Muireann O’Connell: If bodies came with a Facebook relationship status, mine would be ‘it’s complicated’

Body positivity movement has done much to reinforce importance of having healthy self-image, but many still find themselves under pressure. Muireann O’Connell, Elaine Cruz, Conor Dowling and Dr Katriona O’Sullivan share their stories

Elaine Cruz, Muireann O'Connell and Katriona O’Sullivan. Photograph: Alan Betson

The longest relationship we’ll have in our lives is with our bodies. But this relationship can be a fraught one, with moments of love, hatred and shame.

Outside forces – from advertisements to social media – can affect how we see ourselves, and so too can the opinions of our families, our life experiences and the things that make us feel “different” to others. We speak to four people about their relationships with their bodies, and how they have evolved over the years.

Muireann O’Connell, presenter, Ireland AM
Muireann O'Connell. Photograph: Alan Betson. Hair and make-up: Maria Whiting

If bodies came with a Facebook relationship status, mine would be “it’s complicated”. The first time my body was commented on I was 15 and wearing a pair of jeans I had saved up for. I didn’t know what to do when the lads in our gang started commenting on my arse. It dawned on me that the bodies we looked at in magazines were the same as our “normal” bodies, and up for debate.

When I was growing up, girls would see a picture of a famous model or actor on the cover of a magazine and go to the toilets to puke. We all knew it was happening. I did it a couple of times myself, if I’m totally honest. It was normal to us – for a while. We started to realise that while it was a fad for most of us, for others it had become a debilitating illness.


I had a fairly good relationship with my body when I was in school, and played sport. In college I discovered beer, all-nighters, ready-made quiche and the sport went out the window. Over the next few years I put on weight, obliviously, until I saw a picture of myself in Australia. I didn’t recognise myself. I was a few stone heavier than I am now. I hadn’t realised, as I had forced my body into clothes that didn’t fit. This is a highly sensitive topic and I don’t want to reinforce norms around what people should look like, but I wasn’t happy so I did lose some weight.

Have your say on body image: Has your relationship with your body changed over the years?Opens in new window ]

I have spent my life comparing myself to others. I know I have a healthy body. I know I have a body that fits into clothes in almost every shop. A lot of people don’t have that. I also know what it’s like to have people comment on your body. At a funeral, a woman I didn’t know walked up to have a chat. As she was leaving she said: “You look so fat on the telly and you’re not in real life!” I think I smiled and said “thank you”.

Some days it feels like the camera was designed by a man to make women look a completely different size on the TV. But I’m not giving out – people have every right to talk to me about it. When someone starts leaving nasty comments about how I look, it can get upsetting. I wish people would do it behind people’s backs the old-fashioned way.

I’ve got better at looking after my body as I’ve aged. I’m trying to get more consistent with exercise but life can get in the way. My mother is an incredibly active woman. I realise now she has been living her life like she’s in a Blue Zone [an area of the world where people have exceptionally long lives, in part owing to better diet and more exercise], and I’d like to be like that. You’re allowed Fox’s biscuits in the Blue Zone, right?

Elaine Cruz, make-up artist
Elaine Cruz. Photograph: Alan Betson

I’m not someone who has ever said they are “body positive” – I’m just a fat person who happens to like themselves. If this comes across as body positive and if someone feels a bit more self-confident from that, I’m delighted. There’s pressure online to label yourself as a certain body size or body type. But there’s always someone who will tell you that you’re wrong – I’ve been told I’m not fat enough to be plus-sized.

Well-meaning women say they admire my confidence and wish they could wear similar clothes to me, but this can feel like what I call a “compusult”, a projection of their own body image issues. It can mean if they looked like me they wouldn’t wear that outfit, but wished they didn’t care about how others might perceive them, or that I don’t look fat in an outfit.

When I call myself fat, most people’s first reaction is “no you’re not” – but I am, I’m overweight. I don’t see the word fat as an insult or self-deprecating, but if someone else does that’s their issue to reflect on.

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I was always made aware that my body was not the norm, especially growing up mixed race in the 1980s and 1990s when the beauty standards were 1990s supermodels. I didn’t have a body shape, body size or body colour that was similar to my peers or was deemed “desirable”. As a teenager, there was social anxiety when walking by a group of boys because I always got mocked for the size of my bum. Smaller was always more desirable.

When I turned 30, I became a powerlifter. I think it was a little bit of a midlife crisis! The perception at the time was “strong is the new skinny”. That seemed like a more healthy approach, but it wasn’t. I was given one cheat meal a week. We were only short of snorting protein shakes! I changed to a stressful job, couldn’t get to the gym and put on weight in a short period of time. I realised powerlifting wasn’t a realistic lifestyle, because I couldn’t maintain it without sacrificing everything else that I enjoy.

In my late 30s, life changed. I was made redundant and had to re-evaluate everything. It’s such a cliche but I went abroad, ending up in Vietnam. There, the colour of my skin and texture of my hair was really unusual, but there was no negativity around it. I joined an all-women’s boot camp and got really into yoga. It wasn’t about weight, it was about structure. My body transformed again, but I didn’t notice. When you focus on the physical changes, you’re always looking for the next thing. When you move your body with joy, it stops being about what you look like.

Now in my 40s, my relationship with my body has changed massively. I’ve always fluctuated in size but I’ve always loved the shape of my body. The number on the scale has never meant anything to me, it’s more about how my body feels. I have had a lot of injuries in the last couple of years. How my body feels has really changed. It has completely changed shape, which is new to me, and I now struggle to dress myself. Although I’m probably the heaviest that I’ve been, I have a huge appreciation and love for what my body does for me, because I don’t always treat it well. Sometimes I can do a 12-hour day on no food, and I’m a smoker. But every day, my body still shows up for me.

I tried a weight-loss medication for four weeks, and while it helped me eat more regularly, I will never dislike myself enough to put my body through something like that again. I was just a walking migraine with diarrhoea. It was absolutely horrendous. I’m heading into perimenopause, a whole new chapter that I’m learning to adapt to. The next challenge now is to find something physical that I enjoy.

Conor Dowling, screenwriter, podcaster, co-presenter of Fad Camp
Conor Dowling. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

There are times where I feel great about where I am, and very accepting, and there are times when I’m very hard on myself. I think it’s healthy to realise it is an evolving relationship.

Discussion around my body has been ongoing internally since I was young. Growing up, there were direct comments from adults about my weight. I was left out of sports, and there were also indirect things like family members on diets or who weren’t happy with their weight. It’s hard not to get a trickle-down effect from that.

In my teens, I was uncomfortable being the “fat” person, or finding it hard to get clothes. But when I look back at photos, I see a thin teenager – the worries I had weren’t really matching up to the image. It became this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s so hard in the moment to accept where you’re at, and in not accepting where you’re at you might engage in destructive behaviours like extreme dieting, which can impact on your relationship with your body.

It’s painful to think that in my 20s I started an extreme diet, and through weight cycling and yo-yo dieting my weight has only got higher. I wonder, if I hadn’t taken that approach, what would have happened? I discovered the book The Anti-Diet by Christy Harrison in my 30s, which was my first time hearing anyone speaking openly about how dieting doesn’t work. I shared the book with my friend Grace, and we started the podcast Fad Camp. It became this cathartic rejection of diet culture – through it I’ve had revelations and realisations and connected with people of all body types.

Going to a therapist changed things for me in a big way. I realised that for my whole life, my efforts towards fitness and weight loss were in some way for other people. I realised I can be ethically against diet culture but still want to lose weight and focus on my health and fitness. If I’m looking at the mirror and seeing myself through the eyes of critics, then that’s the wrong motivation.

I’ve noticed that no matter what the external trigger is, when I am feeling low in my life, struggling with my mental health or disappointment in creative or personal endeavours, the first thing I scrutinise is my weight. Even though these things have nothing to do with my weight, there’s a voice inside that says “if I weighed X amount less, that would have gone differently”. I know that’s not the case, yet it’s a default reaction.

Extreme, intense boot camp-style fitness classes don’t work for me – I love things like walking, yin yoga, surfing and hiking. I also love lifting weights, but it’s about having realistic expectations. I don’t lift weights thinking “this time next year I’ll be a bodybuilder”, because that’s where extreme thinking comes in, which for me leads to disappointment.

The pressure on female bodies is higher than on male bodies. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t pressures. There’s so much that’s universal, but what I’ve always found interesting is if you asked most women, they might say they want to make their body smaller – if you asked most men, they would want to make their body bigger and more muscular. If you’re a large man who doesn’t want to be large, where does that leave you?

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan, author and associate professor, department of psychology, Maynooth University
Katriona O’Sullivan. Photograph: Alan Betson

I have a complicated relationship with my body, I love it AND I hate it – all at the same time. It wasn’t always like this. As a child I loved my body. I remember dancing, doing gymnastics, playing football, running. I did backbends and cartwheels, just because I felt like it, I loved the sensation of being in my own body. I didn’t care if my skirt fell over my head, while doing a handstand, I freely showed my knickers to the world.

I can recall this freedom so vividly only because of how it was stolen from me; trauma stole my body from me. It tore me from freedom. It made me feel like it was my body’s fault, and that I had somehow attracted it. As a young girl, with no one to talk to, I decided that this bad thing that happened to me was my body’s fault, and if I had been a different girl or had a different body this bad thing would not have happened to me.

In my world, women’s bodies were talked about (a lot) and men said things like “look at the tits on her” when gawping at Samantha Fox on page 3. So I developed rudimentary ideas about my body, attraction and men’s desires that made me think the abuse I suffered was to do with me – and how my body looked, or felt, or moved. This tape has never stopped playing. The critique became my closest friend.

‘Our house was wild and unpredictable... I was starved and cold and unloved’Opens in new window ]

I’m not alone in having complicated feelings about my body. Most women I know have a bad relationship with their body. No one can escape diet culture – or the Kardashians. We are told there is a standard of beauty to be met; it involves your shape, size and weight! Big boobs, small arses, big arses, no boobs, waifs – these standards change and are never attainable by us normal women, who have kids and stretch marks and arses.

Add any type of sexual trauma to this world and it ends up being a f***ing nightmare. The solution to all my body angst has been sought in diets, in before and after pictures. When you’re a child like me, who has been hurt, who has low self-esteem, who has been neglected, the idea of finding a solution becomes big. The hope of feeling better in a different size or shape dominates. It can, and has become, neurotic at times: “If I get slim I will be happy ... I will be free.”

I’ve made decisions to fix my body that I regret. Plastic surgery, gastric bands – I even flew to Turkey for a gastric sleeve (but chickened out). I tried Ozempic too! But mentally the “solutions” hurt me. When you inject yourself, you’re literally saying “I am not good enough the way I am”. It fed the narrative I have lived with all my life in my head, “you are to blame”, “you did something wrong”.

Today I am trying another way. I am not dieting or over-exercising. If I’m honest, I’m the fattest I have ever been. But somewhere deep down, I feel better doing this than punishing myself for being me. While I am fat, I’m completely healthy – being fat is not affecting anything in my life, other than the way I think and feel about myself.

And just so you know, I am completely loved – my husband thinks I’m a f**king ride. He has never cared about my body. He loves me! And his love and acceptance is helping me do cartwheels again.

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If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this piece, please visit or call the helpline on 01 2107906.