Andrea Smith: 'I'm a size 26 and happy - stop the fat shaming'
She's a size 26 and isn't bothered by it, but here Andrea Smith makes an emotional plea for us to lay off a crusade that's doing more harm than good
Imagine for a moment this scenario. A heavy drinker is brought into a TV studio before a live audience, and a panel of medical experts and social commentators discuss how much his love of alcohol is costing the health service. "We're sick of giving you lot new livers," they say, shaking their heads in disgust. "We have to put up with you clogging up A&E departments while we dry you out or patch you up."
"And as for your poor mothers?" they continue. "Well we're fed up prescribing anti-anxiety medication for them because they're worrying themselves into early graves over you!"
Sounds far-fetched, doesn't it? And it is, it's a most unlikely scenario. Nobody would dare take that approach because there would be a public outcry, and rightly so. Yet, it's considered completely acceptable to judge and condemn a person for being fat - although it harms nobody else but the person themselves.
Decrying obesity has become one of the regular staples of daily media discourse, and sympathy for the fatties is thin on the ground. When drinking or any personal vices are the subject of discussion, we treat them sympathetically and constructively. What can we do for this poor person and how can we help, we ask? Surely we should allocate more resources to provide better services and educational programmes for them?
Contrast that with the tone adopted when the subject is obesity, and a different picture emerges. Despite the myriad reasons for weight-gain, those who are fat are deemed lazy, weak-willed, greedy and selfish. They cost the health service a fortune, we're told, and show poor example to children. They'll drop dead early with their fuzzy arteries and overburdened hearts and good riddance to them, seems to be the underlying suggestion, because really, they're an unsightly blight on society.
This is 'fat-shaming'. The recently coined term encompasses everything from size discrimination, acerbic comments made around celebrity weight-gain, and the ubiquitous weight-loss shows that have become compulsive viewing. And the appetite for fat-shaming is growing.
If you haven't seen it yet, look up Canadian YouTuber and self-proclaimed comedian Nicole Arbour's vile and highly controversial video Dear Fat People. In the video, which was viewed almost six million times, she endorses fat-shaming and insists that the overweight should be repeatedly embarrassed to encourage us to lose weight.
Granted, Miss Arbour is pedalling a 'shock' style of humour, but the video prompted Dr Eric Robinson - a psychologist specialising in obesity at the University of Liverpool - to respond that 'fat-shaming' is not conducive to weight loss. In fact, he said that it actually has been proven to have the opposite effect. The stressful, upsetting experience of being criticised is actually associated with greater weight gain, he explained, as feeling bad about yourself is known to interfere with your ability to lead a healthy lifestyle.
Over-eating is not just the result of a lack of willpower, it can be an addiction for some and caused by medical issues for others. Where some people drink to excess to self-medicate, others use food to achieve the same thing. And, yes, some people (like me) are simply bon vivants who derive huge pleasure from food, and don't care too much about whether it gives them a spare tyre or three.
But it's not just obese people who are subjected to fat shaming - even the most stunning women don't escape censure. Take the recent incident where the beautiful Jennifer Aniston was fat-shamed in an online article by the Daily Mail, which suggested she ate too much on her honeymoon following her marriage to Justin Theroux. Leading with the headline, "Oh Jen, did you overdo the honeymoon dinners?" the piece described how she was photographed "looking more rounded than usual," and that her "unforgiving work-out gear did little to disguise her weight-gain." Blogger Lily Lovett hit the nail on the head when she responded with a piece entitled, "You're no longer 'unlucky in love' so we'll call you fat instead."
My own annoyance came to a head last week when I received three calls in one day asking me to go on to shows to discuss obesity. I can understand it, as I'm the only Irish journalist I can think of who speaks out against the coals of shame being heaped on fat people's heads. I'm also on record as saying that being fat rarely causes me a second thought, and the fact that I have a lardy arse doesn't impinge on my happiness.
You may think I'm in denial - particularly if your own weight upsets you - but it's the absolute truth. I couldn't care less that I'm fat. I have a lovely life that I enjoy and am hardly ever down or troubled, and if I'm a size 26 because I had too many nice dinners, well, so what? I enjoyed them. I'm never sick and haven't cost the health service a cent in the past 46 years either, which I believe is directly related to my inner contentment. "You won't be saying that when you die early of a massive heart attack," I hear you shriek. Well maybe I'll peg it early and maybe I won't, but it's not quite as linear as we're led to believe. People die every day on football pitches and out jogging. Some of the thinnest people that you and I know are the unhealthiest. And if it all comes down to economics and the burden on the state, why aren't we hauling the joggers, triathloners and athletes in and castigating them over the new knees we'll end up giving them that will cost us a fortune?
Readers of the Irish Independent will know that I am currently in training to walk the Camino in aid of the Rise foundation and that dieting has been a part of my preparation. The only reason I'm doing this is to make that 115km walk easier. It's for charity and it's a challenge I'd like to succeed in, and as a practical gal, I know that it will be more comfortable if I'm a bit lighter and fitter. Aside from that, I still am queen of the fatty brigade.
We're only here for a short time and I suspect that if you asked any of the people currently languishing in the graveyard if they would like to spend even one more day on earth in this 17st body of mine, they wouldn't care less what it looks like.
In my opinion, self-loathing and being miserable is the root cause of far more illness and anxiety issues than having thunder thighs, and I refuse to fret over mine. Weight is a publicly visible thing, so fatties are considered fair game for abuse. By contrast, those who indulge in other dubious practices, like reaching for the bottle of wine in the evening, often escape censure because their secret little vices are hidden from view and, ergo, judgement.
One of the things that really saddens me is that even the most eloquent and enlightened of our media commentators won't go there when it comes to weight. From chatting to some of those otherwise fearless and bright women, I've gleaned that it's because some of them struggle with accepting their own weight issues.
It's hardly surprising, because obesity has become the most political physical issue of our time, and when it comes to women, judgement is particularly harsh. It's not popular to defend the fatties.
Which is why I do it. Yes, I'm fat, but if I have to paddle my lone canoe in a rolling sea of critical denouncement, so be it. I'd much rather be invited on TV to discuss something else, of course, but my unwillingness to be silenced on the matter of fat-shaming has turned me into the poster-girl for the fatties.
And while someone has to speak for us, I choose who I talk to carefully. So I listened patiently as the aforementioned programme researchers outlined their plans. One explained how she intended to bring me on with a leading obesity expert to discuss the theory that people were buying cheap, processed food as good food was too expensive. "We were wondering if that was how you got fat?" she said. "Were you living on pizzas and sugary drinks the whole time?"
Another researcher wondered if I might like to come on before a live audience and discuss the matter of my own fatness with a well-known TV doctor - one whose harsh, trenchant manner makes Gillian McKeith of You Are What You Eat look like a cuddly kitten. It would be great, the young man said excitedly, almost salivating at the prospect of an on-air scrap. I asked if he'd simply like to throw jelly on us and leave us to duke it out for the entertainment of the nation, before declining.
I have no problem discussing my weight in public - I had a great chat with Ryan Tubridy on radio about it last year because he treated my views respectfully - however, I'm not prepared to be vilified over it for entertainment purposes. I feel that does a disservice to other people in the same position, most of whom don't have a voice. It happened to me once where I was brought on to a show with both an obesity doctor and a weight-loss guru, who then ganged up to convince me of the error of my ways. When you have people flinging accusatory statistics and generalisations at you, it's hard to make your point heard.
I may have put up a good fight when I argued against fatty-hater and professional agitator Katie Hopkins on The Late Late Show last year, but if a respected obesity expert had been sitting in Hopkins' seat, I would undoubtedly have emerged as the villain of the piece.
Being judged around weight is almost unavoidable for women, and sadly, it's generally other women who drive it. Not exclusively though, as when I speak out about weight, the most derogatory comments around my own appearance tend to come from men.
Of course, I do accept that obesity is a health issue for many people, and encouraging parents to make healthy choices for their children can only be a good thing. But this could all be done through education, encouragement and support instead of vilifying people for carrying extra weight.
Although the woman herself is now widely discredited, Gillian McKeith's programme was one of the worst in a strand of entertainment programming that seem as though they're designed to insult the fatties. They may be dressed up as programmes that are designed to educate and rehabilitate, but let's face it, poking fun at the porkers has become a global pastime.
Across the Atlantic ocean, it's no coincidence that a popular weight-loss programme is called The Biggest Loser, while the UK ramps up the 'ugh' factor with its Embarrassing Bodies spin-off, Embarrassing Fat Bodies.
Having become so fixated on our perceived physical flaws, we view our appearance as the most important thing we present to the world, and let it override what truly makes us a beautiful, vibrant human being. We're so obsessed with physical beauty that the potentially wonderful things going on inside our heads and hearts get bashed into an also-ran position. We're an intelligent nation and should be better than this, which is why I'm calling for a halt on this unacceptable fat-shaming. We have far more worthwhile things to focus on, so enough now, please.