We’ve all got our weird body issues/hang-ups/anxieties, right? Right. This is a gigantic issue and as such might be a gigantic review – make yourself a sandwich or something for this one, OK?
I honestly don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have a single problem on this front. This has been the case pretty much since secondary school. For me and everyone else I know, varying in severity.
For me, I spent the ages of 13 to 16 wishing I wasn’t so ridiculously small, skinny and flat-chested. I would will myself to miraculously inflate to a pneumatic size 10, ideally with the cleavage of a Wonderbra model and the legs of a much taller person than I actually am. Size 10 was the perfect size, I was convinced – size 10 with 34C breasts. I ate very unselfconsciously (my equally skinny best friend Ali and I were infamous for being able to eat an entire KFC family bucket – complete with Viennetta – between us in approximately 30 seconds flat) and to no avail.
There was one golden summer when I turned 16 and felt OK. The boy I had been in love with for years became my boyfriend, and I was obsessed with Gwen Stefani, who was about as flat-chested as I was. I started doing 100 sit-ups every night, whilst listening to Tragic Kingdom, and soon had the Stefani abs I now coveted.
Then from 17 to 23, I developed some low-level eating issues that had little to do with my appearance and much more to do with the fact that I was pretty depressed. I went away to university and once ate nothing but tinned tomatoes for three months. I smoked more than I ate, and drank vats of diet Coke (and quite a lot of vodka). I had some nasty bulimic habits that took a long time to shake off. Weirdly, when I started mucking around with my eating patterns in such cavalier fashion, I often became less skinny, more bloated (interspersed with periods of serious boniness).
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started exercising regularly, eating reasonably healthily and stopped cannoning from one extreme to the other, so that my weight has become pretty stable. I can say now with a degree of shaky confidence that I am ‘normal’, so these days I only have the same boring, nagging worries that everyone else has.
You know the sort of things. Now that I am a grown-up size 10, I spend quite a lot of time thinking that an 8 is probably the perfect size after all. My boobs are still small but I’m more pear-shaped – unfortunately bony of chest and sturdy of arse. No matter how thin I get, I have stubby Shetland pony legs; I spend a lot of time wistfully Google-imaging Alexa Chung. I wonder if I do my Tracy Anderson work-out DVDs a bit more religiously then I might actually look like Gwyneth (or Gwen, who remains one of my many physical icons). I sometimes have to force myself to run at least three times a week, but sometimes I have to reign in my extreme nature and stop myself from running more than five times a week. For someone who bangs on a lot about eating normally, I feel a weird thrill if I don’t fancy eating dinner, and can pointlessly beat myself up for days over a spell of overeating and overdrinking.
So, whatever your version is of the above – and I’m sure all/most of us have one – Navel Gazing by Anne H. Putnam is a book that we can all relate to (subtitle: One woman’s quest for a size normal). It’s not about the specifics, but the feelings and the often-murky reasons behind them.
Anne’s story is nothing like mine but I could relate to it so much and I am so glad that she has written this honest and fascinating memoir. She became seriously overweight from her teenage years onwards, and then had gastric bypass surgery at the age of 17, when such procedures were not at all well-known or commonplace. She dropped 10 dress sizes and embarked on a personal journey that was mental as much as physical.
She is unflinching and the story manages to be universal yet completely her own. The style is compelling and, despite covering some obviously serious issues, entertaining enough that the book never gets bogged down in grimness.
It’s had a lot of press attention and rightly so – this is a timely book and a really good one. I recommend Navel Gazing totally. And now I’m going to eat that sandwich and try not to worry too much.