Louise O’Neill: ‘Unless you have x-ray vision, you can’t tell how unhealthy someone is by their appearance’

Louise O’Neill: ‘Unless you have x-ray vision, you can’t tell how unhealthy someone is by their appearance’

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a writer I admire very much. Her work is provocative, ground-breaking, and frequently very funny.

She often writes about her body, and her experiences as a fat woman. I posted a photo on Instagram and someone commented on how ‘healthy’ I looked in comparison to her. I put the phone down but for one, dizzying second, I was tempted to reply.

I’m in the middle of a serious relapse, I imagined myself saying. I can barely keep any food down right now; I make myself get sick up to seven times a day. I don’t know how to stop. I’m miserable and I’m so sad.

That’s the problem with making assumptions about people’s health based on their appearance, I guess. Besides the fact it’s none of your goddamn business, it also tends to be wildly inaccurate.

Like many people, I have used food as a comfort during the pandemic. I live alone and when I have felt anxious or bored, I’ve raided the fridge. I marvel at how far I have come in my recovery that I am able to do so without feeling guilty, without there being any temptation to purge the calories afterwards.

But no matter how much sugar I inhale, I rarely seem to gain weight. You can attribute some of that to the fact I love to exercise but the truth is, I am at my set weight now and that number was determined by genetics. 

From the moment I was conceived, the groundwork was laid for how tall I would be (my father is 6’3), what colour my eyes would be (the same as my mother’s), how curly my hair would be (again, the Murphy genes are strong).

I was equally powerless to determine these physical characteristics as I was to determine what weight I would naturally rest at, yet there is no moral judgement around having hazel eyes and two extra molars. There is no suggestion that if I just ‘tried a little harder’, I would be able to grow two inches taller. This is my body, just as yours is your own. Neither is inherently better than the other.

While my clothes don’t become tighter when I eat too many sweets, I notice the impact in other ways. My skin breaks out. I’m sluggish, particularly in the mornings.

Sometimes, my blood sugar crashes and I feel woozy and light-headed. Yet because I am a thin person, there is an assumption that I must be taking care of myself. There is an assumption of health.

When I go to the shop to pick up a bar of chocolate and a packet of Tangfastics, there are no side-eyes or raised eyebrows. If I got Covid and was rushed to hospital, there would be no snide remarks about how ‘obesity is the real pandemic’. 

I’ve been struck recently by the intersection of the health and wellness sector and the anti-vaxx community, and the argument that if you put in the hours at the gym and take your expensive supplements that you will somehow become immune to Covid.

I’m not an epidemiologist (loving your work though!) but I… don’t think that’s how a virus works. It’s difficult to be respectful of someone’s decision to refuse vaccination on the grounds of personal choice when that person turns around and spits vitriol at anyone they consider to be fat. Screaming that fat people are the real problem here, not the unvaccinated.

It’s funny how no one says that about smokers, isn’t it? Or those wh

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