Recently the journalist Liz Jones (who once claimed she would rather “lose a limb than be size 20”) donned an “empathy suit” to mimic the appearance and the physical strain placed upon a morbidly obese woman far larger than her own size 8 frame.
The resulting article is teeming with reductive, fat-phobic observations – at one point, Jones says, “rightly or wrongly, I look down on people who overeat: no willpower, no constraints, they have never felt hunger in their lives”; she also says, “I’m disgusting, a drain on taxes” – birthed from an entirely inauthentic experience; one from which she escaped as soon as she could.
For my entire adult life, I was the size that Jones zipped on for a day, and when I read her piece I couldn’t shake the lyrics from Pulp’s Common People: “cause everyone hates a tourist”. Her article is useful only in that it unwittingly confirms how difficult it is for obese people to be understood.
Just 12 months ago I had bariatric surgery, a tool which has allowed me to lose 10 stone to date. There have been many ways in which my life has changed since then. Before, I was that girl crouching behind friends in group photos. I was the one sticking to the edges of public spaces, terrified that I might be taking up too much room.
I was constantly aware of how much I would sweat, shrinking from people in fear of disgusting them; talking myself out of applying for jobs I wanted because I thought they would assume I was lazy. I felt humiliated every time I boarded a plane, apologising to every other passenger who had to tolerate me. Imagine that. Apologising for existing.
But I didn’t want to change to look better. I have two daughters and I want them to find a kinder, more accepting world than I did growing up. I am glad that there is so much work done for them around body positivity.
I made my personal choice because there were signs that my weight would soon cause my health some damage. Surgery isn’t a short cut, and the change I wanted wasn’t cosmetic. My body works differently now – and it takes enormous physical and mental discipline for the surgery to count for anything. I wasn’t lazy then, and I am not lazy now. I work out every day – I run, lift weights and do cardio.
Before surgery, there were ubiquitous diets and exercise plans. I was a regular runner and was fitter than many of my friends, but people still called out “run, fatty, run” from their cars. Though I had a difficult relationship with food, I ate much more healthily than my husband – yet in public I was the one who was stared at.
My struggle had ups and it had downs, but I was driven to the point of obsession to change myself. There was nothing I wouldn’t do, but my body and my mind just wouldn’t react. Yet people who crossed my path in the street would spend just a few seconds deciding why I was the way I was, and how I could change.
Eat less, move more? I moved all the time – and telling someone who has an emotional dependency on food to eat less demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of addiction. Now, imagine being addicted to a drug which is cheap, sold from every other high street shop, easily delivered to your home, is backed by a limitless advertising budget – and that you literally need to take to live. That’s what it was like for me being addicted to food.
I am still the same girl, but the world treats me differently now. They don’t yell from the cars anymore when I go on nine mile runs, they smile and wave. They don’t point when I eat anymore. I’ve shared much of my weight loss journey on Instagram – I even shared how emotional it was when, for the first time in my life, I didn’t have to use a seatbelt extender on the plane. I still have insecurities and need to learn to love my body, but I am still me.
In October, I will be running the London Marathon. I have replaced my shame with pride. Not because I have changed, but because I haven’t. I ran for Epilepsy UK at my largest, and will run for them again this year. I run for my fitness. I run for my enjoyment. For my mental health and for my girls. I run for my friend Lucy, who passed away from epilepsy a decade ago.
I am the same girl and deserved the world’s respect and empathy just as much then, as I do now – and just as much as you deserve it of me. I don’t need to wear a costume and infiltrate your life for a day to believe you’re in pain. Why did Liz Jones have to do that to understand mine? You only need to listen to hear someone.