Sunday 23 October 2016

Andrea Smith: 'In an era of fat-shaming, you have to apologise for being yourself'

Once, your weight was your own business. But in an era of fat-shaming, you have to apologise for being yourself

Published 03/06/2016 | 02:30

Admission: Junior Health Minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy. Photo: Tom Burke.
Happy as I am: Andrea Smith. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

There's a new trend for "owning" your issues these days, particularly when it comes to weight, and it's disturbing me. The latest example occurred this week, when Junior Health Minister, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, announced that she was obese in a debate on the formation of a new strategy for the health service.

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While describing how one in four children are obese and more than half of adults are overweight, the Offaly TD revealed that this particular issue was something she was going to "have to look into my heart about."

"I used to think I was curvaceous but now I'm told I'm actually obese so I'd better do something about it," she said.

You'd have to feel sorry for Marcella, because she appeared to be issuing an apologetic pre-emptive strike against the inevitable approbation that was bound to ensue. After all, when a woman carrying extra weight is tasked with addressing obesity on behalf of the entire nation, you just know that outraged critics and trolls are poised to pound their keyboards in a storm of fat-shaming invective.

Happy as I am: Andrea Smith. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Happy as I am: Andrea Smith. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

It was almost as if the minister was pleading with the critics not to judge her as harshly as she "deserved," because she had committed the cardinal sin of being overweight and not filled with self-loathing.

After all, by saying she was curvaceous - a word that suggests womanliness, sex appeal and softness - she was also hinting at a happy acceptance of herself, and as we know, fat woman are simply not allowed to accept themselves.

Not when they're clogging up the health service that she and Minister Simon Harris are now responsible for, with their fuzzed-up arteries, high blood pressure and diabetic complications.

Read more: Andrea Smith: 'I'm a size 26 and happy - stop the fat shaming'

Louise McSharry at The Ray Darcy Show, where she addressed 'fat-shaming'
Louise McSharry at The Ray Darcy Show, where she addressed 'fat-shaming'

That's how the story goes anyway in every discussion, debate and general analysis of the topic. Those disgraceful fatties, shoving cream cakes in their gobs and costing us a fortune, we tut.

Funnily enough, I'm a middle-aged fat woman who hasn't cost the health service a single cent to date, unlike many of my slimline friends, but that's not a story that fits the usual tired old narrative.

So like Marcella, is it a wiser approach to don sackcloth and ashes and 'fess up to your own weaknesses when it comes to weight, rather than waiting for the coals of shame to be liberally heaped on your head?

Louise McSharry at The Ray Darcy Show, where she addressed 'fat-shaming'
Louise McSharry at The Ray Darcy Show, where she addressed 'fat-shaming'

I don't recall former health ministers Mary Harney or James Reilly publicly owning their weight issues in the Dáil, even though media commentators were quick to point out the perceived incongruity between their ample waistlines and job of health promotion.

I also don't remember it being a topic back then that exercised us quite as much as nation, if you'll excuse the pun - far more than our propensity for drinking, taking drugs, smoking and fighting in the streets, all of which surely place just as much strain on the health service.

Was 2fm broadcaster Louise McSharry also getting a volley in ahead of the enemy by naming her autobiography, 'Fat Chance: My Life in Ups, Downs and Crisp Sandwiches', or was she doing it with an eye to sales, given the public's insatiable appetite for weight-related topics? After all, the talented and successful McSharry has come through Hodgkin's Lymphoma and a troubled childhood living in Chicago with her alcoholic mother.

Yet most of the commentary around her book centred on the issue of her struggle with weight and opinions on fat-shaming, but even when she mounted an intelligent defence on the subject, it still provided a springboard for general attacks on fat people.

"For every size 18, articulate woman in her 30s who is content in her own skin, eats carefully and takes exercise, there is a multiple number of bloated, obese parents, whose waddle down to the chipper for their dinner will be their only exercise, before they slump back down for an evening of TV, grease and booze," wrote Michael O'Doherty in the Herald, adding that obesity-related illnesses were costing the State a fortune.

Bloated, waddle, slump, grease, booze. All words designed to evoke disgust and revulsion, the default reaction to people who are fat and are therefore considered repugnant and offensive to our sight.

You see, unlike excess weight, most other vices and dubious practices are not something we wear physically, which is why they are easier to hide. Those who indulge in them frequently escape censure and judgement because you can't immediately pinpoint their presence visually.

No other vice generates quite as much hostility as obesity, even though it only affects the health and welfare of the person in question. By contrast, other people's drinking, drug-taking and smoking affect the rest of us in all kinds of ways. As a society, we're blighted by cancer caused by inhaling second-hand smoke, innocent deaths caused by drink-driving and fighting, and robberies and gangland warfare fuelled by drug addiction, yet we reserve our greatest levels of approbation for the obese members who visually offend us.

In her book 'Shrill', writer Lindy West says that as a fat woman, her body is "lampooned and associated with moral failure." She also suggests that the size of each person's body is their own business, and campaigns against the notion that the shape of your body dictates the worth of your being.

"But if people are going to be mean to me and make fun of me anyway, why not take control of the narrative and say something?" she says. "If you let those people silence you, then you can't advocate for yourself. And you can't make your life better. And you can't own your own life."

Maybe instead of being cowed into apologising for her body, our new junior minister for health could take a leaf out of Lindy's book. She could strike a blow for all the overweight adults out there by echoing the writer's contention that everybody has a right to exist in whatever shape or form they choose without being insulted or reviled. Now that would be a worthwhile health reform.

Irish Independent

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