Body

Paula Bennett opens up about her weight loss surgery and how she is learning to love herself

Paula had always treated herself with takeaways until she had a moment one day when she realised, 'Do I dislike myself so much that I'm happy to slowly kill myself?'

By: Kelly Bertrand

Thumbing through the rack of brightly coloured jackets and dresses in front of her, Deputy Leader of the Opposition Paula Bennett selects a hot-pink blazer and grins.

"Size 14!" she hoots as she pulls it on, ready for the Weekly's photographer.

It's been six months since the National MP underwent gastric bypass surgery and Paula (49) says she's still getting used to the new her. More than 30kg down and four dress sizes smaller, the Paula of today is a very different woman in almost every way, from her body to her job – and even her hair.

"I've still got the same husband!" she laughs.

"But yes, it's been quite a dramatic change in so many aspects, professionally and personally. I've often said, 'You can't always dictate the hand you're dealt, but it's how you play it that matters.'"

Paula's story began about three months before last September's election. While she realised she'd put on a bit of weight in the two years previously, she hadn't given it too much thought until one day when she found herself sitting in her office with a big plate of takeaways in front of her.

"It was always an 'I deserve it' thing for me," admits Paula. "You know, 'I work so hard – if I want a burger and chips, then I'll have one.'

"But I had a moment one day. I was at my desk, and was probably eating sweet and sour pork or something, and I remember looking down at it and going, 'I don't deserve this. Do I dislike myself so much that I'm happy to slowly kill myself?' It was a massive moment – I was crying and asking myself, 'Do I seriously hate myself and my body this much?'"

While Paula has never been a stick figure, admitting she's been overweight for much of her adult life, it took until that very moment for her to realise she had to make a big change. It was time to own the fact that she was simply too big.

"I had arthritis in my knees and feet, and I realised that I was looking at spending the last 20 years of my life in a wheelchair.

"I'm big on self-responsibility. I can't get away from the fact that I was eating the wrong foods, too much of them, far too often.

"I was so busy with work, I'd worry about getting hungry and not being at the top of my game. I don't blame the job. It was me making those choices. But I can certainly see how I started spiralling."

With former Prime Minister Bill English at their swearing-in ceremony in 2016.

Then almost a size 22, Paula booked in an appointment with a surgeon in between campaigning and working. A month after the election results were announced – or, as Paula prefers to call it, "when we were not the chosen ones" – she underwent the surgery. She opted to have both the majority of her stomach removed and a band fitted, to maximise results.

"I'm an all-or-nothing kind of woman," she chuckles. "I wasn't nervous about the operation at all – I was more worried about how I'd cope afterwards.

"My surgeon said to me, 'I can cut the hunger out of your body, but I can't cut it out of your head.' He said that unless I was prepared to work on the psychology of it and my relationship with food, then this was not going to be successful. So it's been a massive lifestyle change."

In the weeks immediately following the surgery, Paula would be full from just a quarter of a cup of food. Now up to three-quarters of a cup, she will eventually be able to stomach one and half cups per serving.

"I don't have cravings for fatty food at all now," she nods. "I can smell something and know whether it will make me sick. But it was amazing – the hunger was just gone. You don't want food."

And yes, she can still drink – but these days, one glass of wine is more like three.

"I'm a cheap date and I get tiddly very fast," she laughs. "I was on a flight from Wellington to Auckland the other day and I had one glass of wine. Let me tell you, I was the life of the party! I was gabbing to the whole row, but because everything goes through your system so quickly, after 20 minutes, I almost had a wee hangover. But then, 10 minutes after that, you're good to go again!"

Paula was back at work one week after the surgery. It's supposed to be two weeks off, but she says she was impatient to get back to the job and decided to keep the fact she'd been under the knife to herself for a while.

"I knew I'd go public with it eventually, but I really wanted a few months so I could get my own head around it. But in mid-January this year, it felt right to share. I'm a public figure and women talk to me every day, so I couldn't imagine not telling the truth. And the gossip behind my back would have been there. I have nothing to be ashamed of."

Paula was met with mostly positive feedback, from her colleagues as well as from MPs across the political divide. "Everyone was so supportive," she smiles. "At one stage, I offered to [Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern that we should swap clothes as her tummy grew!

"Although there was a moment a few weeks ago where [National leader] Simon Bridges was talking to me, and I interrupted him to say, 'Okay, I'm running to throw up and I'm not going to make it to the bathroom, so it's in the sink! Lamb shanks are on the 'no' list now!"

Since then, Paula jokes that she's become New Zealand's leading authority on gastric bypass surgeries, with hundreds of people writing, emailing, calling and coming up to her in the street with their own stories. And, of course, her family and friends, including husband Alan, have been "incredible".

"He was worried at the beginning, but he's been so supportive," she tells with a smile. "He actually said to me the other day, 'I couldn't do it.'"

The healthier and happier politician on her return to Parliament after bariatric surgery over the summer break.

While her weight loss so far has been astounding, Paula says there are a few more kilos to go.

"Look, it's no magic fix," she says bluntly. "You have to work at it every single day. I had to go back to the dietician last week to fine-tune a few things. A lot of it is trial and error."

She's also found exercise to be important and reckons the best piece of advice she got after the surgery was to start moving her body as soon as she could. She now has a personal trainer, who is helping her to "reclaim" her body.

Another problem the self-confessed fashionista has found is that nothing in her wardrobe fits any more, but because she's still got weight to lose, she doesn't want to rush out and buy new clothes.

"You know, even my shoes don't fit!" she grumbles. "And I have some nice shoes! They're half a size too big."

A new wardrobe is on the cards soon to complement her new grey hair, with Paula wanting to base her new look after the singer Pink.

"I just love her, " she gushes. "Do you know, I actually think I thought more about going grey than I did about the operation!

"All the advice I got was not to do it! Then I had a lightbulb moment – if I don't like it, I can dye it again! And now I love it."

Last year, Paula would have bought a size 22 jacket – this year, she's wearing a size 14 hot-pink number and a huge smile!

So after losing all the weight, does she feel more confident, more attractive, perhaps?

"I know everyone would like me to say yes, but I'm still getting my head around it," she says thoughtfully.

"There are times where I honestly don't feel like I've lost the weight. I'm still not used to the way I look now.

"When I was bigger, I didn't see the fat. I honestly thought I was slimmer than I was, but now I'm smaller, I still think I'm that big!"

With her 50th birthday coming up next year, Paula intends to be her best self to welcome her half-century. While she doesn't have a specific weight in mind – "It's not really about numbers, I don't even hop on the scales these days"– she plans to celebrate in style.

"I want to be fabulous at 50," Paula grins. "I've had that at the back of my mind for a while now. That's what I really want.

"Fifty and fab – bring it on!"