Keeping Up Appearances: How Solving My External Faults Exposed A Bigger Internal Struggle


I had a burger the other night. It was from kinda upmarket fast-food mini-chain Five Guys in Islington. And it was OK. Not good but definitely not bad. The meat was fine enough, the condiments unremarkable but it was the bun that really bugged me. It was the most average sesame seed bun ever to be wrapped around a (pseudo-) snazzy burger. You know, like those ones that come by the dozen in huge plastic bags. And because it wasn’t fantastic I had immediate burger shame, a feeling that has stayed with me for most of the weekend.

Why? As I alluded to in my rant about the gym and the creatures therein, I have been generally off beige carbs of all kinds since June last year. I bloat significantly on anything pale and bulky and have a self-diagnosed wheat intolerance (yeah, I’m that guy) so I embarked on banishing all things beige from my life, as well as making the novel move of actually attending the gym I was paying for every month.

Carbohydrate-packed meals were where I found my satisfaction, comfort and solace. Pans groaned under wholewheat pasta, boards were strewn with sourdough crumbs, dishes stuffed with potato dauphinoise. Where there are carbs, there’s cheese, all washed down with a gallon of wine and fizzy drinks. It felt like my gluttony knew no bounds – while the food I was eating was good quality (save for the pop), it transpired I wasn’t immune to an expanding waistline.

My lethargy was palpable and the holes nearer the pointy end of my belt had to be used for the first time. Initially I deluded myself into thinking that in clothes, with my belly sucked in and a fair wind behind me (it was the carbs, honest) I was passable as someone who was acceptable, maybe even attractive. But in more honest moments, it made me sad I had got to that point, that level of fat. I was far from needing the front of my house cut off just so I could get outside (did anyone else see that Oprah?), but nevertheless I was unhappy with my shape and disappointed that I’d let myself expand to such a size.

“I hated the way I looked. It was a handy by-product of losing my love-handles that I felt better, not the motivation. As I slimmed down I started to get more compliments and I fed off those rather than baguettes.”

And so the familiar cycle was set in motion. Greed created a gut, which in turn made me unhappy, which caused me to eat to feel better and so the self-loathing, about more than just my weight, was self-perpetuated. This mac-n-cheese-fuelled merry-go-round set the tone for how I’ve felt about my body for a long time. Even as I improved my BMI, my waistline slimmed and my moobs were swapped for something approaching pecs, I wasn’t happy.

Something had to change. I had to change. Literally overnight I brutally called off this life-long love affair. In the early carb-free days I was incredibly strict on myself – I avoided anything that could be potentially inflating. Crispy coatings and batters were out, as were biscuits, cereals and anything I even had a hunch might contain stomach-stuffing carbs. This totalitarian approach was the only way I could manage my weight, for carbs represented both a big fluffy friend and a dangerous, squidgy foe. I may or may not have lost weight through better control of portion size and calories but to me, the only way to significantly cut the flab was to completely cut out my old pal.

This resulted in first some relatively dramatic weight loss and subsequently a feeling of wonderful refreshment, as though the expunging of gummy potato and bread had cleared out my pipes. I was more alert, had far more energy and felt refreshed, not refried after a meal. Going cold turkey was the only way I could keep on top of losing weight and gaining muscle, only venturing into carb-fuelled territory on special occasions, in circumstances where etiquette trumped eating habits and when, according to my strange assessments, partaking in some potatoey goodness was ‘worth it’.

In time these quite particular dietary restrictions I had imposed caused peculiar feelings, ranging from mild irritation to genuine anger, towards what I term ‘unnecessary’ carbs. From healthy salads that contained some superfluous grain to bulk out the meal in lieu of more exciting vegetables to fishcakes with more spud than salmon, these carbohydrates, stealth or otherwise, really left a bad taste in my mouth. Or rather they would if I was eating them.

This mania has developed to the depressing point whereby I actually get annoyed at restaurants, cafés and takeaway outlets that don’t invest in their carbs and subsequently get annoyed at myself for eating them. Hence my experience in Five Guys. In my head, the value of the oral satisfaction I attached to the burger was not sufficiently high when compared to its pay off. In its simplest form I resented the additional exercise I then had to undertake in order to feel calorie-neutral – I feel I still have weight to lose after all – and in its most complex I thought I could actually see the additional bloat, see the burger in my body.

While I wouldn’t be so glib as to suggest I have a mild case of body dysmorphia – I have moments of clarity – I have a foreboding sense that I’ve swapped one ugly condition for another. My addiction to carbs had been replaced by an addiction for approval, something wholly more dangerous and damaging. This new addiction hurts not my body, but those closest to me – its manifestation is far more toxic than any artery-clogging cholesterol. The reason I changed my eating habits in the first place was not because I wanted to be healthier, or play sport without collapsing in a wheezing heap of flab, or extend my life. It was because I am so very vain.

I hated the way I looked. It was a handy by-product of losing my love-handles that I felt better, not the motivation. As I slimmed down I started to get more compliments and I fed off those rather than baguettes. The fitter I got the more compliments, attention and confidence I got, and a new cycle was born. It fuelled a sense that I was striving to be the best human being I could be but I was confusing fulfilling my potential with an obsessional need for validation. How ironic that the very thing I thought I was aiming for was the thing taking me further away form my target?

Today, after growing more comfortable with my new guise, I am definitely more aware of how my compulsion to change the way I look changes how I am perceived, for better or worse, and how balance is far more important than excess, not only in terms of my body (fat or fit) but also all other aspects of my life. At the risk of wheeling out a cliché, it really is what’s on the inside that counts – if we can make peace with our external appearance in whatever form, happiness and contentment awaits. I’m still striving to be fitter and healthier (and do occasionally give myself a hard time) but not at the expense of the joy and security of those I love.

I came to realise that losing the weight was where the story and the understanding began as it exposed what was going on inside my head, what I thought about myself, and my value to my friends and loved ones. Sorting my appearance out held a mirror up to the things that really matter, issues I either foolishly thought getting in shape would solve or that I didn’t even know I had.

Whether the burger at Five Guys was worth it or not, I know swapping one problem for another definitely isn’t. I have made some kind of peace with beige carbohydrates now. I realise an occasional slice of pizza is not going to make me instantly fat and unattractive and, more pertinently, nor is how I look as important as I once thought.