"I have had weight on me from the age of 10," says Maura Murphy (66), who for decades wondered why she seemed incapable of controlling her body size, when she had plenty of achievements in other areas of life.
“Many a time I would ask myself why can’t I conquer this.” She did “every diet under the sun” and was fed up not being able to lose sufficient weight. Working in the Civil Service for years and also with a private company, she knew she was judged for her size.
“I was passed over for promotion because I wasn’t front-office material for one.”
On another occasion she was told a woman junior to her had been sent for promotion “because we know you wouldn’t pass the medical”.
Up to the age of 30, Maura had enjoyed playing sports, including league basketball, but from then on “I started to put up the weight, about a stone [6.3kg] per year. I couldn’t get it down. It was kind of accepted because my [four] brothers were big,” she says, and there was a sense “it’s in your family”.
As a mother herself, raising two sons, she was very conscious of her size and worried for them, particularly when she could see one of them gaining weight through puberty, just as she had done.
“I had a chat with him, ‘Take a look at the family and see where we could be going with this.’” She advised him that if he had to get takeaway food, to go for chicken and skip the soft drinks.
“He did listen and he was very, very slim again until about the age of 30.” Both he and his brother struggle with their weight, she says, “but at least they’re watching it”.
She observes how her grandsons now come to her looking for cucumber, carrot or apple. “I am not the granny forcing them to have anything sweet.”
But it is as a granny that she sees distasteful size judging in stories for small children. There’s the Fat Controller in Thomas the Tank Engine; Mr Greedy in the Mister Men series; and don’t get her started on Peppa Pig’s comments about “Daddy’s big tummy”.
About the age of 40, Maura had become quite ill and was sent to Tallaght hospital. She was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and referred to a weight management clinic. “There I met people who actually understood weight for the first time in my life. People who did not judge.”
After going on a long waiting list for a gastric sleeve operation, which involves removing a large part of the stomach, she set up a Facebook support group for people like her waiting for surgery. Now she is secretary of the Irish Coalition of People Living with Obesity.
Within three months of her surgery in 2012, “I had lost a lot of weight and I was delighted with myself – new quality of life, new movement, new hope for a future.”
But then she had to cope with the death of her husband in 2015. Living in Leitrim at the time, she signed up for a college course, Heritage Studies, in Galway. "It kept me busy for three years and I felt when I stopped that, I started to regain weight.
“There is more stigmatisation around weight regain after surgery because the people around you think you are fixed. There is no fix. You just have to stay on top of it and a lot of people are too embarrassed to go back to the heath professional because they think they have failed but they haven’t. It is the medication that fails, not the person who fails.”
After gaining about 13kg, Maura went back to her consultant, who referred her to another doctor who specialises in weight regain after surgery. In 2019 she was put on a weekly injection, which helped her lose 19kg and she continues on that medication to this day.
“It suppresses the hunger that goes with obesity, which is brilliant as I can keep my weight down.”
I have to plan a walk because being overweight you don't go walking in public if you can help it
Yet, she still faces physical barriers in getting out and about from her home in Ballina, Co Mayo.
“I have to plan a walk because being overweight you don’t go walking in public if you can help it. I get in the car and go to a running track close by. If I got a sudden pain in my back or my knee and I walked through a forest, I might not get back to my car, so a running track is ideal.
“I like to swim – you are a lot lighter in the water. But if I go to a swimming pool I have to make sure there are steps. I can go down a ladder but I can’t get back up a ladder. I also need a pool with separate changing areas.”
In any car park, she has to make sure there is space to get in and out of her car, so will drive around and around to look for an edge space. The same applies to seating at functions and she will research venues to identify, for instance, the nearest seat to the toilet.
“I don’t want to cause a Mexican wave when I want to get out,” she says with a seemingly irrepressible sense of humour. Despite her weight challenges, she has never been unhappy in any part of her life, she stresses.
I am now treating a disease. But that's not taking personal responsibility out of the equation
However, hearing a Canadian obesity specialist Dr Arya Sharma talk in Dublin in 2019 gave her a new understanding of herself. He said that although obesity was being increasingly recognised as a complex chronic disease (not unlike hypertension or type 2 diabetes), the persisting "eat less, move more" approach failed to acknowledge how the interaction between environmental and neurobiological mechanisms played a large role in determining body shape and size, much of which was beyond the control of the individual. Medical or surgical treatments of obesity had proven to be far superior to behavioural interventions alone in sustaining long-term weight loss, he said.
“It was a lightbulb moment,” she says. “I am now treating a disease. But that’s not taking personal responsibility out of the equation. You wouldn’t do that with heart disease. But the difference is now I am treating a disease and not something I blamed on myself.”
Maura reckons some readers of this article will think “would they ever just cop on”. But considering that 60 per cent of the Irish population are now living with overweight or obesity, she would say to such people, “you are now having a pop at your uncle, aunt, sister, cousin or neighbour”.
Deploring the lack of funding and urgency for improved childhood obesity treatment services, Maura says if she had received the right support at the age of 10, “I think things would have been different”.
Read: Focus on weight loss clouds complexities of obesity