It started with the ornaments. There were two of them on the mantelpiece in my childhood home, both showing boy/girl configurations. One pair was tall and elegant, the other squat and clumsy looking. A family friend remarked that one (guess which) showed me and some future boyfriend, and the other my sister and hers. Years later I can see that it was just a throwaway comment, that I was neither squat nor clumsy but, aged 10, it was a different matter.
Of course, for the idea that I was plump to take hold, there had to be a grain of truth in it. My sister and I have always been radically different shapes. She taller and thinner, almost a gangly child – the sort that, if you put a plaster on her knee it would almost meet at the back – although she filled out perfectly later. Me, podgier, taking after a different strain of the family, the one that would grow into the hourglass figure of which, now, I am proud and happy with. But growing up with it, or rather in my case fighting it, well it was hell.
Italians have a wonderfully exuberant nature, and can be a little tactless. The same family friend used to pinch my cheeks and tell me I was “bella ciccia” which, later, I realised she meant to mean “cute”. But I heard only the “ciccia” (fat, chubby) part, and not the “bella” bit at all.
For a while, I would nurse these wounds silently, knowing deep down that I wasn’t really fat or chubby at all. There were girls like that at school and I could tell the difference. But, aged about 11, the first stages of puberty started appearing and suddenly I felt my body changing, and equally suddenly I felt that these comments were now true. At this stage, I almost cry to think of it now, even aged twelve, I just tipped five stone. Just a tiny slip of a thing.
But I was growing faster than ever before and my jeans, the ones with the worm coming out of the apple patch on them, didn’t fit so well any more. So when another relative made a comment about me “filling out” I was devastated. At open day that summer, the end of my first year at secondary school, I did the whole dance routine hardly daring to leave the floor. I was so embarrassed to show my leotarded body that I concentrated instead on bizarre horizontal floor-sweeping movements instead of the reach-for- the-sky shapes my classmates were making.
It’s funny to think of it now. Now that I revel in my curves and love my body, although I still try to hold my tummy in until too much wine loosens my resolve. But from the ages of 11 to 18, I hardly ate, exercised like an athlete, and never once went over 7 stone, 4 pounds. For a long time, I had worked out that if I kept my weight under 6 stone 10, my periods would stop, which meant I could keep womanhood at bay. So this isn’t a tale of an anorexic, I’m too greedy; nor of a bulemic, I’m too lazy to throw up, although I did experiment for a while with chewing food and then spitting it out. This is really a story of someone who didn’t want to develop, because – I realise now – a good old-fashioned woman’s body elicited strange reactions from men, reactions that at the time (although no one can believe this now) I couldn’t handle.
Until the age of 18, I existed on a strict diet of control, control, control. Everything I ate was written down, I would meet my friend Maureen at school at six in the morning and we would exercise for two and a half hours before school. Talk about boring! I remember crying for hours one day because I had eaten a forbidden piece of Yorkie bar. (If only I was to know with what ease, years later, I could eat a whole chocolate bar.)
But also, aged 14, I hit my then target weight of 6 stone and didn’t know what to do with myself. Without the constant putting on hold of my life (“I’ll think about that when I’m thin, I’ll do that when I’m thinner”), I lost my raison d’etre.
Salvation of sorts came, ironically, in the shape of boys when I was 18 and I realised that there was more to life than counting the number of fairy cakes I was allowed to eat. And then, suddenly, my body exploded. Starved of nutrition for so long, it finally, joyously developed. There’s this old story that Sophia Loren didn’t develop breasts until she was 20. Well mine kept growing until I was 25. From a modest A cup, settling on a C cup for a while before, finally, the speedometer stopped at a very healthy double D.
Until I was 24 my chest was kept hidden under big clothes and was hated. They were the very embodiment of womanhood and all I had fought against for so long. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. As a 16-year- old, I had had to wear a badge saying “I am a girl” because I was always mistaken for a boy. I had once said I would kill myself if I ever got to eight stone and here I was bouncing towards nine. No being a tomboy anymore, no pretending I was Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. The clothes I wanted to wear didn’t suit me – what did suit me was sexy stuff that was, yeurch! girly, when I longed to be able to wear worn out jeans and a vest.
But confidence grew slowly, and with it a certain laziness to go through all that again. All those years of being surrounded by Italian woman who wore things with a certain nonchalance started to sink in. I remembered the women in my mother’s native southern Italy who would wear aprons and have slightly fleshy upper arms, with bra straps showing and slippers on their feet and I would recall how comfortable they were and how their confidence was such that I envied them their look.
I started to look at paintings of real women and think “mmmm”. Tummies started to look interesting and bosoms, well! What fun could be had with those, simply by letting them peek out a fraction.
At this point I must make a point. Thin people. How cross it makes me when people say to a thinny, “You’re so thin! How do stay so slim?” when no one would dare to say that to a fat person. “Aren’t you fat? How do you stay so big?” Acceptance of one’s body means accepting it for how nature made it. Thin people have as much right to exist as curvier ones and have as many problems in accepting themselves.
Right, we were talking about women’s bodies that go in and out and sometimes spill out of things. I envy women who can accept their bodies from early on and don’t waste half their lives feeling guilty, but how few of them there are. It makes me so sad to see young girls worrying about putting on weight when they should be digging up worms.
It is frustrating, editing the fashion pages of Real Life, not to be able to use more “real” women as models. The sort of woman that is just so at home in her body that she radiates confidence. But there aren’t that many of them. At this point you could ask why we just don’t use bigger models. Let me explain. The clothes we use on our fashion pages come from the press offices of the designer or store. They are available only in a size 10 or 12. Even specialist “outsize” ranges are available in sizes 16 only as samples, even though they will be sold in far larger sizes. Whenever we’ve done bigger-size fashion we’ve had huge trouble getting clothes for the model. In the shops a label may be available in, say, sizes 10-20 but so many of these retailers don’t want to be associated with a “big size” shoot. At times, only threatening to expose them in a national paper has forced them to co-operate.
So you begin to see how the thin model is an easy option at times. You can put them in the clothes you want, rather than just whatever you can get in their size. Life imitating art all too annoyingly. The use of “normal” people as models though, however difficult, is to be encouraged and I shall continue to do so, because seeing them we can all sigh and think “it’s okay to look like me”. In Real Life’s fashion pages we use more real people in real sizes than any other publication.
The glossy world of magazines is incredibly fascist. They may use wonderfully plump models and have them photographed by some of the world’s best because it’s now trendy to do so, but when I asked one particular magazine if I could write “in celebration of being curvy” they said it was “too controversial, it’s the same as if you wanted to write about drugs”. Still, I guess pictures is a start.
It’s a shame it took me nearly 10 years of adulthood to learn to love my body and work with my hourglass figure, instead of fighting against it. What a waste to spend all that time hating my body for betraying me when really I should have been cherishing it as I do today. Now when I tell people I am a size 14 they invariably say (as if it were a compliment) “you don’t look it” and I reply “what a shame, because I’m really proud of being a size 14”. But there is no fast route to feeling comfortable in one’s bones; it’s a slow process of acceptance which brings confidence. And as such it is usually the preserve of the older woman, always far sexier than her coltish sister. Perhaps it is nature’s way of compensating for the passing of years.
`Dear Annie, a No-Nonsense Guide to Getting Dressed’ by
Annalisa Barbieri, pounds 9.99 (Faber & Faber) is out now.
A footnote about this piece.
I wrote it to publicise my book. The same picture as you see above, was used. But underneath the picture, as a caption, the subs had used a pull quote from me. [A pull quote is a quote, pulled from the piece.] As this wasn’t a very well known picture of Sophia Loren, and because of the quote/caption used, it confused a few people, who thought it was a picture of me.
The morning after publication, I got into my office at the Independent to find lots of messages. Several were from the same national newspaper. I phoned up, pretending to be my own assistant: could I help? The arts editor of that paper, the assistant at the other end of the phone told me, was “very keen to meet Annalisa Barbieri and get her on his pages. I think he’s got a bit of a crush on her” she said.
“Oh yes,” said I, the faux assistant, “how does he know what she looks likes?”
“Well the picture, in the paper..” replied the assistant on the arts desk, at that other newspaper.
“You know it’s not her, it’s a picture of Sophia Loren?” I offered.
“Oh,” came the curt reply. “Let me call you back.”
She never did.