Sophie Dahl on how she first ate herself fat, then thin, then happy
In an exclusive extract from her new food memoir, model turned author Sophie Dahl reflects on her appetite for the scrumptious things in life
By James Tapper
Last updated at 6:30 PM on 26th April 2009
She was the voluptuous model famed for her size 14 curves, before dramatically slimming down to a figure many considered too skinny.
Now Sophie Dahl has spoken candidly about her struggles with her weight – and launched a stinging attack on ‘stick-thin starlets’ who set unhealthy and unrealistic standards for other women.
In an extract from her new cookery book, published in The Mail on Sunday’s You magazine today, she hits out at actresses, models and pop stars who boast about their ‘fictional’ diets, as well as the ‘self-restricted and miserable’ women who follow them.
And she warns: ‘Starving is not sexy. It is bleeding gums, acrid breath, brittle bones, osteoporosis, infertility and complication. It saps and withers.’
In Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, the 31-year-old granddaughter of novelist Roald Dahl says she is now happy with her figure, but admits she indulged in a ‘season of chocolate cake’ from 17 to 21. Read the full interview below.
She said she never considered becoming a model because of her large bosom, ample behind and round face – and admits that even the person who discovered her, the late fashion queen Isabella Blow, was surprised by her large appetite.
Miss Dahl, who is engaged to jazz musician Jamie Cullum, says that she did not know how to eat healthily when younger, but losing her ‘puppy fat’ helped her become happier.
She now insists that ‘moderation and balance’ are the keys to happiness – not the drive towards size zero thinness. ‘Please don’t be swayed or thwarted by some glossy fictional food diary that a stick-thin starlet swears she lives by,’ she writes, adding that even the thin and famous are seldom happy with their figures.
‘The joke is that very same starlet is probably sitting on a plane right now reading a magazine, wistfully thinking: “God, I wish I looked like Kate Hudson in a bikini. I wonder what she eats, who her nutritionist/trainer/surgeon is...”’
She said women who ate healthily and had an appreciation for food were sexy, but many others were ‘self-restricted and miserable’.
‘To everything there is a season,’ she added. ‘From 17 to 21, mine was the season of chocolate cake. I didn’t know how to eat within the boundaries of reason; instead I learned loudly through trial and error.
‘My unsure baby fat...slunk away slowly one year. Its departure left me to my adult self and the slow joy I get from food and cooking is something I cannot imagine being without. I don’t really believe in cutting out food groups, of subscribing to militant, forbidding diets. What I do believe in is moderation and balance, because both have served me well.’
Miss Dahl had no ambition to become a model until she had a row with her mother Tessa, who ordered her to enrol in secretarial school.
She ran into the street and sat sobbing on the doorstep of a neighbour – who turned out to be Vogue’s Isabella Blow. She invited her to become a model – and they went out to celebrate at a Japanese restaurant. Miss Dahl recalls her meal companion watching wide-eyed as her chopsticks danced over her plate and exclaiming: ‘Gosh, you do like to eat!’
‘I would have said yes but my mouth was full,’ says Miss Dahl.
Her curves were a novelty in the Nineties fashion world, which was dominated by the emaciated ‘heroin chic’ look popularised by Kate Moss.
She was seduced by Mick Jagger, made the front cover of Vogue and appeared naked in a Opium perfume advertisement that was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Yet instead of getting thinner as a result of the public attention, Miss Dahl actually gained weight.
‘I didn’t know how to address it because I felt that if I became thinner it would mean I was a hypocrite,’ she writes.
But later she lost 15lb through the misery of splitting up with a boyfriend. She says she got her weight under control by spending a week at an Irish guesthouse and eating properly.
She says her diet now is ‘healthy, bold and adventurous’, adding: ‘If we take time to be conscious of the needs of our bodies, then the whole weight thing becomes less of a struggle.’
Ups and downs: Sophie was an unusually curvy model in the Nineties, left, but had slimmed down by 2003, right
'Food was either a faithful friend or a sin' ... in Sophie's own words
I have always had a passionate relationship with food: passionate in that I loved it blindly or saw it as its own entity, rife with problems.
Back in the old days food was either a faithful friend or a sin, rarely anything in between. I was 18. I had experienced a rather unceremonious exit from school. I had no real idea what I wanted to do, just some vague fantasies involving writing, a palazzo, an adoring Italian, daily love letters and me in a sort of Sophia Loren dress, weaving through a Roman market holding a basket of ripe scented figs.
I had just tried to explain this to my mother over lunch at a restaurant in London. She was not, curiously, sharing my enthusiasm.
‘Enough. You’re going to secretarial college to learn something useful like typing.’
‘But I need to learn about culture!’ She gave me a very beady look.
‘That’s it,’ she said. ‘No more. End of conversation.’
‘But I…’ The look blackened. I resorted to the historic old faithful between teenagers and their mothers.
‘God… Why don’t you understand me?’ and ran out into the still, grey street sobbing. I threw myself on a doorstep and lit a bitter cigarette. And then something between serendipity and Alice in Wonderland magic happened.
A black taxi chugged to a halt by the doorstep on which I sat. Out of it fell a creature who surpassed my Italian imaginings.
She wore a ship on her head, a miniature galleon with proud sails that billowed in the wind. Her white bosom swelled out of an implausibly tiny corset and she navigated the street in neat steps, teetering on the brink of five-inch heels. Her arms were full to bursting with hat boxes and carrier bags. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know who that is but I want to be her friend.’
I was so fascinated I forgot to cry. I stood up and said, ‘Do you want any help with your bags?’
‘Oh yes, actually you are sitting on my doorstep.’
‘So why were you crying?’ the ship woman said in her bright pink kitchen. It transpired that she was called Isabella Blow, she was contributing editor at Vogue and something of a fashion maverick. We’d put the bags down and she was making tea in a proper teapot.
‘I was crying about my future. My mother doesn’t understand me and I don’t know what I’ll do. Oh, it’s so awful.’
‘Don’t worry about that. Pfff!’ she said. ‘Do you want to be a model?’
If it had been a film there would have been the audible ting of a fairy wand. I looked at her incredulously. ‘Yes,’ I said, thinking of avoiding the purdah of shorthand. My next question was, ‘Are you sure?’
The ‘Are you sure?’ didn’t spring from some sly sense of modesty; it was brutal realism.
Bar my height, I couldn’t have looked less like a model. I had enormous tits, an even bigger arse and a perfectly round face with plump, smiling cheeks.
The only thing I could have possibly shared with a model was my twisted predilection for chain smoking.
But for sweet Issy, as I came to know her, none of this posed a problem. She saw people as she chose to see them; as grander cinematic versions of themselves.
‘I think,’ she said, her red lips a postbox stamp of approval, ‘you’re like Anita Ekberg.’ I pretended I knew who she was talking about.
‘Ah yes, Anita Ekberg,’ I said.
‘Now put on some lipstick and we’ll go and find your mother and tell her we’ve found you a career.’
We celebrated our fortuitous meeting, with my now mollified mother in tow, at a Japanese restaurant in Mayfair; toasting my possible new career with a wealth of sushi and tempura.
‘Gosh, you do like to eat,’ Issy said, eyes wide, watching as my chopsticks danced over the plate. I would have said yes but my mouth was full.
When I began modelling I was completely unprepared for the onslaught of curiosity it carried with it. People had noticed me. Big women from all over the world wrote me congratulatory letters commending my big
Newspapers breathlessly reported my strange fleshy phenomenon; a welcome backlash, finally, against the X-ray fashion industry. In the wake of the very angular, it seemed people wanted an anti-waif, a sensual woman who indulged in whatever she wanted.
Every woman in my family had been through a tricky adolescent over-spilling phase. The difference with mine was that it became a matter of public record, rather than something to look back on with tender mirth when presented with a family album.
We always joked as a family about our greediness. We described events by what we ate. There was, and is, a total ease and pleasure around food and cooking.
‘Gosh, you do like to eat,’ Issy said, eyes wide, watching as my chopsticks danced over the plate. I would have said yes but my mouth was full
My first job was being photographed nude by Nick Knight. Like many children, I was accustomed to running around naked in the garden when I was little, and this naked thing turned out to be an accidental theme on and off during the first 22 years of my life.
It became common practice when I was first modelling at 19 or so; a hazardous by-product of my curves, as none of the clothes samples ever fitted me.
Rather than losing weight, as you might expect from all the media focus that had begun to surround my anomalous curviness, I was instead getting rounder and rounder.
I was not cooking, as I had throughout my childhood and adolescence. Instead I would eat lunch and dinner at restaurants, revelling in the grown-up sophistication of it all, ordering appetisers, main courses and puddings.
I remember a sage friend saying, ‘It can’t be good for you eating out all the time – because restaurants want you to come back they’re going to make you the most delicious food in the world, loaded with butter, cream, salt and sugar. They don’t care if you get fat.’
‘Oh no,’ I’d respond, eyes round with greed, ‘they use proper ingredients so it’s not fattening at all.’ With that I’d plough into another round of truffled mashed potatoes laden with butter.
I was the big model. I was meant to eat, a lot. It gave other people hope and cheered them as they enjoyed their chocolate. It was a clumsy way of thinking.
The more I ate, the hungrier I seemed to be. I also felt heavy, down to my bones. I didn’t know how to address it because I felt that if I became thinner it would mean I was a hypocrite, because I had talked so happily on the record about my shape and by getting thinner wouldn’t all of that be negated? Would it mean I was a liar?
It was confusing. I carried on eating; indeed when I ordered two green curries, rice, stir-fried vegetables and soup from the local Thai restaurant I pretended that I had someone over for dinner.
‘Do you want sticky rice, Bob?’ I asked my phantom guest loudly, as if the nice Thai lady on the other end of the phone really cared that I was a glutton.
When I broke up with my first proper grown-up boyfriend, I did all those things you often do when you break up with someone: I smoked a hundred cigarettes, cried till my eyes were raw and lost 15 neurotic pounds.
Some people get fat when they’re miserable; certainly this was true of my teenage self, but as an adult, deliver me a week of extreme stress and misery and watch me disappear.
I can’t eat at all when I get sad; all I want is soup and easy-to-swallow baby food and, of all things, jelly babies. I love jelly babies when I am sad. There’s something about those primary-coloured mushy balls of sugar that I can’t get enough of. Luckily I don’t often get sad otherwise life would be very bleak and I would have no teeth left in my head.
My alternative period, which happened somewhere around 2004, also featured a flirtation with raw foodism, which was the cause of great mirth among my friends.
Living at the time in Manhattan, I found myself in the office of an unusual doctor – a man evangelical in his preaching on the benefits of a raw food diet. He held my wrist and told me what year my tonsils had been removed and named all the minor ailments I had been suffering. He was bang on.
I attached myself barnacle-like to his doctrine, annoying my friends and long-suffering boyfriend with my reticence towards going out for dinner. I tried to ply them with Irish moss mousse and hijiki sea vegetable casserole and I was greeted with shrieks of disgust.
On my raw food diet, my skin shone bright like a gilded deity and my eyes glowed in a somewhat unearthly manner. My hips and bottom swelled at an alarming rate and I began to resemble a pear.
‘I just don’t understand it.’ The good doctor and I sat in his grubby office on low chairs. ‘Just how much exactly have you been eating?’ he asked, pen delicately poised.
I decided to seek absolution with confession. I told him of the deliciousness contained within the creamy folds of raw mock-cheesecake, velvet slabs of raw mock-chocolate and voluptuous blancmange, pure and raw.
I wanted to share the joy I took in great silken smoothies made from nut milk, cups of raw honey and a plethora of exotic Amazonian berries coloured like the rainbow.
Under a blanket of virtue I had consumed raw food in spades, wantonly pretending that epic amounts of nuts and avocados doused in honey with dates on top were good for me just as long as it was all raw.
Had my grandmother Gee-Gee been around (to my total heartache, she died when I was 19), she would have been baffled. It was Gee-Gee who first taught me to cook.
She told me I had perfect hands for baking, because they were (and remain) always cold. Gee-Gee was very black and white about food. You ate three meals a day, possibly a little sweet something for tea.
I have come across women with extraordinary bodies who aren’t prisoners to frugal eating and self-inflicted misery. These women are sexy. There is a joy about their being
She was organic and sustainable before it was fashionable. Vegetables came from her garden, fish from the local fisherman on the beach and she could make appealing leftovers out of nothing.
I checked into the wonderful Ballymaloe House in Ireland. It was interesting because, although I was there for under a week and eating substantially at every meal, I left thinner than when I arrived.
This was because I was eating simply and well: Gee-Gee style, three meals, freshly prepared, and every afternoon I would go for a long walk by the sea.
Back home I carried on eating like this, cooking every night and not just eating because I was bored. Whereas my cooking before had been safe and starchy, this new lease was healthy, bold and adventurous.
I discovered the joy inherent in cooking for the people I loved. I realised there wasn’t some secret code to crack, that the secret could be found in the straightforward mentality of my grandmother and most grandmothers the world over.
I moved back to England in the summer of 2007, a summer famous for its incessant rain. I fell into the sodden landscape of my homeland as if I was collapsing on to an old familiar feather bed. I moved to the country.
There were no street lights, no take-out menus, no horns beeping, nothing; nothing but stillness, stars and raw green fields. I looked at my life spread before me in moving boxes and I made a bowl of porridge, eating it from my mother’s old pansy-covered china as I sat on the empty floor wondering what was next.
There are many things over which we have no control, but the day-to-day managing of our own bodies should not have to be a part of that uncertainty. I suppose the question is how can we incorporate a way of eating into our lives that is sensible, enjoyable and practical?
I think that if we take time to be conscious of the needs and wants of our bodies, rather than permanently fixating on what’s wrong with them, then the whole weight thing immediately becomes less of a struggle.
I long for a bottom like J-Lo’s, but it is highly unlikely, even if I spend the rest of my days doing ten thousand lunges on rising.
My lucky sister has that coveted bum, but she hates her legs. In the genetic draw I got the legs, that’s the way it goes. We have to deal with what we’ve got, appreciate it and move swiftly on. We all spend far too much time focusing on what we don’t have and undermining what we do in the process.
In the span of my career and travels I have come across women with extraordinary bodies who aren’t prisoners to frugal eating and self-inflicted misery. These are women who eat sensibly, who might have one day a week featuring some decadent eating and exercise in a way they enjoy.
These women are sexy. They are not necessarily reed thin but what they share is a total appreciation for food and eating and an understanding that whatever their body’s shape or size, they are in command. There is a joy about their being. I have also come across women who are self-restricted and miserable.
Starving is not sexy. It is bleeding gums, acrid breath, brittle bones, osteoporosis, infertility and complication. It saps and withers.
To everything there is a season; from 17 to 21 mine was the season of chocolate cake. I didn’t know how to eat within the boundaries of reason; instead I learned loudly through trial and error.
My unsure baby fat, for that’s what it was really, slunk slowly away one year. Its departure left me to my adult self and the slow joy I get from food and cooking is something I cannot imagine being without.
I really don’t believe in cutting out food groups or subscribing to militant, forbidding diets. What I do believe in is moderation and balance, because both have served me well. The recipes in my book are all things I cook and eat. There are recipes for rainy, insatiable chocolate days and lighter things for the gossamer, less hungry summer evenings.
Sometimes you just want soup for lunch, at others a great definite bowl of pasta and maybe a lighter supper. And please don’t be swayed or thwarted by some glossy fictional food diary that a stick-thin starlet swears she lives by.
The joke is that very same starlet is probably sitting on a plane right now reading a magazine, wistfully thinking, ‘God, I wish I looked like Kate Hudson in a bikini. I wonder what she eats, who her nutritionist/trainersurgeon is…’
For me, wound up in that delicious sense memory bank are so many tiny things: my mother’s gooseberry fool, eaten in the garden on a hot summer night; my father making me scrambled eggs on toast in his kitchen with the chequered linoleum; the smell of my grandmother Gee-Gee’s house, Victoria sponge, light as a feather and dripping with home-made raspberry jam, just out of the oven.
Then there is the soup that is made for someone who is grief-stricken, the long lazy breakfasts of courtship, the messy tray composed by a child, with lukewarm tea and burnt bitter toast, presented with heartbreaking gravity which prompts you to say, ‘This is the best toast I have ever eaten in my life.’ I remember a picnic with the boy I love on the floor of a new house with no furniture and wine in mugs.
These are the things that are rare and precious in all that is higgledy-piggledy and crooked.
Remember this as you cook and eat and welcome it. And if in the midst of all of it you have time, send me a postcard. Just please don’t ask me, ‘How do I get a six-pack?’ Because I will respond as I do now, by saying, ‘My darling, I have absolutely no clue, nor the inclination to find out.’
Sophie Dahl on how she first ate herself fat, then thin, then happy | Mail Online