John Lewis seems to be our favourite meeting place. It was before the lunch crowd, but the 5th floor of the Oxford Street store was already buzzing with early Christmas shoppers – mostly the grey pound – some with more shopping motivation than others. The moon had not only landed, but had consumed John Lewis in triumphant support of their latest Christmas advert; they never fail to impress and bring out a few tears. As I’m lost in the chaos of shopping – mine and others – in walks Cathy. Through the buzz, I could almost hear the purposeful contact of each step in her seven inch stilettoes, emphasised with her figure flattering skirt, softened only by her perfectly fitted, floral Ted Baker jacket (her signature look). Heads turn; she coolly doesn’t notice. Then she flashes her Hollywood, Julia Roberts smile and releases a little chuckle as she sees me sitting. This is classic Cathy.
The 2016 London Marathon is on Cathy’s mind. It should be; it’s a huge, ambitious undertaking: More than 247,069 people entered the Marathon with only 50,000 accepted to run more than 42 kilometres (that’s roughly 26 miles). I was a definite ‘no’ long before distance became double digits, but I admire those who do. Cathy talks about her decision calmly with only a faint hint of panic. There’s no going back now. The trepidation in her voice gives me some comfort because it reveals she is human and doesn’t possess unearthly skills, yet the absence of superpowers makes her even more remarkable.
Cathy is different than most women I have ever met. She only looks forward. She focusses on her goals and celebrates her journey – easy, difficult, embarrassing or other – knowing that there are no fast-track options, no cheating, just hard work. The London Marathon is simply Cathy’s next challenge.
As I am sitting with Cathy, she once again flashes her heartening smile whiling talking about her fundraising goals - £10,000 to benefit Victa, a charity that helps blind children – and what lead her to the decision to run the London Marathon, but my attention is diverted as I can’t stop thinking that this UK size 8 beauty sitting across the table from me was once a UK size 24 (that’s US 4 and 22). Really.
FAT ISN'T JUST A THREE LETTER WORD
Most women hide their ‘fat’ pictures because they’re either depressing or somehow embarrassing – a nice trick we play on ourselves. I hate to admit it, but I have an entire box of hidden ‘fat’ pictures from back in the day when people actually printed photos and eagerly waited for them to be developed. Back before our entire lives were digitised and even our phones could transform a picture from hideous to glamourous before sharing it with a world of strangers. I think I've hidden a spotted decade of bad hair, bad style and a rounder self – especially from the 80s. I know, it’s silly of me. At 40, I look better than I did at 20 and I should celebrate my journey and laugh at my tightly wound perm, neon jumpers and braces. Yes, I sported every trend at the same time. Was it courage, stupidity, bad taste or does ‘80s explain it all?
It’s worth noting that ‘fat’ is Cathy’s word, not mine. I would probably do the American thing of using every other possible adjective, mumble my words, apologise uncomfortably and end up whispering ‘plus’ or ‘full’ to describe Cathy’s former figure, but she gave me permission to use the ‘f’ word, so I'm embracing it.
Semantics aside, I still didn't understand how Cathy became fat. What was her trigger? No one discovers a doughnut, binges and overnight is transformed into a size 24. It takes time. So again I asked, what changed in her life. To answer this, I saw tears in Cathy’s eyes. Her eyes are usually Angelina Jolie fierce, almost piercing through you, always telling the world she doesn't tolerate lies or liars. Cathy knows the strength of her character and the word ‘no’ is liberating for her, which is clear. Yet this question elicited tears – only a few until she pushed them back. Alas, under the fierceness in her eyes lies a vulnerable self. I get it. Now, she uses that vulnerability to push through her fitness goals; decades ago, she looked for comfort in food.
Cathy grew up in Zimbabwe, the youngest of nine children. Her parents are educated, hardworking, creative and charitable. When Cathy talks about her father, her smile changes to one of a little girl, full of all the possibilities in the world. I suspect she is daddy’s little girl, but Cathy never plays favourites (so it’s just a hunch).
What is clear is daddy’s imprint all over Cathy. Her father instilled life values: Learn. Work hard. Be curious. Treat others with respect. Believe you can do anything and be anyone. These are powerful words, but coming from a man who lived them every day, it’s easy to see his influence. He believed in giving back, without expectation of reciprocation. When guests were in his home, they were treated like royalty. If there wasn't enough food, he happily gave his away. A great man.
I am a collector of stories, so I probed relentlessly and listened intently as Cathy talked about her family and especially her father. She danced around many of my questions, trying to avoid a clear answer, which only made me push harder. I wanted to understand why she started eating past the point of feeling ill, hiding chocolate and packing on pounds until her small frame was a size 24.
Cathy had everything she needed at home. She grew up feeling loved and safe, and believing she could achieve anything she wanted. Her father never judged her or made her feel weak. When he looked at his little girl, all he saw was beauty – both heart and mind. Family was and remains the source of much of Cathy’s strength. Yet again, something as dramatic as major weight gain doesn't happen overnight. If not family, death, a breakup or a life-altering event, then what changed in Cathy?
At last I found my answer.
It was boarding school that showed Cathy the opposite end of the emotionally supportive scale of ethics. At school, Cathy was bullied. She was a stunner even then – I assume making other girls jealous – and she was clever too. When it came to maths, Cathy was on the top table because it came naturally to her and she loved it. However, literacy and writing revealed a widening gap. She could never finish tests in the allotted time and reading a simple page required many rereads to understand the content. She knew she had to work harder than everyone else in the class, but she didn't understand why. This lack of support made Cathy feel as if she was already discarded as someone who wasn't clever enough.
Now add bullying to the story. Cathy’s classmates snickered at her every day. They snickered loudly enough she knew she was the source, but not loudly enough for her to hear the words that made them feel superior, slowly chipping away at Cathy’s resolve and confidence. Cathy filled in the absent words. The relentless taunting and struggles with tests had now entered her core. She was only 12 years old.
While the failed exams and snickering from classmates were bad enough, one teacher was unforgivably torturous, calling Cathy stupid in front of the entire class. “Everyone in the class passed this test, except one,” yelled the teacher. “I wonder if some people have brains or water in their head.” Now the snickering girls had their own word to taunt Cathy. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
This teacher also gave Cathy the fated advice that she was lucky to be pretty because she was too stupid to accomplish anything on her own. All she could hope for was to be a wife and have children. Yet another blow with the same word as wrapping. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. That word became the taunt – by her classmates and by herself. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Over and over again. With every incomplete test and incomplete book, she played that word in her head. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
In my house, the word ‘stupid’ is considered the ‘s’ word. I forbid it because that little word has power. It can humiliate, embarrass or demean anyone within seconds. To hear it repeatedly as a child can cause severe emotional trauma. I know because like Cathy, I was bullied. ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names will never hurt you’ is not true. Words linger longer than a punch, inflicting more pronounced cruelty.
Every time Cathy heard the word ‘stupid’ or a girl snickered within earshot, Cathy would shrink smaller and smaller, hoping to become invisible. She turned to food. A snicker from classmates, a chocolate bar; a failed test, a bag of crisps; a teacher calling on her, ice cream; stupid, an entire cake. One simple word had the power to change Cathy’s path and haunt her for decades. Just one, silly, little word. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Where Cathy’s teachers truly failed her was not spotting her dyslexia. High scores on maths, but inability to complete reading tests is a gigantic, blinking red light. Cathy remembers everything and has quick wit – not signs of someone who is stupid. Why didn't anyone notice? Why didn't anyone spot what was happening to this beautiful, sweet and clever little girl? Cathy repeated in her head. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
After Cathy graduated secondary school – I imagine her parading around the teacher who told her she wasn’t clever enough to earn qualifications – she left the comforts of home in Zimbabwe and moved to London (sometime in the early ‘90s). This was a bold move. I asked why she left and why she fell in love with London. Her answers were unclear – I assume it’s like many major decisions where emotion and safety mix with opportunity – but I suspect the move was part opportunity and part a chance to start over, to be the self she knew she was. But even thousands of miles couldn't erase her unhappiness. I don’t believe we ever really leave ourselves, just change postcodes or get lost in shipping for a while.
Cathy was now a UK size 24 and still gaining weight.
Just as a trigger isn't set to become fat, it doesn't exist to turn it off. The epiphany for Cathy started at her older sister’s birthday party. A guest thought Cathy was the oldest sister, not the youngest of nine. This shook Cathy. Like the lit birthday candle on her sister’s birthday cake, the wax started melting and then the flame went out. Cathy retreated home to safety, to the dark, to another cake, to eating so much she felt ill. The lowest point I could go muttered Cathy to herself. She looked in the mirror, didn't recognise herself and decided she had enough. Typical Cathy. She decided to change and she did. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
When telling this part of her journey, Cathy is resolute. When she decided to get healthy, she knew shame had no place in her Fit Mission, but her ‘fat’ brain was embarrassed, lacking confidence. She didn't want to exercise outside – too fragile and worried people would snicker at the ‘fat’ girl walking in the park. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. While her determination was clear, and she knew she had to eat better and exercise, she lacked the knowledge of what and how. Baby steps, she told herself. Make little changes. Smaller portions. Walk. You can do this.
Cathy spent hours walking in front of her tv. Then she bought a treadmill (the new addition to her Fit Mission) and she walked and walked and walked in the comforts of her home. Weight started to melt away. Her clothes were loose and she could finally walk upstairs without feeling out of breath. Then she ventured to the park. She’d run one minute and walk for ten. Slowly, the running time increased as the walking time decreased. I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. She was starting to believe. The biggest motivator in the early stages of her Fit Mission was the compliments from friends and family, but she continued her mission because she could finally look at herself in the mirror without cringing, she felt good and she was happy. Ten years later and she’s still going strong.
As I listen to Cathy retell her Fit Mission and specifically how she lost the weight, I am transported back to the 90s and some absurd fads (many of which started in the 80s and continued well past the new millennium thanks to YouTube). Jane Fonda is no longer an accomplished actress in my mind, she sculpted the bodies of suburban housewives everywhere. I tried the Jane Fonda Workout in private after watching my 100 pound, perfectly toned mom do it in her perfectly 90s leotard, oblivious that my friends (male and female) were hanging around a little longer than necessary, watching her squeeze her bum, do air kicks, several lunges and then prance away. Step, tap to the right, here we go ladies, now repeat, ready, hold it, hold it, now again, up and down, breath, march in, march out, last time everyone, last time…
Cathy tried Buns of Steel, Tae Bo and Thighmaster, with Richard Simmons (Sweatin’ to the Oldies) only a quick stop. Thankfully she missed Fabio altogether. Remember, we’re in the 90s. I didn’t ask if she owned a George Forman grill, but I am sure she did – we all owned one, at least in America we did. The millennium didn’t offer many different workout fads, just more from the same faces offering their new and improved ‘cures’.
Although Jazzercise and Step Aerobics are making a comeback now, it’s yoga, running and weights that keep Cathy toned. With the Marathon in April, Cathy’s already intense training is now on overdrive. She is running more than 20 miles at a time, slowly increasing the distance. By April, Cathy won’t just finish, she could win.
The diets Cathy tried are equally as widespread and sometimes as comical as the exercise trends at that time. She admits that she went overboard, especially in the early days of her Fit Mission, but her knowledge of exercise and nutrition wasn't great and she was so desperate to be thin she tried everything. She tried Special K, Weight Watchers shakes, Slim Fast, Atkins, The Beverly Hills diet, South Beach, The Zone. She tirelessly mixed shakes, fought hunger pains with fat-free and calorie-free cheese, crackers and crisps (cringe worthy). Cathy skipped the Cabbage Soup and Maple Syrups diets – I never understood those diets and why magazines raved about them, then again, I don’t know anyone who actually tried them. She squeezed lemons until her fingers puckered and her new perfume was EAU DE PARFUM CITRON. In her Fit Mission, Cathy has counted calories, removed sugar, removed gluten, removed wheat, removed dairy, removed alcohol, added some back, then removed others…a vicious cycle of up and down, adding and removing without understanding what healthy meant. But now Cathy knows how to live a healthy life through the right diet and the right exercise.
PASSING IT ON
It’s been the last few years that have radically changed Cathy’s life, and of course her body. She had worked with many trainers before, but she finally found someone who didn't focus on the ‘skinny’ goal, but instead on her real goal of being healthy and toned. Goodbye bingo wings, hello strength; goodbye sleeplessness, hello boundless energy. In addition to adding more weight training to her fitness regime, Mina John Shahata educated Cathy about diet and nutrition. He devised plans for her based on her fitness goals, body style and health. Now Cathy listens to HER body and eats for HER lifestyle and fitness goals. One size never fits all.
I think I can, I think I can…turned into I know I can, I know I can. It took Cathy 10 years and a lot of hard work to get to where she is now, but she’s here, sitting across the table from me, glowing and inspiring this writer. Cathy is finally in the body she knows she was meant to have and wakes every morning feeling blessed. She wants to share her story and inspire others around the world – bullies and mean teachers too.
“Running a marathon was a dream of mine, but my fat self wasn’t fit enough. Now I am mentally and physically strong.” I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. Cathy was nervous submitting her London Marathon application – not afraid of the hard work required, but the small chance of not finishing, coming from that small voice inside who was called stupid (at least I think). As she explained to me, it was the thought of raising money for charity that provided the final ounce of motivation to hit send on her application. There’s no going back now, she thought. Cathy is running for herself, she’s running for her bullies, she’s running for every child who’s been told they aren’t clever enough or can’t accomplish anything.
I asked how she copes with ‘fat days’ or ‘ugly days’. We all have them – supermodel, mother of four, 20 year old or 70 year old – it’s part of being a woman (or maybe that’s just another nice trick we play on ourselves). Of course she answered quickly by saying she ‘just gets on with it’. It wasn’t a flippant response, but one that is believable and helps her thousands of Facebook followers push through their challenges too. Her other secret is planning. She prepares meals in advance and never leaves home without healthy snacks. When Cathy is sick, she allows herself to rest – usually by watching Housewives of whatever city is on or Botched (she happily admits loving a little trash tv).
What struck me most about Cathy’s story, is there’s no blame. She owns her successes and failures. She openly admits when she has made an error. She doesn’t flatter unless she means it. She is loyal. She is generous. A beauty with a beautiful soul…that’s 100% Cathy.
Leaving Cathy after two hours of talking left me wanting to skip through John Lewis, down Oxford Street, back to Wimbledon and all the way to Virgin Active to sweat it off. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
When Cathy started running, she never stopped…and she never will.