I've been noodling the central character from my latest novel, My Pear-Shaped Life, for years. Greta Gale is funny and flawed. She hides her insecurities behind a big smile and nobody knows how much she hates how she looks. Overweight, her negative body image has impacted every part of her life. While she's a fictional character, I understand Greta. We both have a resident heckler in our head for a start.
But I put off writing Greta's story for years, because I knew that in order to get inside her head I had to ask myself some tough questions. I wasn't sure I was brave enough to do that. But in the end, Greta's voice got louder, to the point that I couldn't ignore her. I began to question myself about how I felt about my body. If I was going to write a story with body image at its heart, I had to open a vein. In the end, this book brought me, as well as Greta, on a journey.
I've spent most of my adult life not feeling quite enough. My self-worth related directly to my dress size. I hate admitting that, but it's true. And here's the sting in the tail. Even at my thinnest, I still didn't feel enough. Isn't that sad? I would give anything to go back and shake some sense into my younger self.
Self-doubt began when I was aged arouond 12 or 13. I was tall and awkward. I'm still tall - at 5' 10" - but less awkward now. But I have my moments. I was all legs and arms back then, without an ounce of fat. But I still felt too big. Too much. Why?
I think one factor was the thoughtless comments made by people when they met me for the first time. "You're huge," people said, or variations of that comment. Of course, they meant my height. But that niggling feeling of being different lingered long after the words disappeared. I've reconnected with school friends in recent years and the sad and mad thing is that the girls I envied in my class - the thin, petite ones I wished I could be - had their own insecurities, too.
Fast forward to my 20s. These were the fun years where my robust metabolism allowed me to eat and drink pretty much what I wanted without any consequence. If I put a few pounds on, I'd simply go on a diet and within a week or two be back to my slim self again. I remained that way right up until my 30s. Then life threw a curve ball my way, as is its way, and I got sick. I was placed on steroids for three months. My appetite increased and very quickly I ballooned up like Violet in Willy Wonka's factory (the one who ate the blueberry gum). Apart from having to buy a whole new wardrobe, a love/hate relationship with my bathroom scales began, judgmental little fecker that it is.
Fast forward again to now. I'm 49 years old and I've been super skinny and I've been fat and I've been everything in between. Like Greta, I've tried every diet on the market - low-carb, no-carb, low-fat, shakes, slimming groups, three-day miracle diets, cabbage-soup diets and even some dubious tablets I bought over the counter in America. Some worked better than others, but always, no matter how much weight I'd lose, I'd inadvertently get complacent. The call of cheese- and-onion crisps was strong and the games would begin again.
There's a scene in the book where Greta struggles to find the right angle to take a photograph. How many of us understand that problem? When I can control how a shot is taken, make sure it's got the correct light, angle, with time for me to rearrange my body into the most flattering pose, or hide behind a cushion or person - I've all the tricks - then I can look pretty damn fine. It's exhausting. Other times I think I've got reverse body dysmorphia. I can look in the mirror and think I look good. Then I see a photograph taken of me at an event, double chins ahoy, and I cannot for the life of me reconcile that image with the one I saw in the mirror earlier that day.
Somewhere around the midpoint of writing the first draft of My Pear-Shaped Life, I began to get bored with the 'I Need To Lose Weight' conversation I've had for decades with friends, family and, most of all, with that damn heckler in my head. I realised that I had wasted so much energy worrying about how I looked and how others saw me. Was it possible to change how I feel about myself? Could I show the same kindness and acceptance to me that I showed to others?
A shift in my mindset began. Yes, I was overweight and that needed to be addressed. For the rest of my life, I'm going to have to watch what I eat. My genetic makeup seems to make it impossible for me to eat a single treat without dire consequences. And that's fine. I've made my peace with that. But the difference this time is that I love my body in its current shape and size. Because life is a privilege and should be celebrated, not spent in torment and anguish over the size of my mum-tu - which, incidentally gave me my children, the greatest joys in my life.
Speaking of which, I want to teach Amelia and Nate a new narrative that doesn't include self-loathing. I want them to understand that a lot of things we see on social media have been filtered and airbrushed. I want to pull back the curtain so to speak and show the truth of the wizard, who has his own hangups. More than anything I want my children to grow up feeling enough.
Somedays, I allow the heckler in my head to get it's greedy little hands on the volume switch and thus drown out all the nice thoughts. How many of us have had a perfectly lovely day ruined by one thoughtless remark? Why is it easier to believe the bad stuff? Well we're predisposed to - our cave-dwelling ancestors had to pay attention to negativity to keep themselves safe. But none of us get it right every day. I'll have to work on my mental and physical wellbeing for the rest of my life. We all do. But I will repeat saying this to myself and to all I know: "I'm perfectly imperfect as I am and so are you. My size does not change my worth. I am enough."
Like the rest of the world, my family and I are trying to adjust to our new normal of living through a pandemic. Covid-19 has changed everything. Over the past few weeks we've seen the many heartbreaking consequences of this novel virus that moves with stealth. I'm frightened. But I'm also humbled and awed by the bravery of those who are on the front line, doing everything in their power to slay this silent predator. And in addition to those frontline workers, I am heartened by the many stories we hear of everyday heroes who choose kindness with their offers to help those most vulnerable. Every time one person chooses to be kind and brave, the world becomes a brighter place.
I've another thought for you. Imagine how bright the world would be if we not only chose to be kind to each other, but also to ourselves, too? Stress levels are at an unprecedented level for all of us right now. So maybe, it's time we silenced our inner critics and let our inner cheerleader have a go for a change.
Let's all choose kindness, not just for others but for ourselves, too.
'My Pear-shaped Life' by Carmel Harrington is published on April 16 by HarperCollins