I’m a bit conflicted as I write this post. I’m torn, as I so often am, between warm nostalgia and remembered sadness. It’s late here, and I’m just about to pitch into bed, but I couldn’t go to sleep without writing some thoughts on a TV programme I’ve just watched. It’s called ‘My Mad Fat Diary’, and watching it felt like being given a return ticket to my own adolescence.
All right, so the main character in the show has just spent four months in a psychiatric hospital, and that never happened to me. She also attends a pool party (in 1996, in the UK? I’d say it’s unlikely, but perhaps I just wasn’t in a group cool – or rich – enough to have a pool party in 1996, in Ireland); that, obviously, never happened to me either. But in every other respect, I felt like the show could have been written about my life. I was that girl who didn’t fit in (in every respect); I was that girl who knew her music, and used that knowledge as a means to talk to boys and other alien species; I was that girl who hated being the ugly duckling among the flock of swans. I was the girl who felt so agonisingly self-conscious that she found it hard to look in mirrors, and who was always wondering, at the back of her mind, if people were laughing at her. I thought the show was brilliant, but it was almost impossible to watch, on some levels.
At the end of the show, the character asks her psychiatrist what his first impressions of her were. He says something like: ‘I felt you thought you were a fragile thing… but I think you’re a tough cookie.’ I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything so true, in a programme of its type, before – it really struck a chord with me. At that age, I felt fragile, despite seeming like a large and capable girl on the outside. I used to feel invisible, despite being anything but. I felt like if you looked like an oversized, cumbersome girl physically, you didn’t have the right to feel delicate or vulnerable. It seemed as though such ladylike feelings were kept for girls whose bodies kept themselves within ladylike bounds. It’s tough to keep your head straight when it seems like the world you live in doesn’t allow you to feel what you need to feel. Thankfully, as the years of my life have ticked on, I’ve learned to accommodate all my emotions – if I feel fragile, I go with it until my strength comes back. It always does.
The most memorable scene in the show, for me, was one in which Rae (the lead character) is contemplating wearing a swimming costume for the first time in years. She remembers how, as a small child, she used to wear nothing but a swimming costume, and how she didn’t care at all about how she looked, or what people thought of her. The teenage Rae has a touching conversation with her memory of herself as a little girl, during which she tells the child that if she gets fat, people won’t like her any more. The little girl says ‘Of course they will! I’m brilliant!’ I loved that bit, probably more than was seemly for a woman of my age and station. I think I may have clapped at the TV. (There may also have been some cheering, but I’m not willing to confirm or deny anything.)
I had friends as a large, out of place teenager. I still have most of those friends now, and there are deep, unbreakable bonds between us. I’ve always had friends, and I’ve always loved people, and I’m very grateful for that. But watching this programme really brought me back to the difficulties I encountered growing up. Sometimes, despite the love of friends and family, adolescence can be the loneliest place in the universe, especially when you’re struggling with yourself and the only ‘person’ you feel you can be honest with is the person in the pages of your diary. I think the show seems true to life because it is, actually, based on a true-life story – the ‘diary’ of the title is a real diary, kept by a real girl (now, of course, a successful grown-up). I kept a diary very much like the one the girl in the show keeps, and I’m pretty sure the contents of my diaries were much like the contents of hers. Often, writing in it was the only thing that kept me going.
One thing I’ve learned, as I’ve grown, is that everyone feels pressures growing up, and nobody has a perfect adolescence. Of course, this is of little comfort when you’re going through it. But I’m not special or unique, and my long-ago torments are the same as everyone else’s. But I’ve loved growing older, and growing up. With every year I’ve clocked up, I’ve felt happier in myself and in my life, and I wish that more kids would give themselves that chance – the chance to grow up, and realise it won’t always be that bad. You won’t always be the fat girl stuck on the waterslide. You won’t always be the teenage boy with acne on his back. You won’t always be the kid with braces, or whatever it is.
‘My Mad Fat Diary’ was a welcome trip into my past, complete with the music, ‘technology’, posters and bands I would have been so familiar with back then. It made me realise how far I’ve come, and made me see that, despite what I thought of myself at the time, I was a good kid. I didn’t give myself enough credit for facing my struggles head on and coming through them.
It’s never too late to start.