Working with overweight and obese women in dramatherapy groups was the theme of my PhD research. Initially, I had considered tackling the problem of eating disorders, but being too broad a subject area I narrowed it down to overweight and obese women. I gave it no more thought until my supervisor asked me why, on a personal level, I had chosen this subject. My immediate answer had been that I have always considered myself slightly overweight. However, this did not seem to be a good enough reason. Then, it occurred to me. My English grandmother, Granny Molly! She had been overweight and had died in her early sixties from a heart attack, possibly as a result of being overweight. My granny Molly was ‘larger than life’, boisterous, outrageous and bustling with life, and was always pressing the most delicious food on everyone. And, of course, I loved her, and her food, dearly.
Her eldest son, my uncle, was a very correct army man. Once, as a young officer, he had been invited to an official army dinner where he had his mother accompany him. I do not know on what occasion it was and why she had gone with him, only that it was considered a special outing for my grandmother and she had spent some time choosing the right clothes ‘to do her son proud’, as she put it. At the grand table with all the top brass, my granny was on her best behavior, sat very gracefully and according to custom talked to the gentleman officer on her right.
Then, when they started bringing in the first course, my grandmother recognized one of the waitresses, a neighbor from a part of London where she had once lived with her first husband. She was delighted to see her old neighbour and greeted her like a long-lost friend. Her son fired disapproving glances at her, but by this time she was engaged in animated conversation with her old neighbor. Finally, the waitress excused herself and went back to the kitchen to bring another dish. Every dish was accompanied by my granny asking, ‘And what’s happened to old so and so then?’ Finally, becoming aware of her son’s disapproval, she went off to the kitchen, where she spent the rest of the evening in the company of the kitchen staff.
This was one of the many stories my mother told me of my granny Molly. As a child I was brought up in Greece, so I got to see her only about half a dozen times in my life. I had always wanted to find out more about her and had been jealous of my Irish cousins who knew her so well. Indirectly, I feel that she has been one of the reasons I became so interested in investigating the lives of overweight women. And when I consider her life, I can see how many similarities there are between her life and that of my women clients, particularly how her overweight in later life may have resulted from an unsatisfactory second marriage. Having lived during the War years, with its stresses and deprivations, food had become a symbol of happiness for her or a substitute for it. ‘If you couldn’t have happiness, you at least had food.’ This perception of food as filling a void, literally in the stomach and actually in life, is something that is shared by many of the overweight and obese women I have worked with.
For my research I conducted three groups of twelve sessions each. My primary aim was not that the participants should lose weight – this was a secondary aim – but that they should feel happier in themselves by improving their self-image and self-esteem. It was hard work, as everything that went on in each session was religiously recorded by a colleague who sat in on each session. This had to be assessed and recorded and conclusions drawn. Working with these women was a wonderful experience and an eye-opener. I not only saw how obese and overweight women think and behave but the frustration they experience at not being able to reduce their weight on a long-term basis. I only hope that they benefitted as much as I did from the sessions.
I owe a great deal to my husband Ian, with whom I was able to discuss a lot of the research. He also helped me focus on those aspects that were of greatest importance. When, ten years after completing my PhD, we decided to write a book about my experience, we used very little of the thesis itself. Instead, we focused on the women themselves, their lives, their struggle with being overweight and their relationships, which I believe were crucial in determining their problem. So, as Ian is a writer, he agreed to use the information that existed in the thesis and further information gleaned during the sessions to write their lives. However, we did not want to ignore the academic side entirely. That is why we have included a lot of the information acquired during my research.
Obesity and being overweight is a worldwide problem that can be addressed in many ways and I would not like to say that psychotherapy is by any means the only way, but I believe that it can be effective for a large number of women, and possibly men too. The underlying reasons for over-eating very often have to do with our lives and our relationships with those closest to us, particularly mothers. Mothers, sadly, have a lot to answer for. They may be very well intentioned but often their obsession with bringing up a healthy child can be misguided. Food, therefore, can become associated with love in the child’s mind and the expression of love and self-love in the adult. These and other questions we have endeavoured to answer in our book Larger Than Life.
Having recently read The Fat Lady Sings by Cheryl Fuller, I was reminded of the fact that few fat ladies enjoy eating, certainly not in company, and that most of them, having reached a certain weight, continue eating a ‘normal frugal’ diet without losing weight. Also, a very important issue which was brought up in the book was the discrimination overweight people have to face throughout their lives, which often overrides whatever issue led to their being overweight. I must add that I found her book compassionate, true and personal, giving it real weight! Her ending chapter was very moving, especially when she said, ‘I care for my body as lovingly as I know how and that is not the same as loving by body.” Originally, we had chosen ‘The Fat Lady Sings’ for the title of our book but when Karnac informed us that they had another book with this title coming out, we looked around for another title and came up with Larger Than Life. Having read The Fat Lady Sings, I now realise that that title is far more suitable to Cheryl’s book and that Larger Than Life is more appropriate for ours. Like my English granny, overweight women are often larger than life, bubbling with exuberance, which in many cases masks a deep sadness they do not wish to manifest.
Dr Katerina Couroucli-Robertson was born in England and brought up in Greece by her English mother and Greek father. She is a psychotherapist with a PhD in Dramatherapy from Surrey University. She is also a teacher in special education, Head of Studies at the Herma Institute of Dramatherapy and Playtherapy, and an external lecturer at the University of Thessaly. She is the director of a theatre group for V.S.A. Hellas (Very Special Arts) made up of people with and without learning difficulties, and has published numerous articles on Dramatherapy as well as the book Before You Let the Sun in, written in collaboration with her husband Ian Robertson, which comprises a collection of stories based on her work as a Dramatherapist.
Ian Robertson is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, where he studied French and Spanish Language and Literature, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. He lives in Greece, where he works as a teacher, actor, translator and writer. He has written a number of English Language Teaching books as well as novels, short stories and poems. Recently, he co-authored Before You Let the Sun In, which was published in Greek by Nefeli Athens.
Their book, Larger than Life: Six Women and their Battle with Obesity as seen through the Eyes of a Dramatherapist, has recently been published by Karnac.