As recently as just a year ago, a situation such as this wouldn’t have even entered my mind. If push came to shove, maybe an interview – but a photograph? Never. A photograph, for as long as I care to remember, was an acknowledgement of how my physical appearance had altered. These admissions came at the expense of my confidence – which, as the pounds increased, dropped in equal measure. Thankfully now, due to changes in my lifestyle, a photograph has far more positive connotations. My father, was born in Nottingham, but brought to Harlow by his adoptive parents, his father (my grandfather) being head lecturer of Maths and Engineering at Harlow College. My mother, who lived in neighbouring Roydon, moved to Harlow after marrying my father.
Born in 1973, I was the first of three children. I loved school, managing to emerge with acceptable grades – an achievement considering my parents were mid-divorce when I sat my exams.
'Harlow's not so bad - just give it half a chance'
My life from the age of seven through to twenty-one was marching bands – primarily the Harlow Green Jackets. I took it all in my stride and ultimately, having risen through the ranks, became drum major, whose role was to confidently keep everyone in check while twirling a four-foot mace. The unintentional byproduct of all that physical exertion was how effective it was at keeping my weight under control. (My short ‘n’ dumpy stature is something I laughingly thank my mother’s side of the family for!)
Although I loved the pomp and pageantry of the military, it wasn’t my intention to make a career of it. Instead, from a young age, I lived and breathed anything to do with the police. My aspirations of joining the police cadets were put on hold when, aged sixteen, I fell short of their height criteria by a measly three-quarters of an inch. Annoyingly, two years later, in the midst of an unexpected growth spurt, the height restriction was abolished. However, an even bigger hurdle was my poor eyesight – my inability to see unaided over a set distance meant my career was quashed before it started.
Although I never intended to work in an office, that’s just what I ended up doing. However, the upside was that I met my future husband. At the time we were both nursing our egos due to relationship breakdowns. We took comfort in sharing our troubles at work, so took things a step further and went out for a few drinks – and despite him being thirteen years my senior we married and had children.
It’s fair to say that we both enjoy our food. Therefore, as a happy, contented couple, complacency over our health grew. Those extra pregnancy pounds coupled with unsociable working hours led to snacking. If I missed a meal I’d overcompensate at the earliest opportunity, overloading my plate in the belief that I wouldn’t be hungry later.
In 2009 I became a driving instructor, and the weight continued to pile on. Apart from the dozen or so steps to and from the car my day was entirely sedentary.
Although I’d never been openly shamed for my size, the paranoia of how others perceived me became far more destructive. Dark unassuming clothing became my way of deflecting attention. At social gatherings I refrained from eating – even when presented with healthy options – my assumption being that it would initiate a barrage of lengthy stares. It didn’t matter that my suspicions were unfounded, the ever-present feeling of judgement was enough. At times I did try to diet, but without that all important willpower, the temptation of returning to quick and tasty food options was too great.
I’m not looking to lay the blame for my issues at the foot of my parents’ divorce, but on some level I believe it played a part. Up until their separation things were fine, but subsequently, maybe because of a lack of engagement with me and my siblings, my father replaced praise with disparaging comments. Given time, that behaviour compromises your self-esteem.
'Apart from the dozen or so steps to and from the car my day was entirely sedentary'
In 2016, during a routine health check, doctors expressed concern over my high blood pressure. The realisation struck me that if I didn’t make an effort to shed weight soon I would, like my mother had, end up with debilitating health problems.
I started off with a few spinning classes, but inevitably that slipped by the wayside when work priorities got in the way. Undeterred, a friend (who also introduced me to Zumba) invited me to take part in a charity spinning event, as a result of which I won ten free spinning classes. I’m not one to pass up a freebie, therefore I made a concerted effort to use them – and I did.
In what felt like no time, I too was lining up with dozens of other runners at the weekly 5km Harlow parkrun. It didn’t matter then and doesn’t matter now that I don’t run all the way or that nine times out of ten I come last. What does matter, aside from physical changes (a loss of two stones to date), is that my confidence has increased.
That, together with my compulsion to own flamboyant running attire, may lead some to wrongly assume I’m no longer mindful of how I’m perceived by others. That mindset, although greatly improved, will take time to fix. For the time being my focus is on looking after myself, which along the way will hopefully inspire others to follow suit.
As for Harlow, well, it will always be special to me. Yes, the town’s changed, which makes some people wary, but it had to. In my opinion, although it’s nice to reminisce, fixating on what life would’ve been like if nothing had altered can lead to feelings of despondency. If you then read and believe all the negatives you won’t have space for the positives that are all around us. The town’s not so bad – we’ve just got to give it half a chance.