London - When you’ve had ‘one of those days’, nothing beats a plate of stodge for momentary - if sinful - release from it all.
The other day, when I met my friend Bernette for lunch, work and children had pushed me to hair-tearing point - but I knew it could all be solved by one of those giant toasties with rivers of melted cheddar oozing from hunks of white bread.
So why then, did I find myself ordering an abstemious tuna salad instead? I’m certainly not worried about my figure - I’m a very trim size ten - I just feel bad for Bernette, who, at a size 16/18, constantly battles the proverbial bulge.
It would be unfair to sit there, knee-deep in calories, when she tries to watch what she eats. Talk about rubbing her face in the fact I can eat whatever I want. Not that this kind of abstinence isn’t frustrating. Sometimes I feel like shouting: ‘So you’re overweight - that’s your problem, not mine!’
This is the truth about being a skinny person with fat friends. You are forever tiptoeing around the elephant in the room - their weight. It may sound callous, but when your pals are podgy they cast a giant shadow over your every move when you’re with them.
Of course there will be many on the other side of the fence who say their plight is far worse: having to watch as stick insects around them devour chocolates and then slither into slinky dresses.
There may even be some who wonder if I don’t protest too much. Surely, there’s a tiny part of me that enjoys the fact that flabby friends inevitably emphasise your own svelte figure? I can assure you I never feel this way. True friendship is a precious thing and I would never regard my mates as strategically positioned foils to shine a light on myself. Although I know there are those who do: apparently one in three British women recently admitted they would choose a heavier friend as their bridesmaid to make them look comparatively trimmer on their wedding day.
As for me, thanks to a fast metabolism, genetic good fortune and a love of brisk walking and swimming, I rarely put on weight. In fact, at nine-and-a-half stone (about 60kg), I am lighter than I was when I got married 23 years ago.
That’s not to say there haven’t been times when a few kilos have crept up on me, such as after over-indulging on holiday. But I just under-indulge when I get back and make sure I exercise.
Of course I know it’s not so simple for some. Many have a compulsive relationship with food and I feel for them, I really do.
That’s not to say my gut reaction isn’t to judge when I see a porky stranger tucking into a cheeseburger and chips on the train. It’s hard to resist the urge to go over and say: ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?’
Of course it’s different with friends: judgment is replaced by concern, fear of saying the wrong thing.
A few weeks ago, I met a fairly portly work friend after a half-term trip to Athens. We shared anecdotes about my holiday but just as I was about to marvel that my jeans felt slightly tight, I bit my tongue.
How could I share this with a woman who hasn’t been inside a pair of denims since the turn of the millennium? Instead I quickly changed the subject because having friends who are overweight makes you feel relentlessly self-conscious.
I’m certainly not the only one who feels like this. In fact there is a collective paranoia about causing offence to those larger than ourselves.
Take the fact teachers and health professionals are forbidden from broaching a dangerously obese child’s size head on: ‘obese’ is a banned term, as is ‘fat’.
No wonder the rest of us feel like we’re treading on eggshells. Sometimes, my discomfort around my bigger friends is cringe-worthy: take the time Bernette spotted me wearing a figure-hugging dress at a wedding and swamped me with compliments.
My response? Instead of revelling in her kind words, I did what I always do: I either deflect (‘My shoes are absolutely killing me!’) or attempt humour (‘You think I look slim? Forget it. Look at her: I’ve seen pipe cleaners with more meat.’). I can’t just enjoy a nice comment; I have to bat it away so as not to make the friend feel bad about herself.
And when it comes to paying them a genuine compliment you’re really in a sticky situation. Bernette always looks super smart and can put together flattering outfits with panache - ie she knows how to emphasise her pretty face and detract from her figure.
The other week I heard someone say to her: ‘You always know how to dress...’ - the unspoken part of the sentence being ‘for your size’.
Most of the time, I just try not to talk about fashion in front of anyone who is manifestly big. And if the conversation drifts towards new trends, I’ll do my best to change the subject - perhaps asking for recipe ideas - so that we can talk about something that is less sensitive and more interesting for them. It’s very draining.
Even worse, though, are the shopping trips with oversized pals. Recently, I arranged a day out with an old school friend I hadn’t seen in years. I was going to a 40th birthday party that weekend so she said she would help me pick something glam to wear.
But it turned out she’d gained at least 10 kilos.
So I didn’t have the gall to try anything on in front of her, instead veering towards the kaftan section, saying I wanted one for my summer holiday. It was January. I’m ashamed to confess that I made a mental note never to go shopping with her - or anyone over a size 10 - again.
So what does Bernette make of all this? She’s tried every diet under the sun including having a gastric band fitted. Sadly, it didn’t work. Although she had to avoid heavy meals, it didn’t address her mindset - her sweet tooth - and so she still manages to eat the hot chocolates and ice cream.
Despite all this, she has never shown a sliver of jealousy that I am thinner than her.
Perhaps it serves me right that when she sat down to lunch with me the other day, she picked up on the real reason for my choice of a tuna salad.
She wrested the fork from my hand and declared: ‘Angela, for goodness sake, just order what you want. I know what you’re up to and it doesn’t help. I’m overweight. Live with it. I know I do.’
Then it all came tumbling out. Although Bernette appreciated my attempts at sensitivity, it upset her more to think that I couldn’t be myself around her.
What’s more, she felt patronised and belittled when thin friends went to great lengths to avoid anything that acknowledged a disparity between our waistlines.
She pointed out that now she was a mother-of-three and a grandmother-of-four, she was big enough - no pun intended - to cope with the fact that she had friends who were thinner.
She also reminded me that she has experienced many highs and lows and reached a point in her life where she could cope with just about anything.
‘Anyway,’ she added, ‘even if you do eat that pathetic salad, and continue to avoid shopping with me, it won’t make me any thinner. So stop pussy-footing around.’
I was dumbfounded and felt a rush of scarlet shame. I had been a flaky do-gooder who, compelled by a misguided niceness, had given little thought to the transparency of my actions. The only words I could find were: ‘I’m so, so sorry.’
Right then and there I vowed never again to edit my behaviour around my hugely wise, big-hearted and, yes, overweight friends.
And when Bernette summoned the waitress and ordered a cream cake that afternoon, I put my hand on her arm and said: ‘You’d better make that two.’ - Daily Mail