LOUISE O'NEILL: Thin or fat, we are so much more than our appearance

Women are constantly encouraged to be thinner, to take up as little physical space in the world as possible.

A woman approached me recently.

“Are you that writer one, Louise something?” she asked me and I marvelled at the glorious heights I had climbed in my career to be recognised on the street as ‘Louise Something’.

“Well,” she said after I had confirmed that I was indeed that writer one.

“You’re much prettier in real life.” She pinched my upper arm. “And so thin.”

I smiled weakly at her and walked away, seething with anger.

Later that evening I told my sister and her boyfriend the story, and her boyfriend, the sort of gentle soul that I want to clone and populate the planet with, was genuinely shocked.

“Welcome to life as a woman,” my sister replied dryly.

If I was to explain what the experience of being a woman is like for me, I would say that being a woman means being watched. It means being looked at.

It means being told to ‘smile more,’ by strangers. It means being told that ‘real women have curves’.

It means going to the hairdresser and being advised that ‘men don’t like short hair’.

It means being told ‘that’s a lot of food,’ when I ask for extra chips with my meal.

It means going to the farmer’s market in sweatpants and barefaced, and being told that I look ‘so much better with makeup on’.

I’ve had pregnant friends tell me about people touching their bumps, black women talk about their hair being stroked without their consent, and fat women share their experiences of receiving unsolicited dieting advice while queuing for the bus.

We are all just trying to make our way through the day and yet are somehow made to feel as if we are taking part in a warped beauty pageant that none of us signed up for.

But it is our weight, in particular, that most women feel judged by, and it’s not surprising when you look at the manner in which the media approaches the subject.

Weight loss stories with before and after photos and an accompanying article that can barely conceal its contempt for fat people, dripping with disdain for anyone over a size 16.

The magazine covers that scream ‘What Stars Really Weigh’, or ‘Beach Bodies!’, pages upon pages of photos of women’s bodies, waiting for our judgement.

The online articles damning this starlet for being too thin while jeering at this pop-star for having the audacity to gain weight while she’s on a break from touring.

The furore when women who don’t fit in to sample sizes appear naked on TV or in movies, as if men collectively decided that they couldn’t understand what use such a woman might serve if they didn’t find her attractive.

If a woman’s body wasn’t pleasing to the Male Gaze, then surely it would be better off hidden away, so these Angry Men On The Internet wouldn’t have to be reminded that women don’t exist purely as sex objects for their pleasure.

Given my history of disordered eating, I find it difficult when someone comments on my weight.

If someone I don’t know comments on the fact I’ve lost a few pounds, I’m not comfortable telling them that it’s due to stress or feeling overwhelmed.

Worse, it makes me feel as if my body is being monitored and if someone notices that I’ve lost weight, so too will they notice when I’ve gained weight and that leaves me feeling as if I’m unable to do either.

Commenting on someone’s body in that way is never helpful.

When I was 14 and initially lost weight because I was grieving over my uncle’s death, I barely noticed it myself.

It was well-intentioned family friends mentioning that I had become very thin and girls in school telling me I looked ‘amazing’, that made me conscious of my body for the very first time and set off an obsession with maintaining a thin figure that I still struggle with today.

When I was hospitalised in St John Of Gods at the age of 21 and steadily managing to gain weight, a patient on another ward expressed surprise that I was on the Eating Disorder Programme due to the fact I ‘didn’t look that skinny’, a comment that prompted a massive relapse, bed rest for three weeks, and eventually being kicked out for failing to meet the weight requirements as specified by the contract patients had to sign upon admittance.

When a waiter tells me ‘I can’t believe you ate all that food, you must have been hungry!’, I can spend 20 minutes berating myself for eating more than I should have.

And I cannot have conversations with my friends about other women’s bodies. I find it upsetting and it triggers obsessive thoughts about my own body that are dysfunctional and unhelpful.

I think it’s important that people be more mindful of how they speak about weight.

The concept of trigger warnings and political correctness often get bashed as the bastion of an overly sensitive generation of young people but I don’t agree.

Is it really so terrible to have to be considerate of other people’s feelings?

To hold your tongue because you don’t know another person’s history, you don’t know what battle they might be fighting on any given day?

Is it so appalling to ask you to be aware of the young girls around you, listening to how you speak about women and women’s bodies and internalising those attitudes? 

Thin or fat, we are so much more than our appearance. There is no ‘right’ way to be a ‘real woman’.

Our body shapes are different and diverse and there is none that is inherently more beautiful than the other.

Women are constantly encouraged to be thinner, to take up as little physical space in the world as possible.

What would happen if we refused to do so?

What would happen if we decided to take up more space — physically, emotionally, socially, politically, economically — rather than settle for less?


It’s not what you have that makes you happy, it’s what you do. And what better time to be proactive than during the season of goodwill, says Margaret Jennings.Joy to the world: Strategies to increase your happiness during the season of goodwill

More From The Irish Examiner