I have never forgotten what it was like. Weight stopped me doing so much
Tralee's Mags Savage Bell has battled weight since childhood. The 'Wellness That Works' instructor talks to Stephen Fernane about her amazing weight loss and how she wants to help people achieve their target weight
Mags Savage Bell always wears a broad smile. No matter what, it's the kind of smile that makes people feel instantly positive about life.
Usually there's a story behind every smile and Mags is no exception. Her story centres on a lifetime spent battling weight. Mags isn't unique in this but wanting to share her experiences so that other people going through a similar journey can find a new direction is what drives her today.
At her heaviest, Mags weighed over 19 stone. The rest is a tale of weight lost and weight gained. It's an emotional story, one that has shaped the way Mags looks at life today. She is extremely honest and forthright in sharing her story. Few inhibitions are involved, as Mags much prefers the 'shared experience' rather than suppressing any emotions that might be used to inspire others to succeed.
"All my life growing up I was the 'fat friend'. I was very much aware of it from around 12 years old. I remember making my confirmation and having to have my outfit made. I struggled with my weight from then until well into my 30s," she says.
Like most people, Mags was very conscious of her weight during her teenage years.
"It is a stage in life when friends have boyfriends or girlfriends. They're going out and wearing all the clothes in fashion. You're left behind."
Mags has lost over 7 stone. More crucially, she managed to maintain her weight loss. This is due to a combination of a.) Knowing how to avoid the familiar pitfalls of the past, and, b.) Having a focused and disciplined mind-set that is an absolute priority.
Mags is the current 'Wellness that Works' (WW) coach in Killarney where she helps people reach their goal of sustained weight loss. Like so many before and since, Mags had several failed (and temporary) attempts at losing weight. She has finally reached a plateau of happiness and while it sure feels good, it doesn't erase the years of regret and emotional upset.
"I first succeeded in weight loss when I was 23. I desperately wanted to have kids and the weight stopped me having children. I probably did it the wrong way back then. I lost over 8 stone in less than 10 months. It worked, and the minute I got to my goal weight I was expecting my first child. It just goes to show that being healthy is a big factor when trying to get pregnant. I also wanted to go into my pregnancy feeling healthy. That was my first motivation. But shortly after that the old habits crept back, as did the weight. By the time I had my second child I had no idea what weight I was. But it wasn't good."
Mags talks about her 'low points' with a combination of sadness and humour. She doesn't dismiss the emotional pain involved. But by the same token she knows it's the same for thousands of people in similar situations. Transferring sadness into humour is a tonic in its own right and no one does it better than Mags. It's the glass half full attitude at all times.
It's fair to say that all brides long to be the star on their wedding day. However it's a time Mags remembers for different reasons. She overheard guests talking at her wedding reception when one said to another: 'Isn't Frank Savage's youngest daughter beautiful?' As the bride, it hurt her as she didn't feel the focus of attention like a bride is supposed to feel.
"That stuck with me for the rest of my life. I wasn't the youngest daughter; I was the bride on the day. I never forgot it. It was hurtful and it stayed with me. Even now I can picture the whole scenario like it was yesterday. Life is full of stories like that for people who struggle with weight," she says.
As our conversation drifts on, we discuss a time in the not too distant past when weight was considered a positive thing - to be heavy was to be healthy in some cases. Mags thinks times have changed for the better in this regard, even if the proliferation of fast and processed foods has never been greater. There's no avoiding the temptation it seems. But neither is there cause to avoid the wealth of experience about weight loss waiting to be shared by people like Mags.
"Definitely, when I was younger people would say you're 'big boned' or 'it's only puppy fat'. Well I held onto my puppy fat until I was 30!" she laughs.
"It can't and should not be dismissed. Things like this stay with you when you're a child. It's one of the reasons why I can't go back to being heavy because I have never forgotten what it was like. Weight stopped me doing so much. I don't feel I've missed out, but there are things I should have done in my teenage years that I am only doing now. I never went on holidays with the girls, never went away for weekends, I never went to a Debs as I was never asked. So if anyone out there wants to ask me to their Debs, they still can!"
One of the fundamental advantages that comes with losing weight is the all-embracing sense of positivity it creates. Mags' personality has always been outgoing, even at her heaviest, but losing weight has enhanced her attitude towards life no end.
"The list of ways it has enhanced my life is endless. I'm quite a friendly and outgoing person anyway, but it did hold me back a lot. As my kids were getting older I wanted to travel, but the heat would always kill me. That was one of the things. I'm definitely a lot more confident now. Years ago if I had to meet a friend in a coffee shop or bar, I would always look to meet them outside first. I would never walk in anywhere by myself as I automatically assumed people were saying, 'oh my god, look at the size of her'. Now I have no difficulty going in and being by myself in a public place. Something I would never have done before."
Since November 2018 Mags has hosted her own WW class every Tuesday at the KDYS hall in Killarney. The days of simply measuring progress on the weighing scales is a thing of the past: it's now about taking a more holistic approach to life. Mental health is another huge factor that comes with weight loss.
Everyone is made feel welcome and Mags insists that whether someone has 5 stone or 5Ib to lose, the approach is the same. There is no shame and everyone is there for the same reason.
"When I talk to the members I totally get how they feel. I understand why they might not come back for six weeks or more. I've been there and I get it. People think because I'm now a WW coach that I'm cured. Far from it. It's okay to fall off the wagon. Just don't beat yourself up."
Mags continues: "Even though I finally succeeded and lost my weight and maintained it, I still think back to the amount of times I said to myself: 'I will never do it,' or 'it's impossible'. But I did do it. My personality and my motivation to help people today is strong. It's an old cliché I know, but if I can do it, anyone can. I genuinely wasn't living my life to the fullest when I was heavy.
"I would get up every day take the kids to the school, do a few jobs, and eat. Nothing ever changed. I didn't go out. I firmly believe it's in us all to succeed. You just need to be in the right frame of mind. For anyone considering joining WW,
"I would take them back to when I first joined myself and say: 'Don't ever feel you're going to be judged the minute you walk in the door'. We all have the same goal in common."