‘We know what it feels like to be fat-shamed’: NI women on their embarrassment at being stared at - and how they lost weight
In her new book, Dame Jenni Murray is searingly honest about the misery of being obese. Two Northern Ireland women tell Lisa Smyth their embarrassment at being stared at — and also how they lost weight.
‘I was a size 24... I just hated going out in public in case I met someone that I knew’
Today is an exciting day for entrepreneur Annie Sheridan as she launches a range of sportswear inspired by her own battle for body confidence.
It hasn’t been an easy journey and Annie (26), who lives in Mallusk, is still plagued by moments of self-doubt, but they are at least becoming less common.
Growing up, Annie’s weight wasn’t something that concerned her. She says she was never thin, but she wasn’t overweight either and she was a healthy size 10/12 when she met her now fiance, Erran, a software engineer, on dating website Tinder four years ago.
However, it was after the birth of her son, Kai, who turns three in October, as she struggled with severe postnatal depression, that her weight began to creep upwards.
“I was very active when I was younger, I probably carried a little bit of weight but I wasn’t really overweight,” she says.
“But I had a difficult pregnancy, I had a lot of kidney infections and I was in and out of hospital with chronic morning sickness that just went on all day, so looking back now I think the depression started then.
“Once Kai was born, we didn’t really have any family to help out and we were getting by on takeaways and swapping what would be healthier choices for convenience food.
“There are people I know who have done it and it has worked really well for them, which is brilliant, but it just wasn’t for me. I was unhappy with how I looked, being that size puts so many limitations on you, not being able to go and buy clothes, not being comfortable moving around or putting on your shoes, or getting in and out of bed or the car, or going on a flight and squeezing into the seat.
“I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling for so long, I didn’t want to be a burden — when you don’t like yourself, you think other people aren’t going to like you.
“It was like something had to change, I was desperately unhappy but I wasn’t in a place to do anything about it.”
However, Annie finally began to get the help she so desperately needed when she attended a GP appointment and they raised concerns about her weight.
She was the third generation of her family to attend the practice and the doctor was aware of health conditions exacerbated by obesity that run in her family.
It was a turning point for Annie that prompted her to begin on the road to recovery.
“She told me I needed to do something about my BMI and I just broke down,” says Annie.
She started counselling and found the courage to seek help from a personal trainer at the start of the year who has helped her overhaul her diet and get back into exercise.
To begin with, she attended water aerobics and Pilates classes but her feelings about her appearance made even that difficult.
She explains: “I would run between the changing room and the pool so no-one would see me, but I didn’t let that stop me, I tried to push myself out of my comfort zone.”
Her persistence has paid off and she now wears anything between a size 16 and 20 depending on the shop.
Her healthy living drive is still ongoing — Annie has ambitious plans to train for a fitness competition next year but even though she has not shed all her excess weight, she is working hard to accept her current appearance.
Throughout her efforts, particularly at the very beginning, Annie struggled to find affordable activewear to fit her figure.
This prompted her to set up Raaxa — the Somali word for comfort and luxury that Annie became aware of when she visited slums during her travels during her younger years — and the first delivery of leggings are due to arrive today.
It is another important milestone in her journey of self-acceptance.
“I’m so thankful for the things that have happened to me because I am a totally different person now,” she says.
“I’m going to keep going with what I’m doing, although for me I don’t want to be defined by how much weight I’m losing. I want to be able to lose weight but love myself while I’m doing it.
“If you wait until you lose weight to love yourself, you’re going to miss out on so much in life.”
‘At my heaviest I was 21 stone and wore a size 30... then my legs split open’
Retired civil servant Christine Young is getting ready to celebrate her 60th birthday in just a few weeks.
As she approaches the milestone age, it is bittersweet to know that this is the first time in her adult life that she has been truly comfortable with her weight.
Growing up, Christine describes herself as “pleasantly plump”, but at such a young age, she wasn’t overly concerned about her appearance.
It was as the years went on and her family began to tell her that her puppy fat would disappear, that her weight began to play more on her mind.
But because she was so active and played indoor and outdoor bowls at international level, it wasn’t something she was overly concerned about.
As the years went on, however, and her weight crept up, her appearance began to take over her life.
Christine, who lives in Lisburn with her husband, Tony (69), also a retired civil servant, finally reached breaking point when her health took a distressing turn for the worse and she was forced to make an appointment with her GP.
“It took me 20 years to finally make the changes before I was able to start losing weight and keep it off,” she says.
“I was at my heaviest, I weighed 21 stone and was wearing a size 30 in clothing. By this stage, I was having terrible trouble with fluid building up in my legs.
“I was always wearing trousers to cover up my legs and I was at an embroidery exhibition at the Titanic and I felt my legs split open.
“It wasn’t a nice situation to be in at all and I couldn’t get to the doctor straight away. By the time I got an appointment a few days later, my legs were infected.
“I was in the treatment room getting weighed and the nurse told me I would have to go and use the scales in the doctor’s surgery as the ones she was using didn’t go high enough.
“It was at this point that I decided enough was enough, it was my lightbulb moment.”
Over the years, Christine has tried countless different diets in a bid to shed the excess weight, but it was only when she was confronted in such a devastating way that she finally found the strength to overhaul her lifestyle.
It was after the crushing experience with the practice nurse that she signed up to Slimming World and she has since managed to shed more than 10 stone and maintain her new figure.
With her newfound confidence, she even runs a number of Slimming World classes in Lisburn where she draws upon her own experience to help other people who are struggling with their weight.
So, having walked the same path as Jenni Murray for such a long period of her life, what does she think of surgical intervention as a way of getting your weight under control?
“To be honest, it’s not something that has ever entered my mind,” she says.
“I am lucky that Slimming World has really worked for me, but then I do wonder if it is because I was so determined that it would work by the time I signed up.
“To me, a gastric band or anything like that seems to have an effect on how much you can eat in future and I love my food so much that I couldn’t think about doing that.
“The thought of not being able to eat as much, or having to eat pureed food... it isn’t for me.”
Despite this, the all-consuming nature of being overweight has overshadowed Christine’s life.
“I tried every diet going over the years and nothing worked,” she continues.“I tried the Atkin’s diet, the cabbage diet, I tried the shakes, I would lose weight but then I would put it back on.
“In about 1996, I was at my heaviest for that time, I think I was about 16 stone and I managed to get down to 11 stone.
“My job at the time involved a lot of driving and I was always out in a car but it was difficult for me to get in and out.
“I decided at that stage that I had to do something and I went public and managed to raise money for a girl who had been in a really bad car accident at the same time. I knew I needed something like that to spur me on and it worked.”
Christine’s world was rocked the following year when her dad died suddenly from a heart attack and she spent the following months caring for her mum until she also passed away.
It was a heartbreaking blow for Christine and her efforts to stay slim were destroyed as she struggled with her grief, with her weight climbing up to more than 21 stone.
“I threw myself into the bowling, but I also ate and drank a lot too,” she says. “I knew my weight was getting out of control but I just couldn’t do anything about it.
“Family used to say to me about losing weight but that would just make me cross, I needed to make my own mind up.
“I even read in my medical notes once that I was morbidly obese and I had a waddling gait, that was very difficult to read.
“I couldn’t get clothes for myself as they didn’t have any in my size and I even had to give up the bowling because I couldn’t manage it anymore.
“Now I’ve lost weight, I feel so much better about myself and I’m able to do so much more and I’m not conscious about my appearance.
“A part of me does feel like I lost 20 years of my life, I could have done a lot more — I would have travelled more.
“I’ve never been to London because people always said to me I would have to do a lot of walking, which I knew I wouldn’t be able to manage.
“We were supposed to go to London for my 60th birthday, but I don’t think we’ll be going now because of Covid.”
Christine adds: “People are very judgemental when a person is overweight and they really shouldn’t be, you shouldn’t judge someone by their appearance.
“I always tell the people at my classes that they shouldn’t worry about the figure on the scales because people don’t see that, they see you and they see whether you are comfortable with yourself.
“I have travelled that journey where you are self-conscious and embarrassed and uncomfortable, you can’t do what you want to or wear what you want, and I don’t judge anyone.”
Why Jenni Murray turned to surgery...
In Fat Cow, Fat Chance (Doubleday, £16.99) Jenni Murray tells how by the age of 64, her weight had become a disability. She avoided the scales, wore a uniform of baggy black clothes, refused to make connections between her weight and health issues and told herself that she was fat and happy. In private, however, the Woman’s Hour presenter lived with a growing sense of fear that her weight would probably kill her before she hit 70. She had tried every diet, from Weight Watchers to Atkins and Dukon, but ended up putting back on all the weight and more. In the end she opted for irreversible gastric surgery and went from 24 stone to 14 stone. Interwoven with the science, social history and psychology of weight management, her new book is a refreshingly honest account of what it’s like to be fat when society dictates that skinny is the norm. It asks why we overeat and why, when the weight is finally lost through dieting, do we simply pile the pounds back on again?