Mixed Messages

Gayle Letherby


You look great.
You look amazing.
I didn’t recognise you.
You are looking 10 years younger.
Just how much weight have you lost? It really shows.
Isn’t Gayle looking great?
Have you done it just through diet and exercise, [or surgery]?
Have you lost some more since I last saw you?
You don’t want to look scrawny.
You are not planning to lose any more are you?
Have you seen Gayle doesn’t she look drawn?
Of course you are still much heavier than the NHS recommendation.

Thinking and Writing about Fat…

Since the beginning of my academic career I have written auto/biographically. Like others I believe that in including my own experience in my writing I make clear not only the influence my autobiography has on the work that I do but how, in turn, the work that I do influences my autobiography (Stanley; Morgan; Letherby Feminist Research, Interconnected Lives). I began this paper with a list of statements that have been said to me, or about me (and reported to me) by others in the last 18 months since a significant weight loss. As you see the messages ARE mixed and even the ‘compliments’ feel tainted; did I really look so bad before? Jeannine Gailey (16) reminds us that the fat body, especially the female fat body, is marginalised, stigmatised and summarising her study with 74 fat women argues that

the women whose voices are represented in this book indicated that they are often hyperinvisible when it comes to their health or actual dealings with health-care practitioners, in addition to frequently feeling invisible with sexual partners, family, friends, colleagues, and strangers.

Some of my own (auto/biographical) research has focussed on the experience of ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness’ and the above statement also applies to many of my respondents, and similar others, who feel marginalised and stigmatised because of their status as nonmother (e.g. Letherby nonmotherhood). Although not my primary research area I have recently been involved in a number of research projects – either as supervisor or researcher – concerned with weight and/or weight management. One of these focused on the relationship between ‘obesity’ and ‘infertility’ (written, like other phrases in this piece, in quotation marks to highlight the problematic nature of simplistic definitions).  Some medical literature suggests that a woman’s body mass index (BMI) is an important determinant of medical outcomes in the treatment of ‘infertility’. However, recent work contests the link between BMI, ‘obesity’ and ‘infertility’. Research from the social sciences shows that medical professionals, media and lay discourse position some individuals as ‘deserving’ and others as ‘undeserving’ of medical treatment (including in/fertility treatment) (Letherby Infertility; Stenhouse and Letherby).

Women unable to achieve pregnancy and/or carry a baby to term due to weight related issues (either ‘real’ or assumed) will likely experience multiple stigma in relation to their gender, BMI and fertility status. In addition restricting ‘infertility’ treatment on the grounds of weight can itself cause stigmatization and may lead to depression and low self-esteem.   


I began writing fiction (as an adult) about five years ago and this type of writing has become increasingly important to me both academically and personally and is, I think, another way to tell auto/biographical stories.  In my teaching I encourage students to think sociologically about fiction they enjoy and in recent academic writing on reproduction and on bereavement and loss I have included some fictional pieces (e.g. Davidson and Letherby; Letherby Interconnected Lives, Mortality). Taking a traditional view of the relationship between fact and fiction, some might suggest that fiction is the opposite of explicit auto/biographical writing. I disagree. Drawing specifically on respondents’ narratives, or more generally on our research and our own life experiences ‘fiction’ can provide a powerful, accessible narrative (e.g. Frank).

What follows is a piece of fiction that is auto/biographical in that it connects to some experiences in my own life (see Letherby Interconnected Lives) and has connections to some of the experience of respondents from various of my research studies. My aim (or rather one of them) in writing this piece was to highlight the stigma and marginalisation that women in these situations sometimes feel. The Mixed Messages, not least with reference to fat, are evident I hope.

Mr Sprat and I: A Story

He drank three times as much as I did during our first date.

I replied ‘yes please,’ when twice he asked if I wanted crisps or nuts with my wine.

He suggested a film, followed by more drinks the next time we met.

I enjoyed the popcorn in the cinema, the snacks in the pub.

He bought us a fish and chip supper on the way home. The cod was fresh and lightly battered, the chips, made from good potatoes, were just the right combination of fat and starch. We ate our meal straight from the paper. He wiped his hands on a tissue but surprised and delighted me by sucking the grease from my fingers one by one.

I was lost. I was his.

A generous boyfriend he often paid for us to eat out. He never had a pudding but would choose a liqueur, or a shot of whisky, instead. Curious, rather than shocked, I wondered how he could down a pint in just a few seconds.

‘How do you do that, how can you drink it so quickly?’ I asked.

‘I open my throat and it just slips down; only when I'm really thirsty though.' He smacked his lips and wiped his mouth with his hand.

He drank the whisky more slowly, ‘to enjoy the hot, fiery kick.’

I always had a taste of his starter and ended my meal with something sweet. Chocolatey creations were my preference but I enjoyed all desserts. He indulged me and reassured me.

‘I love your curves,’ he'd say proving it with his hands and his lips.

Many a morning after I’d cook us a big fry-up.

‘Soaks up the booze,’ he said.

Amsterdam was his choice for a stag weekend. He travelled with a large group of friends. There weren't any sexual exploits, I'm sure of that, but plenty of drink was taken and some wacky backy smoked. A good time was had by all and it took him a few days to recover from the trip.

I choose a country hotel weekend break for my pre-wedding treat. We all had a beauty treatment or two and swam, read and gossiped the two days away. The food was plentiful and beautifully presented. I had to eat leanly between the hen party and the main event to get into my dress.After making such a beautiful speech he deserved to relax a little. But I wish he'd stopped at the champagne. After our first dance he propped up the bar with his mates and my brother and drank more than all of them; mostly beer, a few spirits.

I’d been so looking forward to our first night of pleasure as husband and wife but the consummation of our marriage lacked vitality; a waste of the four-poster bed. His breath stank. As soon as it was over he fell asleep, although I was still wide awake. As part of our wedding package there were some goodies waiting for us in the bridal suite including a good sized box of melt-in-the-mouth chocolates. I ate the lot.

He made it up to me on the honeymoon. More attentive than ever he hired a boat and took me to secluded beaches. As we sunbathed he lazily stroked my back and my thighs, when we swam we explored each other's bodies undercover of water.

‘I love you, I want you,’ he whispered. ‘I love you so much I want to bite you, to gobble you up.’

My body responded to his touch and to his words. I had never felt so desired, so cherished. The evenings and the nights were the best. We ordered local specialties at dinner and with his bare hands he fed me succulent fish, juicy meats and fruit dripping in syrup. In bed as he licked the excesses off my lips and from my mouth I could taste the wine in his. I drank him in. We were never so in tune again, our senses alive, our individual indulgences merged. We were as one, our bodies replete.

Back home he worked hard and played hard keeping up his nights out with the boys and finding new restaurants for us to go to. He became skilled at choosing the correct wine to accompany the dishes I favoured. He drank the pudding wine whilst I ate the pudding. At home he kept beer in the fridge along with a jug of water so he could add a splash to his whisky. For his birthday I treated him to a peaty single malt. Our weekly food bill was a 50/50 split between alcohol and food.

I loved to cook. I roasted and baked and chipped and fried. I folded and mixed and whisked. I was adventurous with spices. For my birthday he bought me a cookery book; a best seller from the latest celebrity chef. I experimented some more. My pastry was light and my sauces smooth. He was always appreciative but more often than not he wouldn't finish his food, sometimes leaving as much as he ate. As he carried our glasses (usually his third or fourth alcoholic drink since returning from work, almost always my first) through to the lounge I would take the plates into the kitchen (spooning the remains from his plate into my mouth rather than scraping it into the bin).

A hard worker he was promoted, several times. More money led to more expensive tastes and we enjoyed good holidays and ate out even more, sometimes with his colleagues and bosses. A little shy in such company, aware of his status as a working class boy done good, he was always happier after a couple of drinks and would have a quick one before we left the house. In response to my anxious, ‘darling, do you think you should?,’ he would kiss me and say, ‘just a small one to oil the conversation.’

I lived for our holidays and the nights we spent alone. We always found something to talk and laugh about and our indulgence of each other's eating and drinking habits was mirrored by a concern for each other's sexual wellbeing. He liked sex with the lights on. I adored it when he quietly sang to me during lovemaking.

I hated the corporate entertainment. The women seemed to get thinner each time we met, shrinking as I grew. The way they managed to look as if they were eating the wonderfully cooked and carefully presented food whilst not actually consuming anything was an art form. I couldn't resist the delicious offerings but their snide observation of me turned the food to cardboard in my mouth.

His work put him under increasing pressure. Some mornings I could taste alcohol mingled with mint when he kissed me goodbye. I found a bottle of vodka at the back of the cupboard, a cheap brand, that hadn't been in the trolley at our weekly shop.

‘Where did this come from, did you buy it?,’ I asked.

‘I guess I must have, I don't remember,’ he shrugged.

The bottle disappeared but he kissed me less and began going straight upstairs when he got home. I'd hear him moving around, opening cupboards, finding hiding places for his not so secret stash.

I still shopped and cooked trying new recipes in an attempt to win him back from his liquid mistress. I made meals that in my view were fit for the Gods, rich in flavour and high in calories. But he was less and less interested. He’d push his plate away and re-fill his glass. Eventually I gave up and moved on to cheap two-for-the-price-of-one microwave meals finding their gloopiness strangely comforting. They weren't enough for me though and I’d fill up with extra creamy potatoes or with toast, dripping with butter and topped thickly with cheese or chocolate spread. I ate off and on all day when I was alone and when he was asleep.When I said that I wanted us to have a baby he agreed, clinging, like me, to the hope that a child might make things better. Half-heartedly we tried for a while. The lights were off and there was no singing. Nothing happened. We lied to the GP when asked about our sexual activity, embarrassed and distressed at the lack of passion in our life together. He lied about his drinking too.

‘How much do I drink? Well, a little more than I should I guess, I know I should cut down, but you know how it is?’

He glanced at me, smiled at the male doctor and shrugged.

I hated him then. I hated him as he failed to admit that he had a problematic relationship with alcohol, as he duped the GP and won his sympathy rather than rightly causing concern. I could guess what the doctor was thinking. Who wouldn't need a drink when married to a woman like me, a woman who had let food get the better of her spirit and her body? I couldn't lie about my problem. It lay heavy on my bones. I left the surgery with a diet sheet and a red face. When he shook the doctor's hand I turned away in misery and disgust.

We drove home with the radio on to cover our silence. Once he tried to take my hand but I pulled away.

I went to the kitchen. He went upstairs. I cut some bread and turned on the toaster. He reached into the back of his shirt drawer and pulled out a bottle.

One night soon after he took me in his arms, as much of me as he could, holding on tight even as I tried to push him away.

‘Let's do something, anything. I still love you,’ he said. ‘What about a holiday? Please darling. You still love me too don’t you?’

Nodding, I relaxed into him, my bulk against his sharp hips.

I packed my optimism along with his tiny shorts and my super-size trousers and dresses but my tentative happiness didn't last long. I couldn't do up the seatbelt in standard class and our upgrade was because of my size rather than our celebrity. For once I wasn't hungry. We tried hard to recreate the more heady days of our relationship but the break was not what either of us wished for. He drank heavily on the return journey, swigging back spirits in the way he once had pints. I closed my eyes to block out the pitying stares.

He drank more. He ate even less. He lost his job.

I heard him retching in the toilet every morning. He threw his vices up, I kept mine deep inside. As he flushed the toilet I thought of the baby we'd been unable to make I whispered to myself ‘that should be me, the morning sickness should be mine.' Then I went to the kitchen to cook and eat the fried breakfast he couldn’t face anymore. 

He went out most days, to the pub or the off-license.

I went out only to the supermarket.

He started to smell. He slept fitfully and snored loudly when he did sleep. He never touched me, unable to make love to me even if either of us had wanted it. When he wasn't sleeping he was drinking.

I outgrew my clothes again so I lived in t-shirts and joggers and ordered groceries online. I stuffed the food in as soon as it arrived but it didn't comfort me anymore.

He collapsed.

I let him go to the hospital alone.

He came home. He didn't pour himself a drink. He packed a bag instead. ‘I think I should go, don't you?’ he said.

‘Yes’, I said, the tears running down my face.

He turned just as he was leaving. ‘Do you think there's a way back for us, we were so good together once?’

‘I don't know,’ I said. After he left I filled the bin; with dairy and carbohydrates, with fat and sugar…

Some Concluding Thoughts

I consider writing as a method of inquiry, a way of finding out about yourself and your topic. Although we usually think about writing as a mode of “telling” about the social world, writing is not just a mopping-up activity at the end of a research project. Writing is also a way of “knowing” – a method of discovery and analysis. By writing in different ways, we discover new aspects of our topic and our relationship to it. Form and content are inseparable (Richardson 515).

I agree. Writing – both in the traditional academic style and utilising prose and fiction – enables us, has enabled me, to reflect in detail about issues and topics and that important to me and to others, issues and topics that are often misunderstood and misrepresented. Fat, alongside in/fertility, childlessness and nonmotherhood, is one such issue.


Frank, Katherine. “‘The Management of Hunger’: Using Fiction in Writing Anthropology.” Qualitative Inquiry 6.4 (2000): 474-488.

Gailey, Jeannine A. The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman: Weight and Gender Discourse in Contemporary Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Letherby, Gayle. Feminist Research in Theory and Practice. Buckingham: Open University, 2003.

———. “Battle of the Gametes: Cultural Representation of Medically Assisted Conception.” Gender, Identity and Reproduction: Social Perspectives, eds. Sarah Earle and Gayle Letherby. London: Palgrave, 2003. 50-65.

———. “‘Infertility’ and ‘Involuntary Childlessness’: Losses, Ambivalences and Resolutions.” Understanding Reproductive Loss: International Perspectives on Life, Death and Fertility, eds. Sarah Earle, Carol Komaromy, and Linda Layne. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012. 9-22.

———. He, Himself and I: Reflections on Inter/connected Lives. Oxford: Clio Press, 2014.

———. “Bathwater, Babies and Other Losses: A Personal and Academic Story.” Mortality: Promoting the Interdisciplinary Study of Death and Dying 20.2 (2015). ‹http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13576275.2014.989494#.VTfN4iFVikp›.

Morgan, David. “Sociological Imaginations and Imagining Sociologies: Bodies, Auto/biographies and Other Mysteries.” Sociology 32.4 (1998): 647-63.

Richardson, Laurel. “Writing: A Method of Inquiry.” A Handbook of Qualitative Research, eds. Norman Denzin and Yvonne Lincoln. 1st ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1994. 923-948.

Stanley, Liz. “On Auto/biography in Sociology.” Sociology 27.1 (1993): 41-52.

Stenhouse, Elizabeth, and Gayle Letherby. “Fat and Infertile: Challenging Double Stigma.” Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI) Annual Conference, Toronto, Oct. 2012.


auto/biography, fiction, fat, nonmothe

Copyright (c) 2015 Gayle Letherby

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