It is finals time in 2015 and I, an anxious student mess, have called to my family home in the hope of distraction from deadlines.
"You look really skinny," my sister says, as I frantically reel off the irregular Portuguese verbs I need to revise. I smile; relieved, cosseted, calmed.
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I’d end up crying because nothing fit'
The comment is neither related to my upcoming exams, nor does it serve as a solution to the fact I have 2000 words to write over the next 48 hours. But my sister knows this is the one, sure-fire way to make me feel better. It reminds me that my ultimate goal has actually already been achieved. Screw the degree, screw the dissertation, screw academic achievement, for I, finally, am thin.
Odd as it may seem to some, being skinny held the same level of importance as my education. I know I’m not alone in having felt that. Two-thirds of British women admit to being on a diet "most of the time", and weight loss continues to top the list of New Year’s resolutions year-on-year. Sisters all over the world are continuing to hammer home the idea that 'thinner is better', and that a skinnier self is the ultimate goal.
A slave to the scale
If the measurement of success is the number of compliments received, then my weight-loss as a result of dieting was my greatest achievement. In person and on Instagram, the praise kept coming as the pounds dropped off.
Whilst I revelled in being called "tiny" or a "skinny Minnie", the only compliment that rang true was I was ‘half the woman’ I once was. That’s exactly how I would describe myself at that time, because behind my smaller skirt size, I was a mess.
I was obsessed with food; a slave to the scale. I cried myself to sleep the night before an Italian holiday for fear of what pizza would do to my body, and I hadn’t had a period in two years.
I was in the worst mental and physical state of my life. And for every celebration of my weight loss and every comment on my body, it validated the hours spent begrudgingly in the gym – and all the times I refused to eat carbs with dinner. It wasn’t something to be celebrated.
The experience is, sadly, similar for many women. Alice, an anti-diet blogger, writes, "I received so many compliments on my thinner figure, but because my main source of self-esteem was the praise for my weight loss, it meant I became fixated on losing more weight."
Not only does applauding weight loss anchor our confidence in the way we look, but it also suggests any weight gain is a sign of failure. It implies fat people are just failed thin people, and given 95% of dieters regain any weight lost (just like I did), the odds are stacked against us.
The fear of weight gain then thrusts us into a cycle of yo-yo dieting, restrictive eating and intensive exercise, which Dr Lynn Rossy, a health psychologist, writes "can be more harmful than never losing any weight".
What I believe will (hopefully) prevent women from feeling like failures – particularly when our knicker elastic starts to stretch – is to stop celebrating weight loss. If we stop tying a sense of accomplishment to weight loss, then we won’t become disheartened if pounds don’t drop. We will also stop perpetuating fatphobia by implying those in larger bodies are just thin people who didn’t try hard enough.
That isn’t to say that an attempt to become healthier can’t be praised – but that progress shouldn’t be measured by buying a smaller pair of jeans.
There’s a kinder and more achievable way to do it: start patting yourself on the back for any health-promoting habits. A gold star for eight hours sleep. A tick in the box for getting sweaty at salsa class. A big thumbs up for drinking enough water.
Make the goal to look after yourself, not to make less of yourself.