What can we learn about morbid obesity from Britain’s fattest man?
In another life, Barry Austin would have been a hero, fighting for his country in some far-flung theatre of combat. But instead of following his boyhood dream of being a professional soldier, Barry chose a different path. He chose calories; lots and lots of calories.
Barry, who died of a heart attack in 2021 at the age of 52, became Britain’s fattest man, a title that changed hands frequently as incumbents died. At his heaviest he weighed 65 stone and was the star of the documentary Inside Britain’s Fattest Man hosted by Richard Hammond. He had his own magazine column and became a media personality. At his beloved Birmingham City Football Club, which created a special weight-bearing seat for him, away fans would chant: “Who ate all the pies?” and Barry would laugh and answer “I did”.
This attention fuelled his kamikaze lifestyle. He consumed up to 30,000 calories a day and drank up to 15 litres of Coke and 40 pints of lager. Local restaurants would feed him for free so people could witness how much he ate and drank.
But when Barry’s 15-minutes of fame came to an end as his health issues became chronic and he became housebound, the hangers-on frittered away. For a decade he tried to lose weight with varying degrees of success but, by his own admission, always knew his monstrous girth was a ticking time bomb. His last years were filled with regret and warnings about the dangers of unrestrained consumption.
I first met Barry in 2010 and interviewed him on numerous occasions. I spent time with him and his fiancé, Debbie Kirby, at his adapted bungalow in Castle Bromwich. With no audience to play to then, Barry was a sensitive, thoughtful man, filled with fear. He understood the damage he’d done to himself and hoped his condition would act as a warning sign for others.
This week, morbid obesity hits the big screen with the release of Oscar-tipped movie, The Whale, in which Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a depressed housebound 42-stone man on the brink of death. The actor wore a fat suit and prosthetic make-up for the part, and some have criticised the film for being voyeuristic, claiming it is “made by people who have no business telling a story about fat people”. His performance, however, has been described as “genuine, realistic and heart-breaking”.
Our relationship with people like Barry and Charlie, is complicated. We look at them through our fingers, fascinated, shocked, sometimes appalled. It’s their own gluttonous fault, we tell ourselves. Barry’s fame came before the body positive movement at a time when popular culture was fixated with morbid obesity.
The late noughties were a period of fatsploitation, when television schedules were full of documentaries with titles such as Half Ton Mom, Fix My Fat Head, Supersize Teens: Can’t Stop Eating and Fat Teens in Love. While Barry undoubtedly benefitted from the zeitgeist, in later life he felt a duty to warn others not to take the path he had.
“Hopefully, people who see me will realise that it is not big or clever to be this size because of the injury you do to yourself. I am the best visual aid against overeating there is. It has become my mission in life to help stop the tide of obesity,” he told me once. “I feel desperately sorry for people who get trapped in the cycle of overeating because I know what they are going through.”
Barry’s health issues were indeed terrifying.
Aged 40, he spent his days either confined to bed or shuffling slowly around in agony because of ulcerated legs which doctors feared would need to be amputated. He was terrified any day would be his last.
“I live from day to day,” he told me. “I can only sleep a few hours a night; I stop breathing when I lay down. I wake gasping for breath in a panic and each night I wonder if I will be alive in the morning. I thank God for each day I have. I have no quality of life.”
Bad circulation caused infections and bouts of blood poisoning during which his temperature spiked at 105. The pain was so bad he couldn’t bear the pressure from a light sheet on his legs, which oozed pus. He suffered Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. A cocktail of drugs and antibiotics kept him alive.
Psychology of an eating disorder
Before I met Barry, I didn’t understand the complex psychology that underlies morbid obesity. It is easier to see sufferers as grotesque and freaks, who are victims of their own greed and laziness, rather than to try to understand what really lies behind such horrendous acts of self-harm. Barry argued that obesity was an eating disorder as worthy of empathy as anorexia.
In making this argument he became an advocate for the morbidly obese.
“It is not something people choose to do,” he explained. “Usually there is a trigger that leads people to comfort eat and binge. I’ve seen so many psychologists over the years and they all say the same thing; over-eating is an addiction, like alcoholism or drug addiction. Obesity is an eating disorder, like anorexia. People look at fat people and say it’s our fault because we are greedy or lazy but in these extreme cases, it is always a psychological issue. It’s a psychological illness and should be treated as such.”
That’s not to say that Barry didn’t take responsibility for his situation.
“When people say ‘you brought it on yourself’ I totally agree with them but overeating is a disease,” he said.
Barry would become visibly upset when he heard about cases of extremely obese teenagers and young people, who he counselled.
“I would sit them down and talk to them and tell them how bad my health was and what the consequences of obesity are. It was shock therapy. When you are 13 or 14 you can change your life, for me I fear it is too late,” he said.
A 'slow and painful suicide'
In the late noughties, Barry lost his dubious UK’s fattest crown to 70-stone Paul Mason, from Ipswich. When I spoke to him about this, Barry shook his head sadly, and told me: “If Paul wants to continue down that path, you may as well give him a gun so he can shoot himself. It would be less painful because what I’ve done to myself and what he’s done is a slow and painful suicide.”
Paul eventually had gastric surgery, lost 19 stone and is still alive today. Barry always maintained that he was too ill to survive surgery. Instead, he publicly committed to losing weight several times, most notably in 2012 after proposing to Debbie, whose daughter, Dannie, called him “Dad”, and again in 2013 when, on his Facebook page, he declared he was setting out to become “the biggest natural weight loss loser [sic] on Earth”.
Barry never got to realise any of his ambitions, which in the end were simply to go fishing and to drive his car again. Mobility problems got the better of him and by the time he died, aged 52 on New Year’s Day 2021, he’d been housebound for the best part of a decade. The circus had long since left town.
If his strange life can teach us anything, it’s that people like him do not want to be in the situation they find themselves in. They deserve compassion and understanding, not derision.