You know that 'life is passing me by' feeling? I have that at the moment. Which is plainly ridiculous since I have cleaned the bathroom cupboards out. I mean, how much more viscerally alive is it possible to be, than spending Sunday afternoon throwing 7 year old vitamins and multiple tubes of rancid Protect and Perfect serum out? I blame social networking. I'm sure I would have been satisfied with my day of wondering why I have seven tubes of Caudalie Crème de Corps Nourissantes when I have never knowingly bought one if I wasn't exposed to other people's weekends, the parties, the festivals, the aspirational shopping. It's engineered to create dissatisfaction, isn't it? Well, unless you are preternaturally well-adjusted it is. And no-one will ever accuse me of that, I fear.
Actually, I blame social networking AND my slightly too tight trousers. Everything looks wrong in too tight trousers: the world is leached of all joy. My waist and I are cinched into a perpetual loop of grumpy recrimination with each other. Also, I think, tight trousers leave me slightly oxygen deprived, the symptoms of which include "drowsiness, shortness of breath, anxiety and tension". I think "desire to eat more cheap chocolate" must also be a symptom and so the cycle continues. You may quite rightly wonder why I am wearing too tight trousers (or, far more likely, you do not remotely care why and wonder why you are still reading this, which is like your annoying auntie telling you about her gynecological complaints at length, without the slightest provocation). I am wearing them because I have mislaid my trusty Gap physiotherapist's trousers and I can't leave the house in turquoise tracksuit bottoms. Should I buy more trousers? Yes I should. But buying trousers when you are over your fighting weight and have no money is not fun. I'd go on the rob to buy myself new trousers, but I am too tired and breathless, it's a tight trouser Catch 22. My only hope is eventually the money gets so short I can no longer feed myself, and I get thin enough to fit into the trousers again. I do not actually see this happening in my lifetime. I'd wear dresses, but it keeps pissing down and the average temperature is about 12°C.
I am thinking about body shape today, because I tried to buy a swimming costume yesterday. Is there any more dismal experience for the generously torso-ed lady than trying to buy a swimming costume in a non-specialist shop? I think not. Ok, if I thought long and hard, I could probably think of a couple. But it's pretty wretched. I did it yesterday in Spa.
Spa is a small town in the Ardennes attached to a motor racetrack and a droning chanson française festival. If you can avoid both of these things, it also has a most excellent Sunday market where I found a stuffed squirrel string quartet once, and, reason for my visit, the spa. The spa is bracingly municipal, but it is a good, cheap way to sit in various temperatures of water and doze in public. There is also a series of benches under heat lamps, so you can bask like a lizard. I am very much in favour of those things.
What I am not in favour of is buying a swimming costume, but sadly it was necessary. I do not have one that fits at the moment, partly because I seem to have lost several, partly because I am expanding alarmingly (see above) and try as I might, you cannot wear a M&S minimiser bra with a swimming costume. People look at you strangely. Also, it is surprisingly hard to find a full length Victorian bathing gown. Harder than finding a stuffed squirrel string quartet, actually, which I think shows a skewed sense of priorities among the citizens of Spa.
I went to Spa's ladies underpinnings shop and found a couple of unlikely, but just conceivable, black, matronly contenders on the sale rail. I tried them on. They looked horrific. One of them got stuck around my ribcage and made those worrying "material stretched to breaking point" noises. The other one had a sort of unwisely deep 'v' in the décolleté out of which 98% of my chest was trying to escape. I tried to adjust the straps, and one of them pinged farcically off across the changing room.
The saleslady - size 6, bra size approximately 28AA - came in to offer me a couple of extra horrors. There was a purple one, and one with a hideous geometric pattern, like a dog had eaten, then vomited up, an Escher drawing. They were both over €100. I tried to suppress a sob and forced my defeated body into the Escher vomit one, which made me look like the Queen mother from the neck down, a nightmarish optical illusion. Impregnable. Shaped like an unwisely upholstered pouffe.
"How is it?" she said through the curtain.
"C'est môôôôôôche, it's HIDEOUS". I couldn't even muster enough British reserve to lie.
"Vous faites du 38, 40?" she said drawing back the curtain to look at me. She meant dress size. I was so distressed by this point, however, I thought for some reason she was talking UK bra sizes and nearly wept.
"Non! Je fais du 32! Du 85 quoi! But with a large cup size". This was not a conversation I ever wanted to be having with anyone. Ever. There should be some system where you step into an unmanned booth which scans you, then provides you with a humane, appropriately sized swimming costume. Make this happen, inventors of the world.
She tried to sidle away before I could get any more unhinged. She had nothing else to offer in any case, so she went back to folding negligées. An awkward silence fell over the shop as I muttered and struggled in the cubicle.
In the end I had to buy the one with the stupidly deep 'v'. I had come all the way to Spa, I was not going to let this put me off. It was a Large, which meant it was saggy over the body, whilst barely covering my chest. I looked ridiculous. I fiddled with the straps. Then I went up to the baths and stood in the damp, echoing changing rooms and had a little cry.
I have been at war with my body for most of my adult life. Once it started dicking me around with alopecia, I opened hostilities on the damn thing. I starved it, beat it up, filled it full of crap. I was never satisfied, never liked it however hard I worked on it or how much I deprived it. I suppose everything else became so much more important when I lost my hair; once that was wrong, I couldn't bear for the rest not to be "right"; not to be the way I wanted it. Anyway. A few years ago - I suppose around 2008, perhaps not entirely coincidentally when I started this blog - I finally got too tired, too sad, too damn bored, to fight with my body anymore. I thought of all the time I had wasted being pointlessly dissatisfied, or worrying about food and cellulite and stretchmarks, and it horrified me. Also, genuinely terrible things - illnesses and accidents - happened to people around me which made me profoundly grateful for the basic fact of my body; it worked. It allowed me to enjoy things and to look after the people I loved.
I stopped being the person who couldn't find a single thing she was prepared to eat in a motorway service station, who wouldn't eat chips to save her life, who didn't drink alcohol, who ate spinach every day, who obsessed and fretted, and body brushed, and calculated everything, even on holiday. I relaxed. I ate chips, and it wasn't a big deal. I drank wine. I had a sandwich for lunch if that was what there was for lunch. I simply stopped caring. I ate whatever was put in front of me, and if we had to find lunch in a motorway service station shop, I'd eat a Snickers and a packet of crisps and not agonise for a second.
For a long time, this felt like the most amazing revelation. It was - still is - wonderful not to be "fussy" any more, not to attach such fetishistic importance to food. But of course, you can't hit 36 eating exactly what you damn well want (and being naturally very greedy) and doing no exercise and stay as skinny as I used to be. So I am bigger. Lots of my clothes - bought when I was both rich and thin, back in London - don't fit any more. I've mentioned it here in passing quite a few times and I can't pretend it doesn't bother me a bit. It does. There are whole sections of my wardrobe that I know not to even try, and others I approach with increasing trepidation. But even so, I remember what it felt like to have a constant hunger headache, to keep a running tally in my head of everything I had eaten in a day, to feel genuinely panicky at the thought of someone else cooking for me. I remember I remember bingeing mechanically, joylessly on ice cream, knowing it was the easiest thing to throw up again afterwards. It was horrible. I know what's more important, and actually, I'm not that unhappy with my body. It's a perfectly ok shape, really. Would I like to be 10% thinner? Yes. Am I willing to go insane again to get there? Hell no.
But sometimes, and it's partly a reflex, I think, a learnt way of channeling anxiety and strain that never quite left me, I find I want to wage war on my body again. I want to cause it pain, deprive it, make it suffer. And standing in the changing rooms at Spa, I felt like that again. I felt revolting, disgusting, angry. I wanted to hurt myself. I walked into the pool hunched and weepy in my towel, sick of myself. I stood in the water, blinking back tears and picked at the dry skin on my lips until they bled.
It was Saturday afternoon, and the spa was quite full. All around me people wandered around in their swimming gear, all shapes and sizes and ages, going from pool to pool, lying reading the paper, several of them having a crafty beer and a fag outside, this being Belgium. There were babies, floating luxuriantly fat and serious in their rubber rings. There were several cadaverously thin, pale, ginger youths, their bodies almost luminously blue white. There were solidly barrel shaped women in their forties and fifties in sensible one pieces, and other women of the same age, lithe and tanned mahogany with layers of waterproof mascara, string bikinis and elaborately bleached peacock coiffures. There were men with vast bellies in tiny trunks, unselfconsciously lying legs akimbo on loungers, reading the sports pages. There were frail, stooped elderly ladies in floral swimming caps and costumes with frilled skirts, carefully negotiating the steps down into the water. There were lots of larger chests than mine, including some on men, and lots smaller. As I looked around, I could feel myself ever so slowly uncurling, the tension starting to dissipate.
There were some really beautiful bodies too. Gorgeous leggy teenagers in tiny bikinis with impossibly perfect honey coloured limbs. Bony, angular ten year olds with peach soft skin that reminded me of Lashes zooming around and getting reprimanded by the lifeguards. There was one woman of about my age with amazing red hair, who was absolutely beautiful, tiny and completely compelling, impossible to take your eyes off. But there were lots and lots of completely ordinary, unexceptional bodies. Bodies with the odd sagging bit, a few thread veins, bruises or stretchmarks, bodies like mine. There was an endless variety of tattoos, some luxuriant back hair, a range of Caesarian scars, and some ludicrously clear tan lines (particularly cyclist's ones. The Ardennes is full of serious, iron-calved cyclists in lycra). There was one man, about my age, with alopecia, like me, though he wasn't wearing a wig, of course, and a girl with a large port wine stain on her face, joking with her boyfriend in the hot tub. The hot tub was ferocious. It wobbled away lots of my anxiety. I sat next to three generations of, I think, a Japanese family, who kept laughing and taking pictures of each other.
And everyone was just getting on with it. They were just bodies, doing what bodies do. Wobbling bosoms in the jacuzzi, prominent hip bones under the heat lamps, pregnant bellies and knobbly knees, old ones, young ones and somewhere in the middle ones, all soaking calmly. After a couple of hours I fell asleep in my stupid new swimming costume, lying on my lounger, soothed by the constant sounds of the water. My tits probably looked a bit odd, determinedly trying to escape out of the sides of the idiotic swimsuit, but whatever. By 6 that evening I was deeply, deeply relaxed. Well, until I had to put my stupid tight trousers back on.
I wish I could go back there every week. Failing that, I am committed to buying a couple of cheap pairs of trousers that fit. Also, if anyone can suggest where I can find a decent swimming costume for the generously torsoed, for god's sake PLEASE let me know.