The year is 2002 and we’re twelve: standing outside a ground-floor classroom waiting to go in and practice our Macbeth dance. It’s pleasingly bacchic: we’ve brought an assortment of black magic-style objects to spice up the weird sisters’ song, mostly gathered on Tooting Common on the walk into school. I’m balancing a loo brush over one shoulder whilst another girl, let’s call her Beth, paints some green onto my face and tells me about blowjobs: a recent discovery her fifth form sister’s been harking about all week.
Round the corner strides our teacher: all Amazonian six foot two of her, nostrils flaring, moving through the gaggle to stand before the door.
‘No lesson today,’ she growls; we’re young enough that this news brings wails as pointed hats and capes are mournfully dropped to the ground.
‘Why?’ we cry, as one.
‘It’s the first Thursday of term,’ she says, bitterly, beckoning us to follow. ‘So Shakespeare’s off. You’re being weighed.’
Each term, until we’re sixteen, we’ll miss two hours of English classes to stand in a line before an enormous pair of scales, whilst the deputy head calls each child forward and makes a note of their weight. Afterwards, as we spill out into the playground, and I’ve ditched the Tesco’s bag of mud so lovingly gathered earlier, there’s a subdued air.
Year Seven is suddenly, collectively, discussing the results of the weigh-in, sitting in clumps with heads together.
No one knew what a stone was before today; now we’re obsessed. Beth won’t touch her Dairylea Dunkers. It’s like something out of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret: though with a simmering undercurrent of body neurosis in place of period garters.
Why doesn’t Katie have to wear a Marks & Spencer’s My First Bra? I wonder, panicking. Are these not, in fact, breasts, but great moving mounds of shoulder fat? The boys’ schools across the common don’t get weighed. They laugh at us when we tell them and throw chips: normally delighted – this is pre-teen courtship at its most risqué – today, we trudge home. Beth and I erect the two-person pup tent I got for Christmas in my bedroom, and crawl inside to compare gunts. We are riddled with insecurity, draped in puppy fat and monobrows, feeling like kraken.
It becomes normal quickly, as the strangest things often do. At fourteen, we stage a coup and spend a week in detention: bored, frustrated, thrumming with injustice, but mercifully unrecorded. This weekend, an anonymous 10 year-old started a blog called Sexism in School (http://sexisminschool.wordpress.com), with descriptions of kids even younger than we were then, having to go through the same tired thing. “When it was all over,” she writes, “I went over to my [female] friends and they were all comparing their weights… They didn’t even know what it meant because they were weighed in kilograms, so they were comparing things they didn’t know. But then,” she finishes, “I went over to the boys and they didn’t mention a word about it.”
Smart kid. Not only is this bizarre practice about as useful as tits on a rooster, it irks me that so often the reasons behind it are hidden away – as though if, by mentioning that schools are ‘monitoring’ for eating disorders they’d suddenly cause a great flurry of them to erupt in people who were otherwise doing just fine.
There were girls who’d deliberately not eat in the days running up to the weigh-in, girls who pulled off tights and jumpers and jewellery just to make the inevitable post-weigh conversation less awkward. How had we all suddenly become such almighty spanners?
And swapping English lessons for scales – that’s another aspect that still gets me. If it had to happen, surely better to have it at the risk of less valuable teaching time: better to swap it with something that wouldn’t quite so obviously be able to help a gaggle of tween nitwits in the fat-shaming noughties.
It takes a certain amount of moxie to dissociate from the mass hysteria: the more time spent parading unsightly wartish grins and screeching behind makeshift masks the better. At twelve, we’d been harpies: boisterous, interested, careering towards a life of du pain, du vin, du boursin. Suddenly, it looked like loo brushes and green paint simply added extra weight.