I used to have this illogical fear, a big hairy nasty one that was as ridiculous as it was huge. I was so afraid of this fear I avoided it at all costs, like the school bully. And never talked about it.
My fear was this: that I would be fat. I worried it would sneak up behind me and take over my body without my permission and I would have to roll myself to work. Occasionally I used to have nightmares about it, where everything swelled so much I couldn’t fit my shoes; destined to a life in flip flops.
Like most fears it was not rational, and I let it chase me around for 20 years.
Last month I was invited to talk about body image on the Kathryn Ryan parents segment on Radio New Zealand and I felt like I had come full circle. I was so over my fear of fat I was being invited as an authority on body image! Nervously thrilled I did my homework. I googled, I watched. Reading everything I could find on The Huffington Post. I became a body image nerd. I was going to be the expert I was expected to be with scholarly intelligence, not to mention savvy parenting skills.
Like a dog, my ego loves to be stroked.
The Dimple drove me to the station and I went over my five key points with him, relentlessly. I told no-one about the interview, not even my parents (except for a new friend in Piha in a strange move to impress her) and the Dimple had strict instructions he was not allowed to listen—the thought of anyone I knew listening kept me running to the loo.
As tempted as I was to squash my anxiety with a big swig of whiskey before going on air, I didn’t. I wanted to be there. Sharp. Witty. Present. I was not prepared for just how present I would be. For the first half of the interview Kathryn did not want to hear my advice for parents, she wanted to know all about bulimia (she had seen fuckingawesomebulimicsiknow.com). And worse, my bulimia. And it wasn’t just one question, it was a long chat: “What is it like? Why is it so shameful? Why so secretive?” Horrified where the conversation was going there was nothing I could do.
The worst part was that admitting to bulimia was to admit to that fear: fearing fat. There’s no other logical reason to bring up what’s in your tummy (other than too much vodka which I have also done but that’s more about fearlessness). Live on national radio—the NPR of NZ for my US friends—I came OUT to the entire country but not as an expert, as Barfbag.
I did not feel smart. I felt vulnerable and small, but all I could do was go with it and eventually squeeze in my five points about body image for teens at the end.
But do you know what happened afterwards? Just like George used to say on Seinfeld…
The Dimple (who sat in the car and listened to the whole thing) did not love me any less. Nor did my children (who fortunately didn’t hear it). Nor my parents (who listened to the podcast later). Or brother. Or sister in law. Or many friends (who all heard it because the darn radio station announced my name all morning). Nobody threw eggs at me. Nobody said it was rubbish. Or ridiculous. Nobody suggested a quiet visit to ward 13 of an asylum. And nobody laughed.
The only thing that happened was that people said, “Thank you. I learned a lot. I didn’t know.”
There’s so much focus on body image and body love right now we forget life’s not about our bodies as a shell, but how we feel inside them. Being well. My unhelpful fear of fat came from a chubby childhood and being dumped by a boy on sports day—an innocent act I’m sure, I may have dumped me after watching my attempts at the High Jump—however it meant my desire for love got all mixed up with my sense of being desirable. One of my five points for Kathryn Ryan was that it’s important, especially for Dads, to teach daughters what makes them lovable—that we don’t fall in love with somebody’s eye-liner but how their eyes shine when they tell a story. It’s not how glossy their hair is but how they throw their head back when they laugh. It’s not how long their legs are but their joy when they ride their bike like a demon. The same goes for sons.
Facing my old fear on radio—no hiding behind sarcastic words in a well-crafted story but with my own voice—it shrank away. It lost power, as did my heavy pockets of shame.
Oprah summed this up once: “The thing you fear most has no power. Your fear of it is what has the power. Facing the truth will set you free.”
Relief flooded me after the interview. Now there’s nothing left to hide. I still haven’t listened to it but if any of you missed it, here it is.
*Unfortunately I didn’t think of this line, Frank Herbert did.