Eat, drink, be merry but don't forget to exercise


YOU might have seen me, the week before last, in unusual circumstances. You might have noticed me among a small crowd of mainly women, on the summit of the Sugarloaf mountain, singing Jingle Bells. In Irish. Yes. That's where I was.

I used to be in a Weightwatchers class I just finally gave up on it recently and that's who I. was with. The Weightwatchers leader had organised it for An Oige to lead inexperienced people, from her classes, on an introductory walk, and I said I'd go along, mainly out of guilt at dropping yet again out of the real Weightwatching programme.

The walk wasn't the greatest idea in the world, in my opinion. There's a huge cultural difference between agile, seasoned, walking people in proper gear with maps in plastic covers and so forth, and overweight ladies in full make up wearing their children's boots attempting the first upward walk of their lives.

I'm not sure that everyone present at the occasion fully understood each other. I certainly didn't know about the An Oige tradition of singing on peaks. But the idea behind our Sugarloaf climb was good. Your weight and your relationship to it aren't just about food. It's about everything. It's about how you live, and what you think of yourself and your life. Liking clean fresh air has as much to do with it as diet.

Weight is, in other words, a profound subject. And a pertinent one, this week of all weeks. I doubt whether more than two or three people out of every 10 will get through this week without sighing with true chagrin at the amount they have eaten or drunk.

I think if you could give people a present of what they really, really want, what six or seven out of every 10 want is to lose a stone. Or even not to lose a stone, but to re-acquire a flat stomach. I heard Eamonn Dunphy say once that if you have a flat stomach everyone thinks the rest of you is OK, too, and he's right.

I understand that it can seem distasteful, to say the least, to talk about food and fat when there are people in poverty not a hundred yards away, and when our fellow human beings are starving in other parts of the world. I know that out of shame at their own good fortune, people don't like to complain about fat, which is the product of affluence.

When I walk, myself, to "get exercise" I often think of my grandfather's people, who carried heavy barrels of butter on their backs the many, many miles from north Kerry down to the Butter Market in Cork.

Our forebears, like the poor of the Earth now, got only too much exercise. But though it is true that the first thing to do about food and drink and leisure is to be conscious of our luck in possessing them, the effect they can have on our bodies is a source of real personal pain, which is worthy of respect.

Hurt is hurt, in the First World as well as the Third, and it hurts people very much indeed to see their bodies thicken. Overweight has accumulated a wealth of meanings. In our culture, floppy tummies and wobbling owls and fleshy thighs spell loser, retiree, neuter. They are powerfully bad things.

I read once about a pygmy tribe in the equatorial forests of Africa. Theirs was an apparently idyllic existence, and they were the most gentle of people. To look at, in their grassy clearings, their life seemed altogether enviable.

But to them, fear stalked the environment. Not real enemies, but enemies they imagined from the world others call superstition lay in wait for them everywhere. They might be running through the forest happily but then, if they saw a branch bent a certain way, all their happiness would drain away.

Body fat has something of the same place in our culture. It doesn't make sense that it should be invested with such significance. It doesn't matter, except that we make it matter. But just the sight of the scales going up, or the feel of a too tight waistband, can colour a good day grey.

The desirability of a slim body should not be such an imperative. It does nothing but oppress people and make money for the slimming industry. But there it is it is central to our concepts of youth and health and sexual attractiveness and vigour. People will be torn this week between the old fashioned sensual pleasures of eating and drinking, and new pleasure of disciplining the appetite. The body is where the struggle between good and evil is located in a secular world.

ONE of the reasons I liked going to my Weightwatching class was that we were all equals there. We understood each, other perfectly even though we didn't know each other's names, or anything about each other. If a woman lost five pounds in a week, say, or came back from a holiday without putting any pounds on, or if someone reached the goal of their ideal weight, the rest of us would beam at her or give a heartfelt round of applause.

Conversely, if someone got down off the weighing scales with a set face, there'd be a murmur of sympathy from the woman next in the queue to be weighed. We understood that controlling your weight is as much about control as weight. It is about being resourceful and active, instead of habit bound and passive. It seems like a simple subject. But though it may start simple, with a decision, say, to change from milk to low fat milk, it takes on complexity immediately.

For example, there is nothing wrong in itself this week with stuffing yourself to the gills. But there's all the moralism surrounding overeating to cope with. There is the ju-ju surrounding modern mysteries like cholesterol. There's fear of death behind knowing you've over eaten, and behind behaving like a North American and eating two lettuce leaves so that you will never die.

There's the presence of a light but pervasive guilt about oral pleasure. At the same time, there's never been in Ireland, that I can remember, such a variety of exquisite things to eat and drink and such numbers of people able to prepare food beautifully. We're in a dilemma unique to our time.

What is to be done? I've stopped going to Weightwatchers, myself. It is not that their programme doesn't work. It does work, but I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to make the effort to re-educate my eating habits. However, the same eating habits, uneducated, will have me understudying Two-Ton Tessie if I don't do something. What I hope is the answer came to my friend in a blinding flash when she was watching Sonia O'Sullivan. "I bet Sonia O'Sullivan doesn't diet," she said to herself.

Exercise, in other words, will allow us to eat and drink like horses, and still have the bodies of young girls. The flaws in this theory are evident even to me. But I share it with you anyway, because exercise is just a word for things that are potentially very pleasurable in themselves.

Things like running after the dog on the beach, or walking across the Phoenix Park to see the deer or, yes, climbing up to the top of the Sugarloaf. If you get things right this week you can enjoy putting fat on, and enjoy taking fat off. You can enjoy everything. And that, given how short life's is the best we can do.