We need to start a conversation about society's attitude towards fat people. New publication Fat Eire hopes to change the conversation and look at what it means to be fat and Irish
‘What I wanted to achieve with Fat Eire was to make fatness in Ireland first of all even a subject matter that people were aware of. And also, to start a conversation about what fatness is, versus it just simply being something that is ridiculed or shamed.” Emily O’Brien is talking about her new Arts Council funded publication, Fat Eire, an annual magazine whose first issue will be published this September, and which she shall edit.
“Obviously fatness is something people don’t want to talk about or be. The publication is about doing the opposite of that, which is to show people that we are going to talk about it, and there are people who are fat, who don’t necessarily want to change that, who are OK with being fat. That is kind of what it was created for. For fat people in Ireland.”
Emily points to the fat scene in America, “a massive culture,” and the growing one in the UK. “But there’s nothing like it in Ireland, and there’s barely even any conversation about it in Ireland.”
Emily, who is based in Cork where she grew up, has a background with Bloomers, now an artist-lead publishing collective and arts organisation, which was founded in 2018, initially publishing magazines aimed at showcasing emerging writers and artists, of which Emily was the literary manager.
When we speak, she has begun receiving pitches from potential contributors. The tone, she says, is one of defiance. “Defiant of the attitudes that they’ve received as fat people throughout their lives. And also their defiance around having to change. That seems like the recurring theme.”
For the first issue, she has included a mixture of ideas. “I curated them in such a way that in the publication they go from introductions to fatness, to the intersection of queerness and fatness, to the fat community, to fat pride, and finally, to use one of the essay titles, what it means to be fat and Irish.”
Emily, who is now 30, says that apart from two years as a teenager, she has always been fat. “I think this is a lot of fat peoples’ experience. Always. Even though, it’s odd, when I look back at pictures of me as a child, I wouldn’t have said I was necessarily fat, but kids... children are different. Children’s perceptions of things. And especially back then.”
She recalls seeing the women in her life trying to lose weight as one of her predominant childhood memories: “Weight Watchers, walking every day — that’s what you were doing, you were trying to lose weight. I was a fat child, and that was the predominant word used against me in primary school for the majority.”
Now she can look back and see how she unconsciously assimilated the message that being fat was bad. “As the years go by, you internalise the fact that if you are bigger it is bad, if you are fat you should try and lose weight all of the time, that’s what you should be doing. That’s the attitude you feel from the adults in your life as well as your peers throughout school and later work. It followed me, you know.”
She would try to lose weight, she adds. “Or I would try not to eat as much because I do think I ate a lot. But I never succeeded. My love for food always trumped whatever shame was trying to be put on me. That’s just who I am. That’s how I look.”
There was a lot of shame, she adds. “Because you think, ‘my life would just be so much easier if I didn’t look like this. It would be so much easier if I was smaller’. In retrospect, there’s always going to be something that somebody calls you, no matter what you look like.”
Emily first came across fat activism and body positivity when she was 19, on the internet, “through American channels”: “It was a massive thing. Then, I got extremely aggravated as to how I’d been treated in my past, my childhood, and probably my teenage years, without having ever, ever realised, or thought about it critically before — as a woman, and because of being fat. It was part and parcel of discovering both feminism and body positivity.”
She outlines some of the day-to-day issues she can come up against by dint of living in a prejudiced society. “Buying a dress is not something I would ever have thought of, though it is kind of politicised. If you want to pop in somewhere and get a dress, you can’t do that.” As far as she is aware, there are no exclusively plus-sized shops in Ireland. “Which are a thing in society, in the UK and the US.”
On a recent warm day, she and some friends decided on a last-minute trip to the beach. “I didn’t have a swimsuit, and somebody was like, ‘well pick one up’, and I was like, ‘I can’t do that. I need to go on a website, order very specifically my size from somewhere that has my size’. Because nowhere in Ireland, as far as I know, can you go into a shop and buy a swimsuit that will fit beyond size 18.”
Emily explains that she has no recurring health issues, and is a healthy person, but if she ever does have occasion to visit the doctor, she is always told she needs to lose weight.
“It’s incredible, absolutely incredible to me, how much that has happened. I was working in retail and having upper back pain, and they were like, ‘lose weight’. It turned out the issue was that I was sleeping with too many pillows.”
‘This is what your body looks like. Does it work right? Are you treating it well? Can you function? Yes. Can you sustain yourself? Yes’
Eating in public is “something that is scary to me,” she adds. “Because I’m always aware of what it might look like. Even though that shouldn’t be something you even think about.”
The aim is self-compassion, Emily explains. “Accepting that this is your body. That this is what your body looks like. Does it work right? Are you treating it well? Can you function? Yes. Can you sustain yourself? Yes.”
Becoming aware of fat activism and feminism over a decade ago now, changed her life. “It blew my mind,” she exclaims. Now, Emily wants to continue to change the conversation with her new publication.
“We can say fat and it’s not loaded — it’s not something you flinch from. ‘No, no, you’re not fat,’ is the predominant thing people say when you call yourself fat — No, it’s fine. I’m fat.”
Working on Fat Eire has pushed Emily to become more self-aware: “Of my life, myself and also the culture of fatphobia again. Instead of being ‘that’s just the way it is’, I feel it is the way it is, and I have to face it head-on.”
Activism can be terrifying and stressful. “To face people, and also a massively influential culture which is, ‘Don’t be fat’, head on.”
“My main aim with Fat Eire is awareness. Not only with the population at large, but for people who might be fat, and have no idea that that is a word they can call themselves without it being shameful. That they might realise there’s a community there for them that they can join, and be a part of, and feel like they are a part of something.
“And to have that realisation that I had when I was 19. You are a person — full stop, the end — you’re not a fat person waiting to become thin.”
To find out more information, follow Fat Eire on Instagram @fateire