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Can you fit into the clothes you wore at 21? Women over 40 try on the dresses of their youth

The dress is dark blue and strapless, with decorative metal-lined holes along the top. Taking it down from the top shelf of my wardrobe, I’m transported back to a time of Girl Power pop anthems and Bacardi Breezers; female friendships and a student flat beset by mice.

The garment may have a modern vibe, but it’s not a new purchase. In fact, I bought it in 2000 when I was 21, and it’s been gathering dust ever since.

Kept partly out of nostalgia and partly through reluctance to throw away a still-intact item of clothing, I continued to believe, as I left my early 20s, that I might wear it again. I haven’t. Until now.

The garment may have a modern vibe, but it’s not a new purchase. In fact, I bought it in 2000 when I was 21, and it’s been gathering dust ever since

Last week, at a meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, Professor Roy Taylor said even people of a healthy weight run the risk of developing type 2 diabetes if we can’t fit into the clothes we wore when we came of age.

He said: ‘Your waist size should be the same as when you were 21. If you can’t get into the same size trousers, you are carrying too much fat and are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, even if you’re not overweight.’

His words prompted anger on social media, with Prof Taylor accused of shaming people for succumbing to the natural march of time.

Yet the idea that maintaining the same, healthy, weight throughout adulthood should be seen as a bad thing bewildered me. After all, it’s not as though the professor was chastising us for developing wrinkly knees.

Nor is it impossible to keep our weight stable as we grow older. A study published in the journal Science this August found our metabolic rate declines until the age of 20, at which point it plateaus until 60. In other words, weight gain is not inevitable. It is lifestyle that piles on the pounds in middle age — and mine is healthier than when I was 21, even though my weight, 9 st 10 lb, and waist, 28 in, are roughly the same.

A designated party garment, my blue dress was bought from River Island when I was an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh.

A typical night out would start with Pringles, vodka and Coke, and continued with sugary Alcopops. By day, my meals weren’t much healthier, with white carbs the bedrock of my diet, offset somewhat by my enthusiastic exercise regime.

After graduation, the pressure of moving to London to start my career, plus regular gym sessions, saw my weight drop to under 9 st.

But meeting my now husband at 28 made meals out common and, relaxed in our relationship, I went back to 9 st 10 lb — until the stress of getting married, compounded by a bridal exercise boot camp, left me weighing 8 st 7 lb.

A size six, I thought I looked fabulous. Now, I wonder why I felt the need to diminish myself.

My body may be the same size as in my youth, but my attitude towards it has changed beyond recognition. Pictured, Antonia Hoyle aged 21

My body may be the same size as in my youth, but my attitude towards it has changed beyond recognition. Pictured, Antonia Hoyle aged 21

I put on 3 st while pregnant with both my daughter and son. Weighing 11 st post-partum, my sense of identity suffered. Yet my sanity was salvaged by the knowledge that this body had nourished new life. And so, by my mid-30s, I had learned to be gentler on myself.

With children to set an example to, my diet improved. My alcohol intake reduced and by my late 30s, I didn’t just look healthy — I felt healthy.

These days, I exercise more for my mental health than my figure.

Is it harder to maintain the same weight in my 40s? Honestly, no, now I’m not mainlining fast food.

Yes, I’ve put on 7 lb since the pandemic started, thanks to a new dark chocolate habit, but 9 st 10 lb — I finally understand — is the weight I’m meant to be.

So when I do up the zip of my university dress, I’m surprised. Not because I can’t see the sags of middle-age, but because I look more confident than when I was 21. Once synonymous with insecurity and inebriation, this dress now symbolises strength and acceptance.

My body may be the same size as in my youth, but my attitude towards it has changed beyond recognition.

MINI DRESS SHOWS I’VE STILL GOT PRIZE PINS

Retired A-level chemistry teacher and academic head Barbara Brown, 70, is married to Richard, also 70. She has two children and three grandchildren and lives in Birmingham. She says:

I bought my graduation dress, a size 12, from Chelsea Girl. It was 1972 and I was about to graduate with a 2:1 in chemistry from Nottingham University.

The polyester, navy-blue mini dress, with yellow collar and sailor sleeves, went so well with my long, red hair.

Barbara Brown today

Barbara Brown at 21

I haven’t worn the dress since my 20s, so why did I keep it? I just really liked it. As the years went by and we’d move house, it was the one outfit I couldn’t throw out

In the picture, I’d just had my graduation and was celebrating with family. My mum and dad told me I looked nice, and back then compliments weren’t dished out as they are today.

I haven’t worn the dress since my 20s, so why did I keep it? I just really liked it. As the years went by and we’d move house, it was the one outfit I couldn’t throw out.

I’ve always looked after my figure, even after having children. I’m not into diets — I prefer to focus on eating well every day. We don’t have cakes, biscuits or sweets at home: it’s the best way to keep temptation at bay.

I retired from my full-time job eight years ago. I have always enjoyed swimming and still go to the pool twice a week, where I swim 2,000 m freestyle. My husband and I also enjoy walking.

Yes, it takes care of my figure but it makes me feel good, too. Now I’m 70 I have arthritis in one knee and a hip. Last year I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation — an irregular and abnormally fast heartbeat. Otherwise I’m fit.

I’m pleased I kept the dress. Yes, there are the student memories associated with it, but it’s also good to see I still have nice legs.

I CAN THANK MY MOTHER FOR MY FIGURE  

Founder of upcycling clothing brand Pri Pri, Priya Velusami, 42, lives in Wimbledon with her husband Prabhu and their two sons. She says:

I was 20 when I went on my first overseas girls holiday to Cyprus in 2000, and one evening I borrowed one of my friend’s dresses.

We were sharing an apartment and, as friends often do, it was easy to swap clothes.

I really loved the colour and the print. As a fitted ankle-length dress, the cut was incredibly flattering as well.

Priya Velusami today

Priya Velusami at 21

My friends were a thoughtful group who could see how much I loved it. Two months later, as part of my 21st birthday present, the girls gifted me the dress

It came from Kookai, which was then a trendy chain of High-Street stores — but is now available only online.

My friends were a thoughtful group who could see how much I loved it. Two months later, as part of my 21st birthday present, the girls gifted me the dress.

To say it was a staple of my summer wardrobe throughout my 20s and 30s is an understatement. Any time the sun came out, I wore it.

Even today I can see it’s a timeless dress, and I am all for keeping hold of quality pieces in your wardrobe.

I still wear it to summer parties, travelling or just to take the kids to the park, and I have even given it a new lease of life by shortening it, which is more practical when you’ve got children.

I’m aware that weight is a sensitive issue for many, and pregnancy, the menopause and illness can all change your body shape.

So I appreciate that I am fortunate to be tall and slim. I keep active by running, practising yoga and taking part in keep-fit sessions with other local mums.

I like to say that my figure is something that has been passed down to me by my grandmother and my mum, too. 

MY LBD IS AS STYLISH NOW AS IT WAS IN 80s

Julie Wilson today

Julie Wilson when she was 21

Julie Wilson can fit into the dress she wore when she was 21

Marketing manager Julie Wilson, 54, is married to Paul, has two sons aged 23 and 19 and lives in Newark, Nottinghamshire. She says:

The first little black dress I bought was from Next when I was 21 — I couldn’t afford anything fancier. I’d started seeing my now husband, and we went to a black-tie ball together.

I’ve kept the dress, as it’s good quality and timeless, even though I bought it in the 1980s — the decade style supposedly forgot!

I’ve never even thought about getting rid of it — it’s a classic cocktail dress and I feel good in it.

I have been perimenopausal for the past five years, and while I’ve experienced the classic symptoms of hot flushes and sleepless nights, I haven’t put on weight.

I’ve always watched my figure. My rule is that when clothes feel tight, I make realistic changes.

I go to the gym five times a week and enjoy different aerobic classes. But I’d never offer advice or comment on anyone else’s shape — this is something I do for me.

HOME-MADE GOWN THAT SAW ME THROUGH OXFORD BALLS

Media consultant Sally Jones, 66, is married to John and has two children. She lives in Warwickshire and says:

In 1974, I won a place at Oxford to read English — the first in my family to go to university. Mum had been a dressmaker, and made many of my clothes. I knew I couldn’t afford what richer friends bought, so I wore something no one else had.

Mum and I went to an Indian fabric shop specialising in silks and taffetas in Birmingham. When we saw the blue fabric shot through with silver, we had to have it.

Sally Jones today

Sally Jones at age 21

I was a size 14 at college and, while lockdown put a spanner in the works, that’s essentially where I have stayed. It’s a healthy dress size for my 5 ft 11 in height

Backless halter-neck dresses were the thing to wear then. Even though it was an off-the-peg paper pattern, no one else had a gown like it. I wore it to May balls, black-tie affairs and at my 21st birthday.

I was a size 14 at college and, while lockdown put a spanner in the works, that’s essentially where I have stayed. It’s a healthy dress size for my 5 ft 11 in height.

Over the years, I’ve slipped into it for fancy-dress parties and for my husband’s 60th birthday party. My daughter’s also worn it — and looks far more fabulous than me.

Why can I still fit into it today? I’ve taken part in lots of sport, and still swim and play tennis and squash. Every few days, I also clear my mind by jogging in the woods. Our family eats fairly healthily, too — we enjoy fish and grow our own veggies.

I last wore the dress at a fancy dress party two years ago and several of my friends from Oxford were there. We reminisced over the fun times we had when I first wore it. It was, and still is, a striking dress and thanks to my mum, it’s unique.

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