbe, Lindo Bacon and Virgie Tovar. I am going to educate myself about how societal fatphobia is rooted in racism, sexism and immense privilege. I will learn about how eating disorders affect those affected by food scarcity, how race can play a part in body shame and how my own privileges impact my work with others.
In order to do this work, I will take back my territory, the territory that I never occupied but is mine by the rights conferred upon me by my humanity, and I will take personal responsibility to tread each step of my ongoing relationship with food and my body. There will be no rules. Rules have no place in this territory. There will be only love. Each choice will be made with respect for myself and love for my inner child – who needs to be taken care of and has been taken care of in every way except for this one. Each choice will be made according to the context that I am in. Sometimes I will eat too little and sometimes I will eat too much. Sometimes I will eat emotionally and sometimes I will eat out of boredom. But you are not welcome in any of it, because I am going to be learning. Like a little child at 51, I will be learning and will stagger and fall and pick myself up and remind you to back off and keep going, every day, without you and your stun gun and your whip.
I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your reign is over. This happened on 7th December 2021, a day where I found myself metaphorically standing in bright sunlight in an open field with an exciting journey ahead and realised that this is my land to claim and it always has been. I just didn’t know it. You are demoted. You may take a rest from all the whip brandishing, which must be exhausting anyway, and return to your vital function of presenting me with guilt about sending cards, cleaning the bathrooms and calling my mum.
Thanks again, Sergeant Shame. Without you, I wouldn’t be here. But without you in my food choices, where you have no place, I am finally, fully, gratefully and gloriously here.