Being followed is an unnerving experience, particularly when your shadow is hell bent on encouraging you to make poor food choices.
‘Have the lasagne,’ she says from behind while you queue in the work canteen, ‘you deserve it.’
She comes with me everywhere. She even follows me abroad so that when I’m on holiday, this is the sort of thing I get: ‘Food is a celebration, Joanna. It is one of life’s pleasures. Partake of its bounty.’
There is some wisdom in what she says, this invisible follower of mine, which makes her hard to ignore.
Flashback two years and you will find me in a very strange Skype conversation with a group of fat women and another person, Helen, who used to be fat but has gone so far to the other side that she is now working as a counsellor for a market leader in the slimming industry. She is listening to me very intently as I tell her about the crumpet I ate last night, about the way the butter sank into the dimples of the dough, allowing me to add some more butter.
‘Can you tell us what was going through your head at that moment, Joanna?’
‘Absolutely nothing was going through my head except how delicious the crumpet was.’
Some of the other pixelated fat people titter a bit.
Helen-the-counsellor does not join in. I have displeased her. I could hardly tell her that Fat Susan made me do it though, could I?
People who have recently lost a lot of weight are not interesting, except perhaps, to each other. Luckily, there are plenty of online meeting places for them these days: Slim-Mins, Fat Girl Slim, Weight-To-Go. In these chat rooms you will find a good number of smug Helens but a larger number of unhappy women congratulating each other because they chose to do the hoovering and drink a cup of vegetable stock instead of reaching for that chocolate bar which had been on their minds to the point of obsession for most of the day.
‘Well done, hun. You are doing so well’, say all the fat folk, people with usernames like Goddess54 or Icanandiwill.
These poor women. Of course I am one of them. I am a fat woman. Not just ‘overweight’ according to the BMI chart I keep looking at, but actually ‘obese’.
There is so much everyday enduring shame in this fact that I cannot meet my own eye when I look in the mirror: greedy pig, pie-eater, fat slag.
I lurk on these fora to see if anyone else is hearing voices, but I find no one with a fat friend like mine. They all talk of temptation, of course, but I don’t think this captures my experience, which is that I am accompanied at all times by a fat person whose name is Susan and who knows me very well. I dare not admit to her in case I am sectioned.
It’s nearly seventy quid a month to take part in Lyter-U. It’s a fair chunk from my salary but I am desperate, and cheaper alternatives, including those advocated by thin people – the just-eat-less brigade, as I have come to know and not love them – have failed. Lyter-U is the latest and the most effective very low calorie diet, well reviewed in all the newspapers and with a multitude of celebrity endorsements, including a soap star who now wears a chiffon top and very tight jeans at all times.
I tell them I have consulted my GP and sign up. The diet claims that it will ‘completely reprogram my relationship with food’. In the ‘How It Works’ section of the website, I read some of the science behind the stories. This information can be summed up as follows: you stop eating and instead ingest only powder and water. The powder contains everything you need in order not to die. You must also drink about a swimming pool of water each day which, I think, is partly to stop your bowels seizing up. Your body goes into starvation mode but, after a short period, you will no longer feel hungry. Food will be cut out of your life like a cyst, freeing you to shrink.
I am very excited because, by all accounts, the results are rapid and remarkable. Not only that, but the key to the sustainable results achieved by Lyter-U is the counselling on offer. This unique psychological support helps you take a serious look at why you are over-eating and how you’ve got to where you are. That is sixteen stone in my case. My weight is a burden I want to put down. Helen is the counsellor who will carry me over into enlightenment. Enlightenment – get it?
Fat Susan laughs at my excitement. She knows the statistics, she says. ‘You will lose weight alright, and then you’ll regain it – AND SOME.’
She enjoys the emphasis she places on the last bit of this sentence and shakes her head, smiling at me as if to ask what it might take for me to face the facts.
The first week is hard. The powders bear no relationship to anything natural or edible, even though they are, somewhat cruelly, named after food: Thai Surprise, Chicken Supreme, Tex Mex Taste Bomb. I am by turns light-headed and beset by a hallucinatory headache that prevents me from functioning. I cannot sleep and I have no energy. On day five my breath begins to taste of acetone and that is when I know that my internal fat burning furnace has been switched on. Bingo. I feel electric, and I begin to melt. After that I am troubled only by halitosis and constipation – very small prices to pay for the weight that begins to fall off me, leaving my trousers comically large. I enjoy the privation, the suffering. As far as I am concerned it is nothing less than I deserve.
‘Organ failure is, of course, likely.’
Fat Susan says this while filling the house with the smell of toast. She’s no scientist, that much I do know. I am able to see her for what she is – a sad addict who wants me rolling around in fatland with her. Sometimes, in these early days, I physically push her out of the way when I walk into the kitchen, which is where she tends to be, spreading or slicing something.
There are bad times in these early months. There are moments when the memory of food punches through my starvation like a fist through a paper screen. Then there is the crumpet lapse. I watch other people sitting at tables, chewing, tasting, raising a fork to their lips with unbelievable insouciance. After three months, my sleep is punctuated by dreams of liver and onions, fingers of shortbread, baked potatoes the size of a babies’ heads, split wide open and covered in melted cheese.
Helen is keen to link my eating issues with an absent parent or other ‘emotional trigger’. She looks skeptical when I tell her that my parents, Lyn and Roger, are alive and well and living in Hemel Hempsted and that we like each other and always have. She is positively disbelieving when I go on to say that my childhood was relatively happy, that I was not the victim of abuse or neglect, and that I get on pretty well with my sister, Nina. Even I begin to think that I must find something in my family history or my early childhood experience that will unlock the mystery of my love of bagels and my hatred of all forms of physical activity.
One day, I happen to mention that I was pretty slim until I hit adolescence. Her eyes light up. She suggests that the fat I accumulated was a way of insulating myself against becoming an adult. I buy this, mainly out of relief that I have satisfied Helen’s quest, but also because it makes me seem complex rather than merely greedy.
As I begin to lose more weight, people who haven’t seen me in a while – and there are quite a few of them– fail to recognise me. My face, in particular, has emerged from the rings of fat that previously circled around my neck and chin, so that I do not look much like the former me. I look more serious, somehow, and, I like to think, more intelligent. Fat Susan tells me I have aged, that my face is becoming just a tad haggard. She enquires after my performance at work because she says she has noticed that I am not as mentally sharp as I used to be.
‘Or funny actually. You used to be funny but you’ve lost your sense of humour.’
‘Good,’ I say. ‘It weighed a ton.’
She offers me a chocolate mini roll. ‘Go on,’ she says, ‘treat yourself.’
I stick two fingers up at her as she turns to put the kettle on and lays out the mini-rolls on a decorative plate.
I have a vast new wardrobe of clothes. My new outfits include things with belts at the waist, jeans which sculpt and lift my new bottom, summer dresses which hug my hips and under which my legs move freely instead of chafing together at the top.
Men begin to look at me – total strangers in the street. My ability to turn heads is such a novelty that I begin to court it, swinging my hips and smiling at passers-by. But, while I enjoy being objectified by anonymous men, I feel no particular urge to follow through with any real life relationships. I realise that this is a problem, and so, at 10 stone and at Helen’s suggestion, I make it a project. I start dating at the same time as I begin to eat food like a normal person again. There follows an untold number of assignations with men I have met online. During these encounters, I push food around on my plate like it is toxic waste and find I have nothing much to talk about. My fat past is the one thing I don’t want them to know about me. ‘I used to be obese,’ is not, I figure, the best prelude to a night of unbridled passion, but I have no other stories to tell. In shedding more than half of my body weight, it is as though I have also cast off any sense of who I am. Fat Susan is right. I am not sharp or funny, just formerly fat and, now, empty.
I am encouraged when a couple of dates with a man called Tom, who is a gas engineer, go very well. He is sweet, funny and also a little chubby. That makes him unthreatening to me because I figure that he will be as worried as I am about taking his clothes off in front of another person. For all my svelte physique in denim and Lycra, when I am naked the folds of empty flesh that hang around the middle of me tell the story of a girl who would spend evenings alone with a family pack of Doritos and a large pizza.
Sex with Tom does take place – after a fashion – in the form of a protracted episode of fumbling and panting. ‘Chaotic’ is the word I use to describe it after the event. I vow never to repeat the experience, but I don’t have to worry about ridding myself of Tom because after our encounter, I hear nothing from him for a whole week. The silence, which is hurtful, is eventually broken by a very long text in which he explains that he thinks we are not romantically compatible. Before he signs off, he reminds me that I am a ‘lovely lady’ – this phrase does strike me as quaint – and that I should feel free to contact him if I ever have any trouble with my boiler.
I feel like reaching for the Galaxy on the evening I receive this message, but instead I listen to Beyonce and fill three bin bags with all my size fourteen clothes because I am still getting slimmer. Fat Susan dances behind me as I fill the bags. She gyrates her hips as she gives me a small pep talk about the folly of thinking that changing your appearance can change how you feel inside.
‘Look within,’ she says, panting from her exertions and pointing at her sternum.
It is a wonder that I have not hit Fat Susan before this particular evening but, when the moment finally comes, it is all the more satisfying for the build-up. I land a slap on her face so hard that it makes my hand sting. She looks shocked and hurt. She weeps a little before suggesting we make it up over a small glass of Baileys and a choc-ice.
‘They go really, really well together,’ she says, blinking back tears.
After a while I decide that it is not enough just to look like a different person, I must actually become one. I begin to scout around for the scaffolding of this new self as clothes are just not enough to give her a full identity and decide that travel will be the making of the new me.
I occupy my seat on the airline without fear of overflow and, while I am in far flung places, try every form of physical activity from hang-gliding to scuba diving, wearing all the appropriate gear.
Fat Susan comes with me, of course. She continues to pop up everywhere, telling me that a pudding after my main course is a harmless treat, that breakfast will set my metabolism going for the day, that French women love cheese and yet are still slim. There is no end to the gauntlets she throws down or the clichés she revives over and over to entice me back to gluttony. Sometimes we exchange a certain look and I can tell she is worn out. She knows that I can sense her fatigue but she also knows, as do I, that the game is never up. It pains us both, the knowledge that we have to keep playing. In the end, I resign myself to her. More than that, I make friends with her. I tell her that I never feel lonely with her by my side and that I am glad to have her in my life. She is pleased by what she sees as my sudden capitulation, although I know she does not believe me.
‘A bit of what you fancy does you good,’ she says in a conciliatory tone. It is a non-sequitur, of course, but exactly the sort of thing I have come to expect from her.
The surgeon is careful to explain the full body-lift procedure to me. He has a diagram onto which he draws lines with a dark marker pen, showing where he will make the incisions. He can cut away all my loose skin, do a bit of liposuction while he is at it, and then it is only a matter of me being in agony and taking to my bed for a few weeks. He says something about drains and dressings, and I immediately block it from my mind. He makes me aware that my back is still fat, and so part of what he will do is cut and lift everything from there as well as from my abdomen. The cost is an eye-watering 14,000 pounds. I thank him for the consultation and emerge into the waiting room to find Fat Susan waiting for me.
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ she says, looking up from her copy of Glamour magazine.
‘You think you can get rid of me that way?’
In the end, I decide against the operation. Some of my skin gets a bit tighter naturally because I have come to love running and taken up Pilates. The other thing that brings my skin back to some degree of tension is that I put on some weight. These things together seem to balance out the worst excesses of my body’s memories and distortions. What surprises me is that I am not unhappy to see my thighs regain some of their plumpness. My breasts become fuller and I go up a dress size. I am nothing like as fat as I was before but, as I see my curves return, I am not afraid. I decide I can live with them.
Fat Susan is still with me, but she is quieter. I have a regular dialogue with her and find that she is easily silenced. I almost welcome her occasional flourishes. We get along, is what I am trying to say. Sometimes I expect to see her in the kitchen, up to her old tricks, but she is a subdued presence, munching something appreciatively in some quiet corner of the house from where she waves at me, inviting me to share, and only making a gesture of slight exasperation when I decline.
One day I catch sight of myself in a shop window as I walk down the High Street. I am wearing a navy wrap-around dress and wedge heels and my hair is longer than it has been for ages and I have allowed it to wave, as it has always preferred to do. Passing my reflection, I realise that I like what I have seen. I am thirty-two years old, I am strong and healthy and, the other thing I never thought I could believe, is that I am sexy. There is no one else who can confirm this for me but that doesn’t matter because I know it to be true.
Four months after this revelation, I am in the south of France, sitting on a terrace, drinking Kir and eating olives, when it occurs to me that I haven’t seen or heard from Fat Susan in a long while and, somehow, I know that she is not coming back. Her disappearance makes me feel a little melancholy from time to time in the week that follows, but the man I am spending my holiday with more than fills the gap she leaves behind. When he is not reading the crime fiction to which he is addicted, he often makes me laugh till I cry and every afternoon he takes me to bed, or I him because this is nothing if not mutual. The sex is not chaotic, nor is it orderly, each time it is its own great surprise. At the end of these sex siestas, we leave the hotel to eat, finding a new restaurant each night and delighting in the flavours of entrecote, fish stew, mousse-au-chocolat. We eat everything with a relish that makes of our dinner an almost sacred ritual. In the mornings, we swim far out to sea as the day dances on the water and my body feels strong and alive as I float on my back and contemplate the breakfast which awaits me back at the hotel.
Apart from a brief relapse before my wedding, I never weigh myself or go on any kind of diet again, and yet I maintain a healthy weight for the next two years. Food is something I enjoy cooking and eating. I like it to be fresh, wholesome and delicious, but beyond that I do not give it much attention. Sometimes I think of Fat Susan, but I can’t summon her back into my life even if I try. The feelings I have towards her are a complex mixture of compassion and resentment.
Then, a year into my marriage, it happens – my body begins to expand again. I stand in front of the mirror in my underwear as I get ready to go out for dinner on our first wedding anniversary, and I can see that my stomach is bulging so that my pants roll over at the top. My breasts will not be contained in my bra but seem to be bursting out of it like round, blue-veined moons. My face too, looks plump. I am growing. I am what my mother calls ‘showing’. I am once again in the throes of something that seems to be out of my control. Only this time it is something I have no desire to stop or to change because, to coin a cliché, it is a miracle I am witnessing. I put my hands on my belly and appraise the body in front of me with a cautious admiration. The baby is due in March.
Julie Bull grew up in Yorkshire but now lives in South London and Sussex. She used to be a civil servant but now writes fiction full time. She’s left writing a little late but is making up for lost time. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines online and in print including MIRonline and The Word for Freedom, a Retreat West anthology. Twitter:@juliebu72
In September 2019, ‘Fat Friend’ was shortlisted for the To Hull and Back Humorous Short Story Prize