“I grew up during the height of diet culture – of course I’m not at peace with my body”

Written by Saba Sams

Resisting the urge to mould, change and shrink her body isn’t easy, but writer Saba Sams isn’t giving up.     

What do I remember about being 10 years old? I remember crossing the road to the corner shop and buying a Milkybar with some loose change I’d found under the sofa cushions. I remember spending a long time choosing what I wanted, and then I remember queuing by the till, flicking through the magazines displayed on the rack: blown-up photos of women in bikinis with red pen circles scrawled around their cellulite and stretch marks; an interview with a plastic surgeon about what treatments he would suggest to particular celebrities; a feature which, week by week, predicted the length to which Britney’s hair had grown back since paparazzi shots of her shaving it off in the midst of a breakdown had hit the press.

I remember paying for the Milkybar, slipping it into the waistband of my trousers, then crossing the road and knocking on the door to my house, which I’d forgotten to leave on the latch. I remember my dad opening the door, and I remember that as I stepped up into the house I could feel the Milkybar slipping from my waistband and moving down my leg – cool and scratchy – so that by the time my foot landed, the Milkybar was lying face up on the floor. I remember my dad and I both looking down at it, and I remember the feeling of shame that moved through me: complete, paralysing shame.     

My dad is sweet and chaotic; he’s no disciplinarian. I think probably, when he saw the smuggled chocolate, he just laughed. My shame was less to do with him catching me and more to do with being caught, because in being caught I was forced to see myself from the outside, to confront the person I was, and that person was greedy and sneaky and fat. I thought of the women in the magazines – the women who had failed at beauty, their primary function – and I understood that I was one of them.

Why, when I think of being 10 years old, do I think of this? There was so much more to my childhood. Looking back, parts of it even sound utopian. My parents were alternative and funny. Our fridge was filled with exploding jars of sauerkraut and homemade bread that crumbled to bird food as soon as it was touched with a knife. The downstairs toilet was wallpapered with holographic stickers for Love Bomb, a herbal high that my dad and aunt had developed in the 90s. A year before the Milkybar incident, we’d been living in Ibiza in a crumbling old farmhouse with a flat, white roof and a deep pool that was green with algae. I’d spent my time split between feeding cubes of cheese to the geckos that lived in the walls, and comparing myself to the skimpy Mediterranean kids with their blonde-tipped hair.

But wherever I was, whatever I was doing, my shame lived inside me like a sickness. I used to rip all the labels out of my clothes because I didn’t want anyone seeing that I, aged six, was wearing a pair of jeans for an eight-year-old. It was slightly paranoid, this idea that anyone cared so much about what I looked like, but how could I not feel that way? Photographs of women were being taken by strangers, their faults picked out and labelled, then the entire diagram printed on the covers of magazines.

Send Nudes by Saba Sams

My relationship with food was complicated by my parents and grandparents, who followed a whole-food diet that felt pretty radical, particularly for the time. At home, we ate mostly grains, pulses and vegetables. In my Brighton primary school, every kid’s lunch box but mine consisted of white bread so soft you could mould it like Play-Doh, a bag of multipack crisps and a Penguin bar. These foods, to me, seemed incredible luxuries. I tried to smuggle that Milkybar into my house because we didn’t have a biscuit tin; there was rarely anything sweet lying around. I wonder if I still love sugar so much because to me it tastes of rebellion.

By the time I got to secondary school, my parents were no longer together and Tumblr was the online platform of choice. Everyone wanted to be Effy from Skins or Isabella Swan from Twilight. The level of whiteness, thinness and sadness that we idolised is staggering to me now. This was the aesthetic: pale legs dangling out of the open window of a moving car, knees knocking, feet in a pair of beat-up Dr Martens, and a huge purple bruise on one shin, just visible through the criss-cross of fishnets. I was probably 13 when I tried the Devil Wears Prada diet: eat nothing until you feel faint, then consume a single cube of cheese. Emily – the character in the film who attempts that diet – gets so weak she ends up in hospital, but I didn’t take that part as a warning.

By this point, it wasn’t just me that hated my body. The culture had indoctrinated every single girl I knew. We spent our pocket money on skinny teas and Coke Zero, begged our parents for shapewear and gym memberships at Christmas. We skipped lunch and hung out in the changing rooms, eating apples. Some girls actually did end up in hospital, others I know still struggle with eating disorders now. I don’t think I saw the true insidiousness of it all until my body shape came back ‘in’ again with the rise of the Kardashians, when I was about 18. What struck me most was the cruelty of it: I’d spent my whole life trying to shrink myself, only to suddenly be told that how I looked was desirable.

Did I feel better then? Not really. The reality of my size had never actually been relevant: simply, I was a woman with a body, which meant that I had been taught to hate it. The more I hated it, the richer the industries who had fuelled my insecurities became. Of course at the time it didn’t feel like oppression; it felt like a personal quest to look and feel good for myself. Sometimes I still fall into those traps, but I’m working on becoming more alert. Meeting my body as it is, rather than always trying to change it, is a powerful form of resistance.

How do I meet my body as it is? The answer to this question shifts slightly every day, and I think that’s a part of it too. I live in a real body; inside me and all around me, changes are happening constantly. I can’t expect complete consistency in the way that I feel about myself, but I can recognise that growing up under patriarchy and capitalism is hard and sticky. I’m not at peace with my body now, and I doubt I’ll ever be, but here are the things that I do know: I have a body that works, that gave me my son, that eats, that loves, that moves. In acknowledging this, I realise how lucky I am, and I refuse to let shame be my default.

Send Nudes by Saba Sams (£14.99, Bloomsbury) is out now

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