I sort of imagined myself coming out of lockdown like a phoenix rising from the ashes: slim, well-rested, healthy, glowing – my most beautiful self, essentially. Instead, I have wild, almost waist-length hair and a cat on a harness (you can’t choose your destiny, and mine seems to be witch). This past year, people have been very keen to tell us that being alive is enough, and it is, of course it is. Nevertheless, detaching that thought from certain beliefs embedded over a lifetime – that your body must always, always be a project for improvement – is a challenge.
The government’s new resolution to put calories on menus means that when I go to eat in a restaurant I will be confronted by the stark reality of my eating choices, and my response will be, “Mate. Do you think I didn’t know?” Like that toddler who could identify composers by ear, I know the calorie counts for everything, but instead of Shostakovich, it’s sausages. It makes me a bit sad, this space in my brain that has been captured by diet culture instead of, I don’t know, poetry, or theoretical physics. I’m an expert in string cheese theory.
Does the government think we don’t already know that a whole pizza is high in calories? Furthermore, there is no accounting for quality versus calorie quantity. There are just under 300 calories in a McDonald’s double cheeseburger, while a bowl of homemade pasta full of fresh, nutritious ingredients will be far more. But I digress. What I’m trying to say is that I’m looking forward to thinking about my body even more than I do already.
Many of us have let things slide a bit in lockdown. Take Gwyneth Paltrow’s admission that her diet “went totally off the rails”. “I drank alcohol during quarantine. I was drinking seven nights a week and making pasta and eating bread,” she said, on a podcast. Last year, the agony aunt Dolly Alderton’s response to a single mother recovering from Covid-19 who was berating herself for gaining weight went viral. “Every time you go to feed yourself, imagine you are feeding one of your children … if they came to you tired, anxious, or ill, would you give them a calorie-counted meal, or would you give them what they were craving?”
It struck a chord because it summed up that internal critic so many of us live with every day, who, even in a pandemic, even when you are recovering from severe illness, bullies you for the eating choices that you have made. In a crisis, it is monumentally challenging to maintain the sort of control over your diet that you had before. Up until the pandemic, like Paltrow, I didn’t really eat bread, or white carbohydrates, at all.
How old was I when I read in a magazine that bread can make you fat? Fourteen? That’s around the age when I started limiting white carbohydrates in order to stay thin, and that has never really stopped. Carbohydrates were the demon food of the late 1990s and early 00s, having usurped fat. It was impossible to come of age in that period without somehow internalising the philosophy that bread was bad.
Until recently I never kept bread in the house, except when guests were coming, because a mournful “no toast?” from a visitor in the morning is enough to break your heart. I only ever eat wholewheat pasta, unless it’s a special occasion. If this sounds to you like a miserable life of deprivation, then I’m unlikely to convince you that I’m used to it. Yet if you asked me for my “last supper”, I’d waffle on about cold champagne and oysters and rich, dark chocolate mousse, but really what I’d be thinking is: bread bread bread bread bread.
There will be some readers who will get this; they will feel it in their bones, weary from years of saying no to delicious things, particularly bread. Because bread is the stuff of life, isn’t it? The first thing on the shopping list, one of the first things to be ransacked when the panic buying started. When people were shut at home, what did they do? They baked bread. Bread is a deeply atavistic symbol of culture and home and family and communion. In Welsh, the words for bread and wine are “bara”, and “gwin”, and they are similar in Breton. This is, some claim, how the French word “baragouiner” – to speak incomprehensible gibberish – came about, from Bretons asking for bread and wine.
I’ve had so much bread and wine during this past year. There’s a loaf baking in the oven as I write this. I also introduced cocktail hour. We all have ways of coping under extreme stress. We eat differently in times of crisis. I thought perhaps the pandemic might lead to a greater understanding of how the material conditions of our lives shape diet. How people eat more when they are stressed, or frightened, or under extreme financial pressure. How unhappiness, mental health and long working hours all have a part to play. But as ever, the attempts to solve obesity continue to be framed around personal food choices. I’m not necessarily opposed to calorie counts, I just think they barely scratch the surface of the problem. Nor does berating people to lose weight. They are already often berating themselves in far crueller ways. I know I am.