Róisín Ingle on ... a big fat lie

Sat, May 24, 2014, 01:00

Today I want to talk about a larger woman. But I want to make you a deal. You’ve to try your best not to feel sorry for me while I talk about being bigger and I’m going to promise not to feel sorry for myself. Deal?

Okay. So remember the man who wrote me an email addressed “Dear Fatty?” Well, what I want to talk about is how much those two words stung and why. I was reminded of the sting again the other day when I read a piece by British comedian Sarah Millican in the Radio Times. She wrote about her experience of getting dressed up for the Baftas last year. She chose a specific department store in which to buy the dress because she knew it stocked lovely clothes that would fit her size 18-20 frame. She was delighted with her dress, a floor-length flowery number, but less delighted by the “literally thousands” of messages on social media from people criticising her appearance afterwards: “I was fat and ugly as per usual. My dress . . . was destroyed by the masses. I looked like a nana . . . I cried. I cried in the car.”

I’ve cried before about this kind of thing, and this week I’ve been thinking about why. I can’t speak for Sarah Millican or indeed for any other not skinny people, but I can tell you that a lot of the time I forget about my body. Other aspects of myself, my personality, say, my hopes and dreams, my love for my children, my desire to be a better girlfriend or daughter, my job, my spiritual wellbeing, all these things often take precedence over my shape.

It’s not that I never think about it. Here are some examples of times when I think about my size: in changing rooms; in the morning trying to figure out what to wear; when I’m playing “Mummy’s a trampoline” with my children; when I’m wearing a brand new red coat with fluffy bits around the collar and a little boy who can’t be more than 10 shouts “what’s it like being fat, fatso?” as I cycle past. (We made a deal, you are not allowed to feel sorry for me. I’m not feeling sorry for me. And anyway it was funny, a few hours later.)

Then one day someone addresses you as “Dear Fatty” and I think why it stings is because this person has reduced you to the sum of your fat cells when most of the time you go about your business thinking you are quite a bit more than your BMI. And you would be right.

There’s too much outrage these days. Too many people waiting, fingers poised over keyboards, for stuff to get outraged by. Miley Cyrus, usually. Everything is “disgraceful”. “Problematic” is a word you see used with irritating regularity, describing everything from sexist adverts to the surreptitious shrinking of certain chocolate bars. Mildly surprising happenings are described as “shocking”. The great messy mass of humanity is being commented on endlessly by all of us and we want everyone to know we are “outraged” and “appalled”. I wonder if we really are. Maybe the truth is we’re just sort of sad and bemused.

Me? I’m sad and bemused about the Sarah Millican debacle and also because earlier this week in five separate reviews five senior opera critics reviewed Der Rosenkavalier at the UK’s Glyndebourne Festival and chose to focus on the body of Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught instead of her voice. The Dundalk woman was dismissed by them as “a chubby bundle of puppy fat”, “dumpy”, “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” and “stocky”. These men from the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian thought this singer’s body shape was more worthy of comment than her voice, the instrument that is her life’s work. One of them said Erraught was not a “plausible lover”.

“Look at her,” I imagine them thinking, “how SHOCKING. She’s supposed to be a love interest, how are we supposed to believe someone could love THAT?”

But do you know what is the big fat lie? This idea that there is only one kind of lovable, sexy, seductive person. Look around. In real life people love all sorts. Men love women who are “stocky”. Women love “chubby” men. Not fat men love “dumpy” blokes. Skinny women love larger women. “Fat” people succeed. “Fat” people fail. We live out our lives the same way people who look good in skinny jeans do. We dream. We laugh. We feel sorry for ourselves. We snap ourselves out of it. And mostly when it hurts, it’s because somebody has reduced us to the number on the label of our dress or our trousers. Shocking? No. But it is a bit sad. roisin@irishtimes.com