When I tell people I have lost half my body weight, I receive consistent praise. Sometimes I see a shock in their eyes that the person in the pictures I share with them is me. After all, I look radically different. Although I sometimes slip back into bad habits, I have – overall – fundamentally changed my life.
But when I tell people that I started mine weight loss travel with obesity surgery, the reaction may be somewhat different. There is a sense that I was somehow cheating, that my performance is not entirely real or at least less worth noting.
So I saw Layla Moran talks to Cathy Newman, on Channel 4 News, about her own operation of particular interest, especially when the Liberal Democrat MP and I underwent the same procedure. It was a warm and personal interview, and both in terms of political issues and as a human being, I could not go wrong with what she said. But if I was in her position, I do not think I would have said that.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud I had surgery, and I think Moran did the right thing, too. But I’m not a politician. All my words are not thrown to a deeper meaning. When people judge me for taking what they think of as a “shortcut” to a healthier life, it does not speak to a broader truth about my leadership style or anything else.
Moran is running for leadership Liberal Democrats. As such, she has campaigned in areas where Lib Dems are strong, such as parity between mental and physical health. And she was absolutely right in taking this up as part of her party’s strategy to tackle obesity. Trying to prevent people from getting to the point that it’s clear that she and I both found ourselves is key. To does not happen through shaming, but understanding; by helping people do the work in their heads as much as they do the work on their bodies.
When you run for a high-profile role in politics, the first thing you get to know – from your employees and from the press – are all the reasons why people may not like you. Like it or not, part of your job is to try to counteract or neutralize these difficult elements in your personal story. For Moran, there is still a sense that she is not much of a leader. Some of those who support her opponent Ed Davey worry that she is naive, too sweet to play hard ball when needed by her. That she would not be able to negotiate well in any coalition situation, and that her party under her leadership could take a turn. Others see her as messy and inconsistent – too willing to throw out a line she can then not back up in political terms.
This is where her honesty about her own weight loss could hurt her. We are all very good at saying the right things about such a revelation – how brave Moran is in telling us his painful truth! – but the assumptions I see crystallize when people hear about my surgery are being written far greater for her now: she is “lazy” and took a “shortcut”; she “cheated” herself into better health. And that, in talking about Public health measures to tackle obesity, she asks others to make the big lifestyle changes that she herself was not willing to or unable to pursue. That she at all publicly reveals this “weakness” is politically naive. It’s a perfect storm.
When Charles Kennedy was open about his alcohol abuse as the leader of the same party, the initial reaction was sympathetic – but he was very quickly defenestrated anyway. People at the time would tell you that it was not about what they personally thought, but what they thought the public would think. Political actors are pretty good at outsourcing their prejudices.
Moran’s obesity surgery will not prove to be as detrimental to her prospects as Kennedy’s alcoholism proved to be to him. But for those looking for an excuse for not supporting her, this raises an additional question mark. They will think about their own reaction to “it’s the easy way out” and attribute it to a broader meaning. It’s not just a shame for Moran, but for all those who hope we’re just imagining that look in people’s eyes.