“Are you on a diet?”

I was 22 years old. I was not on a diet. I was not overweight. Yet…

It was Christmas Day and I was away from my family. Invited to a friend’s house for the day, I met a lovely Japanese couple. His English wasn’t the greatest and when I said I didn’t eat meat, he asked if I was on a diet. It was an innocent question – and his wife quickly jumped in to clarify. He was asking if I had dietary restrictions. I did. I was vegetarian.

Within a year I was also bulimic.

I had grown up in an environment where weight and appearance were incredibly important. I was the chubby kid in a skinny family. My mother started “watching my weight” the day I was born. She watched it until the day she died and it was rarely good enough. Consequently I became highly sensitised to any comment on my weight, appearance, dietary intake, exercise or value as a human being.

So when a lovely Japanese man tried to ask why I didn’t eat meat, but instead asked if I was on a diet, what I heard was,

“You’re fat. You should only eat vegetables because you need to lose weight so you can look like the rest of us.”

That was 29 years ago. But I remember the rush of shock and the pounding of my heart as if it were yesterday. I have always struggled to express emotion or cope with conflict. So when confronted with this situation I didn’t externalise anything – I probably just smiled and agreed. I don’t really know. I don’t remember what was going on around me, I just remember what was going on inside me. Outside I was frozen. Inside I was in turmoil.

You’re fat.

How embarrassing!

What do I eat now?!

Will they notice every time I eat some food?

Are these pants showing all my bulges?

Do they hate me?

Why am I so stupid?

What time can I go home?

Can I go to the toilet and sit there for five minutes now?

I was consumed with embarrassment and shame, but being raised the polite young woman I have always been, I suspect they had no idea. Thankfully I never met that Japanese couple again.

Life is filled with these moments. An innocent comment so easily turned into a moment of self-hatred. It has taken experience, wisdom, age, support and a decade of self-reflection to learn to shake off the angst that hits silently at an unexpected moment. And I am still learning. It takes a lifetime.

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