The Daily Telegraph
‘Every time he came home he was bigger’
Joan Mcfadden on how her son went from slim teen to overweight student – and back again
Four years ago, I lost four stone. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and I was convinced of two things – that I’d never let myself get fat again and that none of our four children would ever put on weight. Our two elder daughters Rosie and Ellen had asked me to lose weight as they were worried about my health – at 4ft 10in I weighed nearly 12 stone – and along with my husband Jim, our son James and youngest daughter Connie, they encouraged me every ounce of the way.
It’s been a vigilant four years, with many celebrations along the way, but despite a weekly treat, I’ve kept my word, kept a tight control on portions, and put no weight back on. My children have always been slim and fit, with good exercise habits which started young. Our basic diet was healthy, with ready-made or takeaway meals very rare and sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks a weekly treat. I got fat through eating too much.
We’re an outdoorsy family, spending holidays tramping across moors and walking miles along Highland beaches. In their teens, they faithfully turned out for hockey and football practices in all weather, camped as Guides and Scouts and lugged huge rucksacks for the endless miles that gained them their Duke of Edinburgh awards.
When they headed for university they managed to avoid the dreaded “fresher’s stone”, which so many students gain through excess drink and takeaways. I was convinced that their healthy upbringing and ability to cook, along with seeing the effects of eating too much in the shape (quite literally) of me, would stop them overeating.
Then, two years ago, James, then 21, moved into a flat with student friends and within three months he began to put on weight. He’s 6ft 2in, had always been very slim and in his late teens had embraced keeping fit, quickly becoming toned and muscular. Suddenly, the most energetic thing he did was walking the half-mile to and from university, or to the bar. It was as if all his edges were blurring. Every time he came home he was bigger, and while the first two stone wouldn’t make someone his height and build look fat, the second two certainly did.
I hated it but didn’t know what to say without upsetting him. He also seemed moodier, which was unlike him. Growing up thoroughly outnumbered by sisters, who both adore and tease him, he’s usually wonderfully laid back.
When I was fat, my mum, a retired nurse, refused to play along when I pretended I wasn’t. Another tiny person, she put weight on in her 50s, lost it and never regained it. At 95, she practises portion control but not martyrdom, exercises daily and dresses beautifully. When I pathetically claimed “I’m not that fat,” she was having none of it, saying: “You need at least two or three stone off. Eat less.”
Every time I dropped a dress size she bought me something lovely to wear. She takes great pleasure in me being able to walk 10 miles without a second thought, and my low blood pressure delights her.
I wanted to be the same source of encouragement to James, but he only mentioned his weight in passing, usually as a joke or to say he didn’t mind being bigger. I decided that if he didn’t address the issue himself by the end of the university year, I would say something.
I still don’t know how I would have put my concerns into words, as he decided himself that he needed to lose weight. He admitted to me that beer and pizza had played a huge part in making him huge – his words – and being unhappy with his university course and his girlfriend didn’t help. Vanity kicked in at his sister Ellen’s graduation last year when he realised that the suit he’d bought just the year before didn’t fit.
He squeezed into it, held his breath in the hope that a waistcoat button wouldn’t pop off and take someone’s eye out and hugged me in relief when the photos were over. He changed into something more comfortable for the dinner, enjoyed the celebrations and the next day said he was going to lose weight.
I was absolutely thrilled but kept that to myself. Instead, I adopted the measured tones my mum used when I started losing weight and simply said:
“I think you suit being slim and fit much better than being heavy.” Every pound he reported lost I applauded him – as did his dad and sisters. He went for healthy portion control and liked the routine of intermittent fasting, and as his weight dropped, his mood lifted. He changed his university course, stopped beer and takeaways, and ended the unhappy relationship.
He embraced exercise again, both aerobic and weight training, and we could see the toned, muscular young man starting to reappear. By the time lockdown started – with our three youngest back home – James was three stone down, and in the intervening period he’s lost the last stone. There was lots of cooking and more drinking than usual going on, but he didn’t touch a drop of alcohol for over eight weeks, allowed himself a treat every Sunday and was a total encouragement and support to the rest of us. Many packages arrived with new smaller clothes, but no one begrudged him, especially since his good mood affected all of us.
I’m not fattist when I say I’m delighted that slim, healthy James is back. I no longer worry about all the problems that come with being fat, from poor physical and mental health to bad self-image, and I love seeing him heading out for a run, or all dressed up for a night out. We’ve agreed now to always talk about it, no matter how uncomfortable, if anyone gains weight again.
Body positivity should be encouraged, but it’s never an excuse for carrying far too much weight. Being fat – yes, I use that word – has significant health risks, including premature death, and if vanity doesn’t inspire weight loss, being healthy should.
There are many reasons for people gaining weight, including poverty and being unable to cook, but we need to stop pretending that encouraging weight loss is fat shaming. The two thirds of the population that are overweight and the 29 per cent who are morbidly obese need help to lose weight and keep it off – I recently interviewed a despairing cardiologist who said fat people risked ending up blind and limbless, but no one would quote him, or even condone his use of the word “fat”.
It’s not fattist to want your children to be fit and healthy rather than fat and miserable, but I’m not pretending it’s easy to lose weight. I’m so proud of James, though I wish I’d been brave enough to mention it when he was just a stone overweight and saved him months of misery.
It’s not fattist to want your child to be fit and healthy rather than fat and miserable