After years of emotional eating, and being stuck in an abusive relationship, the accidental Instagram star reveals how she turned her life around
Jen Carroll had no intention of becoming a star of social media. After she quietly began documenting her weight-loss journey in 2018, her friends “threw me under the bus”, she says wryly.
By then she had already lost five stone, and had begun taking pictures of the food she was eating – and getting ideas about Instagram.
She felt sure she was going to fall off the wagon at some point and first started posting pictures of herself “to keep myself accountable to myself”.
At the start she just had a few followers – mostly “Russian men”, she adds smiling.
‘I know how lonely and how hard it can be when you’re on the other end’
But an influencer friend of hers began posting pictures of the two of them at the gym, with captions like ‘My friend Jen has lost loads of weight’. When she mentioned Jen’s page on her own Instagram profile, the interest grew exponentially.
“I think within a week I had 10,000 followers and I was sweating. I was wondering if it was even something I wanted to do, to be so public.”
But the vulnerability helped her to connect with others who had gone or were going through their own struggles.
“In those first couple of months, I had so many conversations with so many people who I was able to relate to – because I’d never known anyone my size that was trying to lose weight or struggling.
“It was really nice to have conversations with people in the exact same position as me, and then hearing other people say things like: ‘I followed your recipes for three months and I’ve lost my first stone.’ Things like that were so encouraging – because I know how lonely and how hard it can be when you’re on the other end of it.”
Her new book is packed with deceptively simple recipes for dishes that contain enough protein to keep you going, but with good, lower calorie substitutes (using cream cheese in place of creme fraiche in creamy garlic mushrooms for instance).
Of course, there’s also her famous spice bag recipe, which was a big hit on Instagram.
But more than a book about how to make food, it’s also about how to deal with food, and all the emotions and self-esteem issues that go with it.
She writes about emotional eating and how working on her mindset was as important as any diet or exercise steps she took. She writes of giving herself time outs – to decide whether she actually wants to eat something and to savour the food she does decide to eat.
And she describes what she calls the ‘whys’ – “all the things I wanted that were important to me, more important than bingeing.”
These things changed over time but foremost among them was setting a good example for her seven-year-old son Carter.
“I just have to be so careful of what I say about body image and calories and all that stuff, because they pick up on everything and he’s so oblivious to all that. I just love that he’s at an age where he doesn’t look with someone and see their size, he sees a person. And writing the book I was trying to figure out when that awareness starts to change, and I thought about my own life.”
I couldn’t go to a restaurant without worrying if I could fit through the gaps in the tables
Much of her own attitudes came from absorbing the language used around her when she was growing up in Tallaght in the 1990s, she says.
She took comments from family members about her “puppy fat” or her diet to heart, and even as a small child she began to associate her appearance with a “sense of failure”.
Her parents fed her a balanced and healthy diet – but whenever she was sad or upset she would turn to comfort food to numb out the uncomfortable emotions. Her grandmother, Annie, was the one person who would never comment on her size, and when Annie began to suffer from Huntington’s disease, she came to live with Jen and her family.
That was a time of “pressure” in the family, and she says she recalls her parents fighting.
“Looking back now, they were a young couple in their 30s. They had a lot of stress, I suppose. My nana was so sick and taking her into a home with two young children was stressful for them. There was tension in the air – and instead of talking about that, I would just hide away in my room.”
Food became “almost like an addiction”, she says.
“Instead of just sitting down and eating a chocolate bar in front of my family, I would feel self-conscious to do that. I got crafty with it. I remember being nine or 10 and going to the kitchen and putting stuff at the bottom of the bin and putting stuff over wrappers, or hiding wrappers in coat pockets.”
At school, classmates would make cutting comments and she felt social anxiety.
“The fear of walking past a group of kids not from your area, because you’re like: ‘They’re trying to pick on me. There might be six of me and my friends, but I’m the only fat one.’ I was always waiting for something to be said.”
And, yet, if she became somewhat inured to the usual teasing words, more precise barbs stayed with her.
“I remember one boy saying to me: ‘You’re really overweight’ – and that always stuck with me. It seemed so descriptive. I’d never seen the boy in my life before that moment.”
At school she was perceived as shy, but when she came home she’d be “bouncing off the walls” and eventually that energy was channelled into drama classes.
“I always wanted people to like me, and when I was younger I knew I was quite witty and had a bit of comic timing. I loved making people laugh so they wouldn’t think I was fat.”
The teenage years were the hardest.
“Emotionally I just didn’t know what I was dealing with. I remember how much I used to dread summer. All my friends went down to buy skirts and shorts, and I’d panic so much about all those little things.”
She didn’t have boyfriends and hated seeing photos her friends would post to social media.
“I had the fear that everyone I knew was at home looking at that photo, judging me or making comments – and I’d let that self-talk consume me, when it probably wasn’t happening.”
She didn’t recognise her secret bingeing as an eating disorder.
“I think people are still very funny when it comes to eating disorders. When they think of an eating disorder, they think anorexia or bulimia. They don’t think of overeating, or secret or emotional eating. But to me it was like an addiction.
“I tried to make myself sick a few times, but it never worked. I’d feel more wrong making myself sick than I would actually bingeing.”
Jen moved to London and took a variety of jobs to support herself before applying for drama school. When she was 22 her grandmother Annie passed away.
“I think getting that news when I was in a different country was hard. I really struggled when I went back to London after the funeral. There was definitely a period of binge eating to emotionally deal with that.”
By then her weight had climbed up to around 20 stone.
“I was becoming miserable and I didn’t want to go out anymore. And I’d thought that drama had always been what made me happy – my safe space – but when I moved to London for the first few years, I wasn’t even doing drama. I was just in shitty 9-to-5 newsagents’ jobs.”
The acting parts that came her way were always “the maid or the funny auntie” and she found herself getting disillusioned with acting.
Socially, her weight presented other complications.
“I couldn’t go out to a restaurant without worrying if I’d be able to fit through the gaps in the tables. I’d think: ‘If I go to a club, will there be somewhere to sit down?’ Because I’d get tired.
“And then there were situations where I’d be at a garden party, with garden furniture, and I’d be, like: ‘I can’t sit down, because I can’t risk breaking a chair – and I also can’t risk my arse not fitting in the chair.’
“I think I probably went through six beds when I was in London, because I was constantly breaking them.”
She didn’t recognise her secret bingeing as an eating disorder
Despite her high BMI index, her health was generally good, but then her periods stopped.
“I just kind of brushed it under the rug. I didn’t deal with it. I just pretended it could be a million different things. I think I went on the pill and I was like: “Oh, it’s probably down to that.’”
During her time in London she met a guy through a colleague. He seemed quiet and shy at first, but sent her a message on social media and things blossomed from there.
A mutual friend tried to warn her that it was not a good match, and that she – the friend – did not see things ending well, but Jen persevered.
Around this time she was also accepted to Goldmith’s College, which specialises in drama and the arts, and began working dayshifts in a cafe. She and Eric (not his real name) began living together – but there were problems. Jen frequently felt humiliated by his actions and words, something she now characterises as “verbal and emotional abuse”.
This began with name-calling about her weight.
“I think, even though I knew what was wrong, a part of me was like: ‘Oh, he’s just trying to hurt me, and that’s obviously the easiest target.’ And I’d been called names by so many people all my life, that I suppose I didn’t see it as such a big deal. It was just a jab.”
When Jen became pregnant the relationship deteriorated further.
“I remember thinking: ‘What have I got myself into?’ I remember feeling stuck. I was like: ‘This is it now. This is my life.’”
Their son, Carter, was born in 2015 and Jen’s protective instincts toward her new baby kicked in. She moved into a women’s shelter and sought and received a restraining order against Eric.
“That was the lowest of the low, because after the women’s shelter, they move you into accommodation to get you back on your feet. But you’ve no choice where this accommodation is.
"I was put out in Croydon, which is just outside of London, and I didn’t know anyone there. I’d never been there before. So I was really isolated.”
She was eventually able to move back to Dublin – but, even with one difficult situation behind her, and the safety net of her family, the future looked bleak.
‘I lost the first 10 stone in one year’
“I was 28 then, and all my friends were moving on with their lives – but I was 25 stone, back living at home, with no future and no plan.’’
She had a health scare involving pancreatitis and gastritis, which had resulted in a stay in hospital – and this, combined with a gnawing feeling of how her weight would impact Carter, helped forge a new determination to take back control of her life.
“I remember thinking I needed to get better for him. Having him there gave me the drive I hadn’t had before.”
As she changed her diet, started doing an hour daily in the gym (“this was non-negotiable”) and started working with a personal trainer, the results came surprisingly quickly.
“I kept a food journal and weighed myself every week, and a few months after I moved home I went to my first PT [personal trainer] session – and I was down about four and a half stone. The following July, I was down 10 stone. So I lost the first 10 stone in one year.
“The second year, I lost the other two stone. That was a lot slower, as it was when I started really focusing on my training, and I changed to calorie counting and working out. So that was, I think, when my shape started to change a little bit more, but the weight was still coming off slowly.”
After losing 12 stone she had a lot of excess skin on her body and felt it was uncomfortable and unsightly. “After losing all the weight I expected to look in the mirror and love what I saw – but I didn’t, and that was hard,” she recalls of the time.
Jen made the decision to have a fleur-de-lis abdomenoplasty, aka tummy tuck, to have it removed and eventually had the surgery done at the Avoca Clinic in Wicklow in July 2019.
When she woke up after the procedure she “couldn’t believe how small my waist looked… I started to cry happy tears.”
She says she felt vulnerable revealing the details of the surgery in her book, but mindful of how difficult it was for her to find the right clinic in Ireland, she decided to share her journey – and many men and women reached out to her who have had had the same struggles with excess skin.
At the moment life is good. She’s single and focused on raising Carter, and has spent the last year working full-time on her book. It’s been an odyssey to get to where she is – but she’s wary of presenting a neat happy ending.
“I would say I’m still working on my self-esteem. Sometimes that’s still quite low. Working on that has been a long journey.
“Putting things down in a book feels more permanent, more exposing – but I think sharing it, and helping other people, is more important than my feelings. If I can help other people who are going through something similar, then it’s all been worth it.”
‘Jen’s Journey’ by Jennifer Carroll is published by Gill Books on Thursday, €22.99