Late night host James Corden had a viral moment over the weekend when he clapped back at Bill Maher for his comments about fatness. ‘If making fun of fat people made them lose weight, there’d be no fat kids in schools,’ Corden said. ‘And I’d have a six-pack right now.’
Well James, I’m here to tell you you’re wrong. Fat-shaming can work. And I know. Because I was once mistaken for you.
I was leaving an extremely busy pool hall in Manhattan’s West Village with some friends one Saturday in early December last year. It was the kind of place where you had to collect a ticket from the bar in order to wait your turn for a table — and we had been waiting for over an hour. I was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt passed down to me by my dad, which was patterned with small parrots, jeans, Adidas sneakers, light stubble and the same haircut I always have: short on the back and sides, longer and pushed back and to the right with gel on top. As we departed, I thought it would be nice to give our tickets to someone waiting in the long line to get in.
I approached a man at the front. ‘Excuse me mate, I don’t suppose you-‘
‘Oh my God, James Corden?!’
My jaw dropped. I’m not a violent man — I have never been in a fight before — but this was as close as I’d come to throwing a punch in anger.
Perhaps sensing this, he very swiftly apologized, and took the tickets, thanking me for them.
As I walked away, the rage subsided and was replaced by a wave of embarrassment. Thinking about it, James Corden and I do have a fair bit in common. We both moved to America in 2015. We both have southern English accents and sing in the car. Neither of us is particularly funny. But this offhand comparison from a stranger really sat unwell with me. It was more than just the shirt, and the hair, and the accent…was I…fat?
Since graduating university in England, I hadn’t really taken particularly good care of my body. I ate out more often than not, I had stopped going to the gym and I drank heavily two or three times weekly. This Corden comparison served as my Damascene moment: I went to the gym for the first time in three years the following week.
But why focus on why people change their behavior when you can obsess over keeping them in their comfort zone? Bill Maher earned Corden’s ire by closing his September 6 show with a monologue about the American obesity crisis, peppered with fat jokes:
‘In August, 53 Americans died from mass shootings. Terrible, right? You know how many died from obesity? 40,000. Fat-shaming doesn’t need to end, it needs to make a comeback. Some amount of shame is good. We shame people out of smoking and into wearing seat-belts, we shame them out of littering, and most of them, out of racism. Shame is the first step in reform, it’s what goads people into saying “maybe I can do better”, as opposed to “I’m always perfect the way I am, how dare you!”‘
In response, Corden issued the kind of semi-serious, semi-comic rant clip that fellow Brit and Emmy rival John Oliver has made his hallmark — though ironically the format was arguably pioneered by Maher himself.
The segment, like Maher’s, highlighted the obesity crisis. And like Maher’s, it was also broken up with a liberal sprucing of fat jokes…but of course what’s ‘bullying’ from Bill Maher is ‘self-deprecating’ from James Corden.
By stripping Maher’s comments of their context and proffering his ‘as a plus-sized gentleman’ take, James Corden found himself hailed in the blogosphere for his ‘epic comeback‘. ‘People are applauding‘, BuzzFeed squawked. Corden ‘brilliantly shamed‘ Maher, according to Deadline.
Perhaps there are many overweight people for whom fat-shaming is a hindrance rather than a help. James Corden is well within his right to draw from his struggles to become their ringleader, in exchange for some laudatory finger-snaps and a couple of million YouTube views. But frequently when considering body image, we fall into the pattern of judging the whole by the extremes: most of us occupy the space between bulimia and morbid obesity. We particularly fixate on the poles when thinking about causation, between the words of a svelte Californian comic like Bill Maher and the behavior of the chronically fat.
After the brief shock of the Corden contrast, I slid back into my usual habits. Perhaps that guy did just mean the accent, or the shirt, I thought. Upon returning to the UK for Christmas, I received further clarification. I went to the local pub with my best friend from high school. We met at the bar, bought some beers, and then retired outside to the smoking area. We sat opposite each other, and my friend looked me up and down.
‘So…you’ve got fat!’, he said jovially.
He was right. So I did something about it. There’s your causation.
In January, I joined my local gym, a five-minute-walk from the Brooklyn apartment where I live and work. I started going for half-hour sessions three or four times a week, where I would run on a treadmill for 10 minutes, then work out a different muscle group each day. As the sweat dripped from my brow and my sneakers pounded the track, I was powered by the singular thought: ‘you are not James Corden’.
Health freaks often evangelize about how working out makes them feel better. When it comes to actually being in the gym, I am fairly sure they’re lying…but in turns of the base-level of fitness you feel when you’re not there, I can see what they mean. Exercise is only half of the picture though: to make any progress, I had to overhaul my diet too.
I did a scant bit of online research before settling on the paleo diet, also known as ‘the diet which will let me eat meat’. I cut out soft drinks, most sugars and almost all carbohydrates (except alcohol, I’m not an animal). Breakfast each morning was bacon, eggs and black coffee, and the meat I had at every evening meal was accompanied with carrot sticks and humus. This basic application of self-control started to deliver results within weeks.
After six months, I was down 25 pounds, from 210 before Christmas to 185 by Memorial Day weekend. The gray suit I bought in September no longer fits without suspenders and while I’m not going to be haunting your screens with any shirtless pictures of myself (sorry Toby Young fans), rest assured I look significantly leaner than I did outside that pool hall nine months ago. Occasionally I cheat, of course — who else is going to try and claim the McDonald’s family discount — but in general I have stayed true to my exercise regime and diet.
Thank you James Corden, I couldn’t have done it without you.