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  • Published: 5 February 2019
  • ISBN: 9780241329306
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 272
  • RRP: $17.99

Misfit

Extract

Prologue

I am not normal.

From the ages of four to six, I thought I was a dog. A German Shepherd, to be precise, though I could also be a Dalmatian, depending on my mood. The dogs I grew up with were spoiled and loved, and played around all day, so that’s what I decided I wanted to become. I’d put my hands up to my chest and pretend they were paws, then walk on my tiptoes to mimic the way dogs’ feet arch up. I’d squint at things in the distance, the way dogs do when they spot something they’re curious about, and growl under my breath at strangers. In fact, I squinted so much that my nursery sent me to an eye specialist because they thought I was going blind. I was obsessed with becoming a dog, barking at strangers in the street in the hope they’d mistake me for a real one.

To prove how passionate I was about my alter ego, I spent one Christmas writing countless letters to Father Christmas begging for a metal dog cage I’d seen in the Argos catalogue. I wanted a big one, with room for a few pillows so it was comfy to sleep in, and space to allow me to grow. Funnily enough, I was disappointed on Christmas morning.

Like many parents, mine thought this was just a phase, until my school genuinely became concerned and wanted me tested for autism. That’s when the ‘Why can’t you just be normal?’ questions began.

I didn’t know that wasn’t considered to be acceptable behaviour. I was happy pretending to be a dog. In fact, I would go so far to say that I was probably the happiest (and sanest) I’ve ever been. Since the dog thing, I’ve had a lot of obsessions. I’ve been obsessed with germs, believing I’ve caught HIV from a toilet seat, and wearing gloves on the Tube so I don’t touch the poles with bare hands. I have been obsessed with the idea that everyone hates me, working myself up into a frenzy until I want to rip my own hair out. But, most obsessively of all, I spent almost twenty years of my life worrying daily about my weight – nit-picking all my flaws, believing my body to be grotesque, and feeling utterly convinced with every fibre of my being that I was morbidly obese.

My longing to be thin took over my life. To this day, I have never craved or wished for anything so deeply. I wanted to feel the outline of bones underneath clothes; I wanted people to gasp at my frail frame. Most of all, although I didn’t realize it at the time, I wanted people to see I needed help with the anxieties in my brain, without having to actually say the words myself.

To cut a long story short, I know I am a bit mental. I know the word ‘mental’ isn’t a very politically correct term to use, but that’s what I am, I suppose. A bit cray cray. I know I don’t look mental. You wouldn’t think I had any of these issues if you saw me on the street, put it that way.

In fact, I have what I like to call ‘Sexy Illnesses’. Not because my OCD, depression, anxiety and eating disorders go walking around in fishnets and stilettos, but because they’re often glorified and gossiped about in the media or in magazines. You read about a celebrity losing an excessive amount of weight, written in a tone of awed admiration. How many people do you know who have referred to their tidiness as ‘OCD’, when all they’ve done is neatly fold their knickers in their drawer? How many people do you know who refer to their PMS mood swings or stressed-out mums as ‘bipolar’? These illnesses are talked about as if they’re fashionable now, but coping with them is another story.

My story begins at the age of eight, because that was the last time I remember being completely angst-free. Yep, it all went downhill from there, to be honest with you.

Aged eight was the last time I recall feeling like life was simple. I had no idea that periods existed, or that women were treated differently to men, or that my celebrity crush, Ricky Martin, was, in fact, gay. Money grew on trees and people were either fat or thin, black or white, rich or poor. I was, for the most part, totally innocent and naive, with everything a girl could have wished for.

Aged eight was the last time I remember viewing my body as solely that: a body. It was the last time I didn’t question the way it looked, or view it as though it was Mr Blobby (if you don’t know who Mr Blobby is, you’re missing out). There was nothing to preen, nothing to alter, nothing to lose. Little did I know it would take near to twenty years to view it in the same, non-judgemental way as I did back then.

Some people think eating disorders are genetic, and others think they may be caused by the influences around you. Perhaps you were destined to be that way inclined – I certainly had my fair share of mental health illnesses – or perhaps they develop from a build-up of things you see and hear. I personally think it’s a bit of both.

My eating disorders were an addiction. I was addicted to being perfect – the type of girl other girls want to be. When I saw a series of beautiful, skinny women plastered across fashion magazines and TV, as an impressionable young girl I formed a belief that took me a very, very long time to get over: that to be happy, I had to be thin.

Unlike a lot of people, who can open a magazine and see pictures of thin, beautiful women smiling back at them without so much as another thought, I stored them  in a mental filing cabinet. I couldn’t forget about them. I managed to convince myself that becoming thin would somehow make all my problems disappear. I mean, if I looked like the girls in magazines, what would there be to be sad about?

You might not be aware of it, but your brain is currently soaking up lots of slogans and pictures without you even realizing. Suddenly, the things you didn’t notice about your body before seem very noticeable. You’re not the same shape as the models you see in magazines. You notice you have acne and cellulite, but those happy girls in adverts would never have flaws like that. For someone with an obsessive personality like me, becoming thin became something else to fret over. I began to hate my body, and wondered how I could possibly change it.

My experience is not unique, I know. It’s universal. Think about it. You wake up in the morning and scroll through your Instagram feed, which is full of girls who look like you, just a bit more polished. You leave the house in the morning, drive past a few adverts full of glamorous women having a whale of a time, laughing at things that aren’t actually fun, like salad and couscous. After you’ve finished your food at lunchtime – having battled past so much contradictory dietary advice everywhere you look (LOW FAT! DELICIOUS! CARB-FREE! BIKINI BOD! INDULGE!) that you end up hating yourself and whatever you chose to eat – you might flick through a magazine,  which features even more beautiful women, and whose lives look far more thrilling than yours. Later, you make the return journey home, seeing (you’ve guessed it) more billboards and advertisements. You’ll go online and scroll through Facebook or Twitter, clicking X on a few weight-loss pop-ups as you go. Afterwards, you’ll watch a bit of TV, where women giggle hysterically while eating yoghurt and chocolate in the ad breaks. Then you’ll check your phone again before bed, and repeat the same process the next day. And the next. And the one after that . . .

As a teenager, I looked nothing like the girls I pinned on my bedroom wall, but I so desperately wanted to. Their lives were so glamorous and perfect and worry-free. I was chubby and tall – not thin and beautiful like they were. I hated school and felt isolated. They had rock-star boyfriends, tons of money and beautiful clothes, which couldn’t have been further from my life if I tried. And so I soon discovered I could plough my anxieties about fitting in and being lonely into controlling what I put in my mouth. After many years and much soul-searching, these fashion images are what I think triggered my eating problems. At least, in part. As I said, I’m a little bit mad. It could have been a lot of things. Either way, it was after coming to this conclusion from the images around me that I suddenly grew even more concerned about fitting in with the girls in my class. I didn’t want the outside to reflect the craziness that was happening up in my head. I was a teenager in the noughties, at the height of the size-zero trend. That was what I thought I needed to look like to be normal.

Maybe if I’d opened up about how I was feeling, my eating disorders wouldn’t have been triggered. But if I have learnt anything, it is that people do not like discussing mental health. It freaks them out. And despite the fact that children are capable of developing things like anxiety, eating disorders and depression, it makes grown-ups somewhat uncomfortable. And because we don’t like to talk about children’s feelings, the domino effect begins, where one undiscussed problem leads to another, and then to another, until children become so overwhelmed that they can’t deal with life. At least, that’s what happened to me. By the time I was in my late teens I was a seasoned pro at bulimia and starving myself. I was a nightmare at school, acting like a total arse and obsessing over boys. I felt directionless and alone, and thinness was all I could control and therefore care about.

So, how did a slightly bonkers misfit with anorexia, bulimia and anxiety decide to solve their problems? I became a model. As you do.

I truly believed that becoming a model would make my life better. It would mean I was beautiful. It would mean my body was perfect. If I couldn’t be ‘normal’, then I’d be superhuman: the type of girl other girls wanted to be. That was better than normal. The people who had ever doubted me or bullied me or called me ‘weird’ would suddenly want to be my friend. Finally, I’d have a chance of becoming those girls in magazines I’d aspired to be and live the lives they had.

What a prat.

In fact – surprise, surprise – my anorexia and bulimia were exacerbated by modelling. My obsessive personality clung on to the idea that being considered ‘beautiful’ would make me happy. Over time, my anxieties and self-image got worse and worse. Even when I became really thin I still wasn’t thin enough. And guess what? Losing weight didn’t make me more beautiful, and I certainly didn’t end up looking like the girls in magazines.

That’s the thing: the girls in the magazines don’t look like the girls in the magazines. Half the time, even I didn’t look like the overly Photoshopped images I’d had taken of me.

But what better way to prove to the world I was ‘normal’ than hiding my eating disorder behind the glamour of modelling! No one needed to know I was making myself sick, or measuring my hips obsessively ten times a day, or falling off running machines from exhaustion. I was becoming the girl I’d dreamt about since my early teens, but as my illness became worse, maintaining the illusion that everything was fine sent me into a meltdown.

It feels insane, looking back now, that I went along with these weird beauty standards. In fact, by working in the industry that partially caused my illness, I was contributing to the problem. It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. I’m out the other side, and I want to talk about it. I don’t want to make the same mistakes again – I want to start a conversation.

This is the story of those missing in-between years, which stretched from my childhood to my mid-twenties, that the pressures of society and pre-existing anxiety conspired to ruin by triggering an obsession with food and thinness. Twenty years of my life that I will never get back.

It’s a tale of how chasing perfection did not make me happy: how no matter how much weight I lost, I never reached the happiness I wished for. But, most of all, this is how I learnt that there is no such thing as normal, and that standing out is so much better than trying to fit in.
 

1

NOT SO NORMAL

Before we get on to my modelling, or my eating disorders, or even my life as an angst-ridden, anorexic, badly behaved teen, there I was – a relatively normal eight-year-old schoolgirl growing up in 90s Britain. The dog phase had finally ended (thank woof for that) and, like many kids, I had the inner confidence of someone with nothing to lose. From the day I set foot into the education system it became apparent we would not get along. I hated it till the day I left at eighteen. I hated being confined to a desk all day and being told what to do. I can’t work out if that makes me sound like a child genius, far too intelligent to listen to the ramblings of a middle-aged teacher with far more  life experience than me, or sound as though I had ADHD, although I don’t think either is true.

I went to a normal Catholic school in London (despite not being Catholic and despite the fact the local council decided to house registered sex offenders in flats overlooking the playing fields). I had normal friends. I spent plenty of time outdoors. I was a hundred-per-cent content with life.

My dad worked in the navy, which, to me, was normal. The only problem with my dad’s job was that we had to move around a lot, often from country to country. By the time I was eight I was on house number five. Moving from place to place and house to house was all I knew. Who was I to question it?

We weren’t rich. We weren’t poor. We certainly never went without. I knew I was very lucky, even if I did think depriving me of McDonald’s every night was practically child abuse. My parents had normal jobs, and although they had the occasional row they were very much in love and together. My little sister used to wind me up and bite me sometimes, but whose sibling didn’t? Bar the odd family drama, life was simple and uncomplicated. And, for the most part, I was truly happy and content, except when I didn’t get my dog cage for Christmas. Basically, there were no childhood traumas to excuse me from going completely mental later.

One day, my mum and dad announced something. ‘We’re moving.’

We weren’t just moving down the road. We were moving to Germany. To Hamburg, to be precise, which might as well have been the North Pole.

I met this announcement with mixed feelings. It was the first time I had to leave a life I was actually happy with. I’d never had to question how content I was until that moment. This move meant starting over from scratch, when I didn’t want to start over from scratch.

Moving had never bothered me up until now, because I’d never had a life I cared so much about. But this time was different. All of my friends were here. It meant coming to terms that my one true love Darryl was probably going to marry someone else while I was away. It meant Kelly was most likely going to forget about me and get a new best friend – probably that cow Kathryn, who had recently begun hanging around us like a bad smell.

Well, I thought, if that was the case, maybe I should move on, too? But wait – what if I never made another friend again? What if I was destined for an entire life of loneliness? This wasn’t what I wanted. And, in the annoying way parents decided things without your consent, like dragging you to Ikea for a ‘family day out’, I had no say on the matter. My parents went out of their way to convince me that moving would be a great experience for us all. My dad had flown over there to visit the school beforehand, taking photos of it throughout for me to see. The new school looked very fancy indeed, nothing like my school in London. It certainly didn’t look like the type of place paedophiles liked to hang around in their free time, or where people stole cars and burned them on the lawn for fun – both of which made a pleasant change. It was a private English-speaking international school in an exclusive part of the city, representing every ethnicity and religion under the sun.

And so we moved. I may have only been eight, but the differences between Hamburg and London were very noticeable. Mainly, the very liberal attitude to anything sexual. Billboards were covered in naked women with boobs approximately eleven storeys high. At a sleepover, I was confronted with a massive painting of my friend’s parents having sex (I mean, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want that in your living room). To get to school, our bus drove down an infamous street full of sex shops and prostitutes. In England, this would be deemed inappropriate. In Germany, it was fine. For some reason, this barrage of sexual images, words and scenes really affected me. I couldn’t look at them, without thinking: SEEEEXXXX!!!! Could I get pregnant because I was sitting next to a boy on the school bus? Had I had sex with someone without knowing? I was freaking out – and I couldn’t help the inappropriate thoughts that popped up when I saw them.

For the first time I couldn’t control what I was thinking – but I knew that what I was thinking was disturbing. From our first week in Germany it drove me absolutely mental.

On the first day of school, I arrived feeling terrified. I was trying to keep it together, but I still missed London and the things I knew. I hastily made my way into the classroom, telling my mum to clear off so as to not embarrass me in front of the other kids.

‘I like giving my pupils nicknames,’ my new teacher said cheerily once we’d all sat down. ‘What’s your nickname, Charlotte?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied truthfully, as the class turned to look at me.

‘Well, you must have one. Everyone has a nickname! Is it Lottie?’ he asked.

 ‘Erm . . . my dad and grandad call me Charlie,’ I said.

‘There you go!’ he said. ‘From now on, you’ll be called Charlie.’

So, that was it. It was like a rebirth. For added pizzazz, I decided to drop the ‘e’ from the end of my name, like a certain Geri ‘Ginger Spice’ Halliwell. I rather liked the fact Charli went with my tomboy personality. It may have only been a subtle name change, but this gave me a sense of freedom over my own body – the feeling that I was in control of my own image.

If only I could control my thoughts in the same way. And I don’t know if it’s coincidental or not – but this was when my bad behaviour started. By the end of the first week I still hadn’t made friends, and this worried me. I kept daydreaming about Kelly and Darryl, and how they were probably all huddled up with that friend-stealing Kathryn now, laughing at the memory of our marriage and what we once had.

When you’re eight, a week of not having a solid friendship group feels like a year, and I knew I couldn’t continue life like this. It was far too depressing. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’d make friends in the way I thought best – forming a girl band like the Spice Girls. Who cared that I couldn’t sing and that I danced like I was having some sort of fit? With the right band members we could be set for stardom.

I decided to ask two girls in my year I’d been admiring from afar to join – Emma and Hannah. Both were pretty and wore fashionable clothes. Both were avid Spice Girls fans, which made me like them even more. They both also performed dance routines in the playground during break times, and I desperately wanted to join in, but didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask yet.

So, one Monday break time, I asked (very seriously) if I could speak to them in private. As I stood there, clutching a notepad full of songs I’d written that would easily get me noticed as the next Mozart, I took a deep breath:

‘Do you want to be in my girl band?’

Emma and Hannah looked at one another.

‘Yeah, go on then.’

By the end of the day we were friends, busy planning what our band name should be. We settled on the Angelz, with a ‘z’ – because everyone knows adding a ‘z’ to the end of a name makes things ten times cooler.

Soon, a new girl called Anja joined our class. She was Danish, tanned and beautiful. Without hearing her sing, and despite the fact she could barely speak a word of English, the three of us knew she would make a great fourth member. When Anja became a fully fledged member of the Angelz, our band was complete.

I hadn’t got over Kelly, but I did like the fact I now had a nice group of girls to hang around with. Like the Spice Girls, we each had our own personalities:

Emma, who was the most grown-up one, and whose mum let her wear make-up;

Hannah, who looked up to Emma and who was fun and loyal;

Anja, the pretty one, who had all the boys after her;

Olivia, the academic one who had issues with her weight;

And me, Charli, the tomboy who was, as you’ll soon discover, the troublemaker.
 

The third week in, Hannah asked me if I’d like to come for a sleepover – which, in girl land, basically means you’re friends.

 ‘Of course!’ I said excitedly, as though she’d offered me a million pounds.

Before we went to Hannah’s that Friday night, we first needed to make a detour from school to her dentist, where Hannah was going to get her mouth moulded for braces. Braces seemed terribly grown-up. As I waited for her, I looked in the mirror. I hadn’t really thought about my teeth before. Were they wonky? Did they make me look less attractive? How had I not noticed that I didn’t have straight teeth before?

As I pondered this, I spotted a bowl full of free miniature toothpaste tubes that you could take home with you. Now, I’m not one to pass up a freebie, so I grabbed handfuls of them and shoved them into my pockets, as though the world would suddenly run out of fluoride.

Hannah’s house was beautiful and huge, with a big winding staircase and an even bigger garden to play in. Her house was attached to another house owned by an old German lady called Frau Lardegus, who Hannah had described to me as a horrible old witch. She didn’t speak any English, but would routinely tell Hannah’s mum in German how irritating Hannah and her brother were, and how she didn’t like children, and got them into trouble.

‘She sounds awful,’ I said. ‘We should get revenge on her.’

Hannah’s room was the most grown-up room I’d ever seen, with a beaded rainbow curtain across the door frame and a large double bed, which made my room seem terribly babyish in comparison. As an added bonus, she also had her very own balcony that overlooked the sea. Frau Lardegus’s room was directly next to hers, with a balcony that was separated from Hannah’s by a gap and a large drop.

We had some dinner, then, like any other normal girls, went up to Hannah’s room to listen to some music. As I took off my jacket, suddenly the toothpaste from earlier fell out on to the bed.

We looked at each other as though we’d read one another’s minds.

‘Remember I said we should get revenge . . .?’ I asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

Now, a psychologist may read the rest of this chapter and think I was being naughty because my life had been uprooted – an act of rebellion, or the need for attention. Looking back now, I think it was probably to distract myself from the revolting sexual images that I couldn’t stop from popping into my brain. At the time, I genuinely thought I was doing this on behalf of all the children who had ever been victimized by mean old ladies.

‘We need a backpack for our things,’ I instructed Hannah, despite the fact that all we were doing was climbing over on to the balcony next door.

She began handing me items we might need for our adventure. Notepad and pen? Check. Spare T-shirt? Check. Brain? Hmm.

‘Don’t forget this,’ she said, handing me her dad’s mobile phone. This was at a time when people didn’t have mobile  phones; they were considered a luxury item, rather than a necessity.

‘We don’t need that!’ I said, and threw it on to the bed.

‘What about a hairbrush?’ Hannah asked, handing it to me.

‘Nah,’ I said, and threw it behind me.

CRACK!

The hairbrush smashed the screen of the mobile phone, and Hannah and I looked at each other in shock.

‘My dad’s gonna kill me,’ she said.

Still, there was no time to lose. We could deal with the broken phone another time. We had revenge to get on with. Hannah put the phone on the bedside table, and we put on some jumpers for warmth.

We slid open her balcony door, trying to be as quiet as we possibly could so as not to disturb her parents, who were blissfully watching TV downstairs. I glanced down over the balcony. It was a huge drop. But you don’t think about danger when you’re eight, so we (stupidly) climbed over the edge and on to the balcony next door. (As a little side note, I’d like to warn readers DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Even by my standards, this was pretty idiotic.)

As we peered through the glass and gap in the curtain, we spotted Frau Lardegus innocently watching TV in her bedroom with a sewing kit on her lap and dogs by her feet. Anyone would have thought she was a cute old lady. Only we knew the truth.

‘Psst, pass me the toothpaste,’ I whispered.

Hannah handed me a couple of tubes, which I proceeded to squeeze across the window.

‘Let me have a go,’ she said enthusiastically, and before long we were like Banksy, fighting the patriarchy (or mean old ladies) one toothpaste tube at a time.

‘Right, I think that’s enough,’ Hannah said, and we took a step back.

Well, if we’d wanted to make a stand, we’d done a good job of it. The window was covered in the stuff.

As we climbed back over to Hannah’s balcony, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of guilt – not to mention fear of how much trouble we’d probably be in when Hannah’s mum found out.

‘We’re gonna have to wipe it off,’ I said to Hannah. ‘Go and get some toilet paper and wet it, then pass me some over the balcony.’

Suddenly, as we were about to step outside on to the balcony again, there was a knock at Hannah’s bedroom door. Our hearts stopped. I shoved the empty toothpaste tubes under the bed as quickly as I could, and we put on smiley, innocent faces as her mum opened the door.

‘Having fun?’ Hannah’s mum asked.

‘Er, yeah!’ Hannah replied, not daring to look at me.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘OK, darlings, sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning! Love you, sweetheart.’

As she closed the bedroom door, not knowing about our random act of anarchy, Hannah looked at me. ‘She’s going  to kill me,’ she said. ‘We need to get rid of it before Frau Lardergus tells her.’

‘Hmm, she’s kind of old. Perhaps she’s blind and won’t be able to see it?’ I replied reassuringly.

Hannah went to the bathroom and wet lots of tissue paper, then I climbed back over. She passed me the wet tissue from her balcony and I began scrubbing it as much as I could.

Now, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but when you try to scrub toothpaste off glass in a circular motion, it gradually becomes bigger and bigger until it turns into a whiter, smudgier, blurrier mess.

Oh, wait – no, of course you didn’t know that, because you’re not a f***ing idiot.

‘It’s not coming off!’ I hissed.

No matter how much I scrubbed, it just wouldn’t disappear. The window was becoming dirtier and dirtier by the second.

‘Maybe it won’t look so bad in daylight,’ I said to Hannah hopefully, who was panicking by this point. ‘It might be a trick of the eyes.’

All of a sudden, Frau Lardegus’s dogs began barking hysterically at the window, making her sit up in her chair.

Now a normal child would have legged it by this point, but as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now I wasn’t normal.

Moooo!’ I yelled – yes, like a cow, because why not? – sending the dogs into further hysteria.

‘Go, go, go!’ Hannah snapped, and I climbed back over the balcony and into her room, sliding the balcony door shut as though none of this had ever happened.

‘I don’t think the mooing was that necessary,’ Hannah said, and to be fair I think she had a point.

‘We’ll check the toothpaste situation in the morning,’ I said, trying to calm Hannah, who was by this stage anything but calm. We climbed into bed, hoping that our act of revenge would remain a secret.

Well, all that excitement for one night knocked us out.

In fact, it knocked us out so much that we forgot to destroy the evidence – hundreds of empty toothpaste tubes – and were awoken by the sound of her parents barging into the room.

‘What the hell have you two done?’ Hannah’s mum yelled. ‘Get out of bed – now!’

Oh. The toothpaste must’ve been noticeable then.

Hannah began crying, her brother was smirking at us in the background, and I stood there not really knowing what to do. I suddenly remembered the remnants of Hannah’s dad’s now-smashed mobile phone that lay on top of her bedside table. He must’ve seen where my eyes were gazing . . .

‘What the hell’s happened to my phone!’ he asked angrily, and I tried to do my best ‘Oh my, how did that happen?’ face.

‘Do you know how dangerous climbing over a balcony was?’ Hannah’s mum yelled. ‘You could have both died! What on earth were you both thinking?!’

In hindsight, maybe it had been a bit dangerous.

‘Your parents are on their way,’ Hannah’s mum said to me, and to be honest I was pretty grateful for that fact. ‘You two are in big, big trouble. This is incredibly unlike you, Hannah.’ And then came the worst words a mum can ever say: ‘I am very, very disappointed in you.’

We were marched next door to Frau Lardegus’s house, who kept saying how violated she felt, and how she thought she was being attacked by robbers with toothpaste, and how she definitely didn’t like children now. When my mum picked me up, Hannah’s mum began insinuating that it was all my fault, as though Hannah was forcefully made to squirt toothpaste out of a tube and on to a window against her will. ‘You couldn’t have waited just a few months before putting toothpaste on a window, could you?!’ my mum said to me as we drove home in the car. ‘We’ve only just bloody moved here, and look at the impression you’ve made!’

 

While getting up to mischief took up the majority of our day, our girl gang also began taking an avid interest in the way we looked, despite the fact we were still only eight years old. We put our musical ambitions on hold to focus on more important things – i.e. make-up, popularity and boys.

Emma was the most fashionable one of the group, the girl I envied the most, and probably the most mature. By ‘most mature’, I mean she knew about things the rest of us didn’t, and was allowed to wear make-up and heels, and read teenage magazines. She may have only had bee stings (because, oh yeah, she was NINE), but her mum had bought her a bra and frilly knickers from M&S that made my white vests and ironing-board-flat chest look very babyish in comparison.

‘My sister says boys like big boobs,’ Emma informed us knowledgeably.

‘I’ve got the biggest of all of us,’ Olivia bragged, and they spent the afternoon bickering about whose non-existent breasts were the biggest.

If Emma said boys liked girls with boobs, she was most probably right. She treated everything her older sister said as though it was gospel. Was this the reason why I couldn’t get a boyfriend? Or was it because, as I’ve said before, I was a small child?

Over the course of our friendship over the next few years, Emma and Anja got all the male attention, eventually landing the two most good-looking boys of the class. They got Valentine’s presents from them and were allowed to go on mini-dates with them at weekends, making Hannah, Olivia and me very jealous indeed. I’d occasionally tried squeezing my boobs together, in a feeble attempt to look like a Page-Three model I’d once seen in a newspaper, but I’d never really given my boobs (or lack of them) much thought up until then. But of course, once they started to become the main topic of conversation, suddenly bodies are all you can think about.

So here I was – prepubescent, lanky and already obsessed with my figure.


Misfit Charli Howard

So, how did a slightly bonkers misfit with anorexia, bulimia and anxiety decide to solve their problems? I became a model. As you do.

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