Sunday 8 December 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'I wish more people had fat-shamed me sooner'

Marcella Corcoran Kennedy touched on the delusion that afflicts many fat people, says Brendan O’Connor, who also didn’t accept he was obese

Brendan O'Connor admitted he is
Brendan O'Connor admitted he is "always aware that I could very easily be fat again"
Brendan O’Connor
WEIGHTY ISSUE: Junior minister for health promotion Marcella Corcoran Kennedy admitted in the Dail last week to being obese. Photo: Tom Burke

Brendan O’Connor

Fat is in the air. Not surprisingly, it is largely in the air as a feminist issue. The leading lights of the fat-acceptance movement, the ones who get media coverage and write books, seem to be largely women, and fat shaming is often blurred in with misogyny. Sometimes you would think there were no fat men, or that if there were, they were not as oppressed. The truth is that fat men are oppressed, but perhaps not in the same ways and not to the extent as fat women.

Fat has been in the air in Ireland this past week courtesy of two very different women with two very different standpoints.

Broadcaster Louise McSharry, who has written a memoir which takes in, among other things, the issue of her weight, spoke about so-called fat shaming on the Ray D’Arcy show among other places, and junior minister for health promotion Marcella Corcoran Kennedy spoke in the Dail last week about her own weight.

Talking about the fact that one in four children in Ireland is overweight, Corcoran Kennedy remarked that she used to think she was curvaceous, but now she is told she is actually obese, and she said she better do something about it. 

So we are presented in a nutshell with the dichotomy of the weight issue. One woman accepts her body and blames others for their attitude to it, another does not accept herself and seems to accept a form of fat-shaming — being told she is obese — and she intends to do something about it.

There is no doubt that as a society we can tend to make casual moral judgements on fat people. The words fat and lazy practically go together in the culture. Fat people can also be regarded as people who take more than their fair share, whether it is of health resources or space in an airplane row. Whether fat acceptance is the answer to this injustice is another matter. I wonder if blaming society for its attitude to you is healthy or whether it is just another aspect of the delusion that Marcella Corcoran Kennedy touched on.

Brendan O'Connor admitted he is
Brendan O'Connor admitted he is "always aware that I could very easily be fat again"

Before you freak out. I am a fat person. Right now I am a fat person who is managing to stay relatively thin. I have an unhealthy and unsightly spare tyre around the middle, and flab on other parts of my body, but, in general, in the right clothes, right now you would not single me out on the street as a fatty. I am what I have seen referred to as a thin fat person. I guess it’s like an alcoholic who doesn’t drink.

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

But I have been fat for huge parts of my life, and I am always aware that I could very easily be fat again. I will probably battle my weight all my life. Like Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, I probably didn’t realise when I was obese that I was obese. Obese, when I was younger, was a word that was reserved for people who were really fat. Like fat goes with lazy, obese went with morbidly in those days. Nowadays, much as sexism is now misogyny, overweight has become obese.

But my delusion went further than that. I didn’t even think I was as fat as I was. In fact, I didn’t think I was fat at all. I was well upholstered, I was a big man, I could carry it. There were endless euphemisms for what I was that avoided anyone around me using the word fat. At least the people I knew, the people who liked me and loved me.

Other people would use it, casually on the street or whatever. For a lot of them, the word fat went with the word bastard. You fat bastard. Or maybe piece of shit. You fat piece of shit. But I managed to ignore the odd comment. I maintained my delusion. Even when I started losing weight, I never thought of myself as fat, just as someone who needed to lose a bit of weight. It is only now, looking back, that I see that I was indeed fat. My face was disfigured from it. I see that fat face now smiling in pictures and I remember the person I was then. I had convinced myself I was not fat, that the struggle I had getting clothes was down to the fashion industry and not me, that being unhealthy and out of touch with my body, dragging it around, ignoring it as much as possible, was normal.

Read more: Female jogger on the dangers of fat-shaming: 'People feel like they have a right to do comment on people’s bodies'

But when I look at that fat face now, and see the clothes I bought to hide my body, clothes that only made me look bigger, I realise that on some profound level I was in pain. It makes me sad to see those pictures now. I look back on various happy memories and they are tinged with sadness, because I wonder why I abused myself like that, why I allowed myself to be that way. I feel sad for that person because I know that I was not fully alive then. I was disabled by my weight. I was held back from so many things. I was self-conscious, ill-at-ease, awkward in myself.

I regret that I didn’t do something about it so much sooner. But when you get into the delusion, you just tend to let it slide. You get gradually fatter and fatter, kidding yourself you are not, buying new clothes to hide it more. It’s easier to keep getting fatter, to stay deluded, to go with it. Defiantly eat and drink your way through it.

The reasons I was fat are probably complex. I am not simplistic enough to think that it was a lifestyle choice and it was totally within my control and that all that is needed for fat people to get thin is some discipline and to stop being a lazy glutton. There are obviously genetic issues that make me prone to weight gain. There are obviously psychological issues too, and then there was a lot of it that was habit, an addictive personality, an unhealthy lifestyle. Part of it was definitely laziness and sloth. I’m sorry if that’s fat shaming, but I have a right to my own story.

I am not simplistic enough to think that every fat person could be thin if they wanted to be. But equally there is no doubt that many fat people could lose weight. I think blaming everyone else for how you feel about being fat is unfair too.

Did you know that if you are not fat but you talk about feeling fat in your clothes because you’ve been on holidays or on the beer for the weekend or whatever, in front of a fat person, you are fat-shaming? When it gets to that level, I wonder if we are not being asked to tip-toe around the matter a bit too much. We all have complex relationships with our bodies and people who aren’t obese are entitled to feel fat.

But obviously we all agree that we shouldn’t abuse fat people, and I think most of us agree that we should try to check ourselves in terms of the assumptions we make about fat people, and the stereotypes we have.

However, I think that people tip-toeing around my weight to try to make me feel OK about it did not help me. If I had been ‘fat-shamed’ a bit more by people in my life I might not have got as fat as I did and I might have become healthier quicker. I also think that there is no doubt that in my case, contrary to what many fat activists will claim, I have certainly been much healthier on every metric since I lost weight. In fact, I find it hard to believe that a person carrying loads of excess weight can be as healthy as someone who is not.

Most importantly, I have never met anyone who hasn’t been happier after losing weight. And I think if you are one of those people who could lose the weight, you should. It is very difficult, and it’s a lifelong struggle, and they say the odds are against you keeping it off, and you may find you fluctuate a bit and that weight goes on you very easily, and you will have to forgo a lot of things, and change your life and your habits fundamentally. But if you replace those bad habits with good habits, my experience is that it is very rewarding.

While society makes it harder to be fat, and while we must try to change society, it is easier in the short term to change the thing you can control more, and that is yourself and your life. I’m not saying “Take responsibility for yourself, fatties!” But I am saying that we have a huge health crisis and I think we should all do whatever we can not to be a part of that. Being fat makes you unhealthy, it kills you sooner. It limits the things you can do in the life you have. If you have a choice in that, why would you choose to be fat?

Ruth Rogers, the founder of the River Cafe, spoke last week about how we have made food into a thing to be feared rather than enjoyed. She has a point. I don’t fear food now, I do enjoy it, but I do try to abuse it less than I used to.

I could be eating these words when I am back to my peak weight, more than four stone heavier than I am now. If I do go back to that weight, which is entirely possible and could happen very easily, I hope someone has the balls to fat-shame me out of it.

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