Having been sensitively and professionally tended by a massively overweight nurse in hospital, I am struggling to understand why the efforts, that seem to come in waves, to reduce obesity in Britain are so unsuccessful. For my nurse practitioner cousin, it is simply a matter of diet, exercise, and self-control. Alas, it is not simple. Many believe plumpness is ‘in their genes’. They come from a family of overweight people. Or of ones who relish their food and find it difficult – or are disinclined – to follow guidelines on health.
At the school I attended when about twelve years old, I had to walk with my class into the morning assembly behind a girl with a long, thick plait of dark blond hair that smelled of a potent combination of shampoo and grease. I was even told off for lagging behind her as we filed out of the hall where morning assembly took place as well as lunch and the weekly obligatory gym session – usually Wednesdays, I remember. The tables were stacked at one end to clear space in front of the ‘ribs’ or varnished parallel wooden bars attached in three sections on each of the two longer walls. While the ‘ribs’ were dusted the ‘horse’ was placed in the middle of the room with a wide sloping springboard of wooden planks in front of it and a ‘soft’ bristly mat spread out on the other side to land on – that is, if one managed ‘to land’ at all!
The budding athletes – or victims – had in the meantime to strip off their tunics, trying not to spill secret treasures out of the pockets, and hang them dutifully in the changing room. There they rolled up their regulation knickers – with another useful pocket for a handkerchief – to look more ‘sporty,’ and lined up ready to run at the ‘horse’ to try their luck. One of the girls was chronically short-sighted, and I recall how worried I was when she was ordered to take off her glasses and put them in her tunic pocket, though she could hardly find her way back from the changing room to us already in line. When her turn came to run at the ‘horse’ my heart leapt into my mouth as I stifled the urge to cry out to the teacher that she couldn’t see well and could probably not grasp the handles on either side of the saddle to swing over it, even with the help of the gym mistress and her assistant.
I was one of those who secretly enjoyed doing it with some degree of ease because it counted as an achievement. It was also an achievement to suppress the wish to swagger about it! I still feel upset about the ‘ribs’ incident. The girl with the thick, smelly, honey-coloured plait took her turn, as commanded, to climb one of the six rib-like wall structures, three on each side of the gym or assembly hall or dining-room, with four girls lined up in front of each waiting their turn to climb up to the top, touch the ceiling, and then down again, like monkeys. It was all very organised, very Saint Trinian’s, with blasts on a whistle, clapping for silence and ‘Come on, girls!’ There was a thud and a muffled cry. We breathed in and looked around, startled. The girl with wide shoulders and hips and a smelly honey-blond plait had been told to climb, struggled half-way up and then fell, splayed out flat like a lion skin on the floor below. I remember thinking that it was an odd way to fall, but she hadn’t hurt herself. There were a few muffled giggles. I happened to be close to the gym mistress, so she beckoned me to help her. I hurried to the cloakroom to find the girl’s tunic and her glasses in one of the pockets, surprised that she was expected to function without them. Thinking back, I now fully realise what a crucial difference the invention of contact lenses has made and how the energetic quest for fitness must be carefully managed. I shall confine myself to fast walking