In What Works For Me – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to people about wellbeing and self-care.
“I’ve always been a fat girl,” says Miriam Margolyes. ”It’s always been in the belly and the tits. I’m not so worried about my bottom and my legs are quite a nice shape, but my body is just a disgrace. I really don’t like it.”
The actor is as forthcoming about her body as you might expect. A regular on the chat show circuit, you only have to look at Margolyes’ plentiful Graham Norton appearances to know she doesn’t bite her tongue. But behind the humorous self-deprecation, she admits that low body-esteem has been a constant companion for years.
“I think it affects everybody’s mental health,” she tells HuffPost UK. ”I’m sad that I’ve been cursed with it all my life, because probably, I’d have been happier if I’d not had to think about my body so much.”
Being “fat”, as she calls it, caused her to embark on a string of diets throughout her twenties and thirties, sometimes losing weight short-term, but ultimately ending up at square one. “Everybody who’s been through diets will tell you, they’re very disappointing and you feel irritated with yourself and like a failure,” she says. Insecurity about her weight makes her defensive, she adds.
“One the best ways of defence is attack. My presentation to the world is a very confident, ebullient, upfront, in-your-face sort of personality, but I’m not sure, if I were thin, if I would be like that.”
Margolyes has been with her partner, Heather, an Australian academic with whom she has a civil partnership, for more than 45 years, but insists her weight has impacted her sex life – or at least her sex appeal – too.
“Nobody has ever found my body sexually enthralling, except maybe one or two men when I was much younger who are into that sort of thing. But most people don’t like it and I certainly don’t,” she says.
“I remember one woman said to me: ‘I do find you sexually attractive, but I don’t think I could actually go to bed with you because you’re so fat.’”
Margolyes insists the woman in question was – and surprisingly, still is – a very good friend. But “society is cruel” and comments from strangers are sometimes harder to swallow.
“I have been at the sharp end of people’s remarks and it does always hurt. But in time you get over it or you develop a thick skin,” she says. “I usually answer back. I say to them: ‘I heard what you said about me and you’re a rotten person and your breath smells.’ I go straight for the jugular.”
Despite such encounters, the 78-year-old says she’s learned to accept her body; she doesn’t like it, but she doesn’t loathe it as she once did. “Now I think: ‘If you think my tits are too big, well actually they are, you’re quite right, we can agree about that’ and then I let it go,” she laughs. She can’t pinpoint a catalyst, but says she simply grew tired of caring so much around four years ago.
Career success, in part, has contributed to genuine confidence eclipsing any need for bravado. The Harry Potter franchise brought Margolyes a new generation of fans, while TV shows from Call The Midwife to The Real Marigold Hotel secured her as a small-screen favourite.
In the meantime, the stage roles didn’t slow. She describes her post-70 renaissance as “absolutely gorgeous”.
“I’ve never been as popular and successful as I am today,” she says, matter-of-factly. Focusing on “the life of the mind”, rather than the body, has also enabled a shift in perspective about her appearance, she says.
“I’m interested in art and politics and religion, sociology, nature and the relationships between people,” she says. “I’m not interested in Game of Thrones, let me put it like that. I’m not interested in popular culture, I’m interested in slightly more refined things.”
Focusing on intellectual interests might help the Instagram generation, she suggests, who may be preoccupied with aesthetics, but who will age just like the rest of us. “If you think about nothing but externals, you become very trivial,” she says.
“When you get old, your skin will wrinkle, your body will droop and your cunt will get dry. You’ve got to have other things on the menu, so to speak.”
The actor’s latest venture is BBC Two documentary, Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure, which follows her across the UK as she meets people who are overweight. She encounters teens who have signed up to a weight loss bootcamp, body-positivity campaigners who have no intention of losing weight, and diabetic amputees who’ve suffered the greatest consequences of obesity.
With around 28.7% of adults in England now classified as obese and a further 35.6% as overweight, what does she think is behind the nation’s weight struggles? “The fashion industry compels us to be skinny, the food industry compels us to be fat. We are treated like a punchball between those two industries for money. That’s what capitalism does,” she says.
Finding the balance between health and happiness is complex and ultimately, an individual pursuit, says Margolyes, but she felt “very engaged by the body positivity thing” during filming, particularly when she joined a dance class for plus-size women.
“I just loved all those women who said: ‘Look I’m fat, it’s your problem and not mine.’ I hope that they don’t get sick when they’re older, that’s all,” she says.
While she’s accepted her own body, she hasn’t stopped “trying to make it a bit better” for the sake of her health – particularly since being diagnosed with the same heart condition that affected her mother, who died following a stroke.
She enjoys Pilates to keep herself mobile and tries to eat well.
“I don’t eat muck. I think I’ve had one McDonald’s in my life, in Moscow because it was the thing to do, but I think McDonald’s is a completely shocking thing. The only reason to go in McDonald’s is to use the loo,” she laughs.
She does make an unhealthy exception for fatty chopped liver – a love from her Jewish heritage – and says, unprompted, that it would be her death row meal.
“I hate Boris Johnson and everything that he stands for,” she says. “If I were going to be hung or electrocuted or something for murdering Boris Johnson, it would be a plate of chopped liver I asked for before I died. That’s very fattening, but beyond the grave we’re all the same, aren’t we?”
As she heads towards her ninth decade, the biggest lesson she’s learned around improving one’s own and other people’s health and wellbeing is to be kind, she says. But in her opinion, certain politicians will always be the exception to the rule.
“My mother was the first and most powerful influence on my life and she used to say: ‘If you can’t say something nice, shut up’. I haven’t learnt that, clearly, because I say terrible things about Trump and Boris Johnson – because they deserve it,” she says. “But in normal social intercourse, I believe in being kind.”
Miriam’s Big Fat Adventure is on BBC Two on Monday 9 March at 9pm.