At IMAGE, we believe in real beauty and celebrating difference. In our new Love Your Body series, we speak to real Irish women about what beauty means to them. While they might be of different ages and come from different backgrounds, they all have one thing in common: they have proudly embraced their bodies and real beauty. This week, Gail O'Connor talks about learning to trust her body after illness, as well as her thoughts on the word 'curvy'.
Gail O’Connor has had a rocky relationship with her body. The former gym manager was once captain of the basketball team and two belts away from a black belt in taekwondo. “I used to love my body,” she tells us, “But then I got sick.”
The now 37-year-old says, “I was putting on weight. My body was in bits. I had gallbladder issues and my energy levels were dipping. I was craving crap, but when I did have chips or whatever, I’d have irritable bowel,” Gail explains. “You can’t eat but you want to eat; so you’ve no energy. But when teaching classes and managing a team you need to be on top of things…”
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Gail’s job was the least of her worries, however. “Eventually I turned jaundice,” she says. “I was like one of the Simpsons; from scalp to toes. Even the whites of my eyes were yellow. It was gallbladder issues. I ended up in hospital for about a month and a half; I got septicemia and nearly died,” she confides. “I was pulled back from the brink.”
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The Ballybrack-native says this illness changed her relationship with her body. “When you’re young, you don’t think you’re going to have health issues. So my confidence was completely knocked,” Gail admits.
"My body had attacked me… so how can I trust it?”
To make matters worse, there were complications during the keyhole surgery on her gallbladder and the surgeon was forced to open her up. “Recovering from that took a really long time. Even walking to the shop took a really long time; I always had to have someone with me. I was really nervous,” Gail says. “It was like I’d been attacked. My body had attacked me… so how can I trust it?”
An outlet to express herself
Gail discovered various blogs and YouTube channels while she continued her recovery at home. “I was following Chloe Morello and Tanya Burr, and I was like, ‘I can do this’. I can self-publish and say what I want to say. I decided to go back to college and study social media marketing, and I started my blog Glam Force in college.”
Her blog has helped her to embrace her body. All about fashion and beauty, she says, “It’s more representative of what I see on the streets.” When out and about, Gail doesn’t see supermodel-like people, who are six foot tall and really thin. She sees women of all shapes and sizes; women like her. “I want to see people who are bigger than ‘normal’ size, how the clothes fit on them, and that kind of thing. When I put up outfit shots, I get a hell of a lot more likes. So I know that’s what other people want to see too.”
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Social pressure and media representation
Having previously worked in a gym, Gail's now-fuller figure has come with criticism from others. “Coming from the fitness industry, it can be a bit like, “Oh you shouldn’t be that size’," she tells us. "There’s so much pressure to look a certain way. It’s very aesthetic-based, even for the men. You’d hear people say, 'Oh god no; there’s large girl on reception, I am not going to that gym'. It's because 'a fat girl' or 'fat lad' don’t represent what they want to be. It’s all about perception."
"I just wear the t-shirt, and if it’s a little bit tight, who cares.”
Gail adds, "I’ve had some back-handed, petty comments said to me. But I’m just like, ‘whatever’. I just laugh now. Because I’m alive, I’ve three years blogging behind me and I’ve had some amazing experiences with it."
As for the fashion industry, Gail feels it's more inclusive than it used to be. "I think the big modelling agencies have a curvy section attached to them now, and that’s huge. Once the heavy hitters embrace it, it will go mainstream." That being said, it still has a long way to go. “Last Fashion Week," Gail says, "Simply Be had a curvy runway and that was brilliant. But I don’t like that they say ‘curvy’. Just say it’s a runway. I’d love to see it go that way, where we don’t have to label everything.”
Advice to her younger self
When asked if she had any advice for her younger self, Gail said, “To look at my body the way I used to, and not worry. My body is strong. It can get through a hell of a lot no matter what size it is.
“I’d also say not to dwell on my appearance or get wrapped up in it," Gail adds. "I still get bloated quite a bit from my gallbladder; I used to get asked, 'are you pregnant?' But I don’t care now. I just wear the t-shirt, and if it’s a little bit tight, who cares.”
What's more, Gail hopes young girls will learn to differentiate between Instagram and reality. "Young girls need to think more for themselves and learn how to filter things out. This whole Instagram life – I don’t buy into it, but I’m older," she says. "My niece is 10 and she’s wrapped up in YouTube. It’s like a fantasy world. I say to her, 'You know they’ve edited that blog, it’s not all hunky dory', and I’ll show her videos of behind-the-scenes, where the rest of the room (not being shown on camera) is a state. We only put up our best side, and I would love girls to understand that from a young age.”
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As our interview draws to a close, Gail advises we take inspiration from Instagram; rather than feel jealous of other people on it. "Take a little step back, learn from it, and take inspiration from it rather than let it get you down. It’s not unattainable."
For example, if you see someone with gorgeous hair on Instagram; rather than think ‘I’ll never have that’, look into affordable extensions. For Gail, it’s about finding high fashion alternatives on the high street. “I got a Prada bag in Penneys the other day,” she laughs.
We like her style.