‘It’s scandalous that lads don’t feel comfortable in those jerseys’ – body image in GAA

“LOOK, YOU’LL BE on this panel but you need to lose two stone.”

That sentence is one that will never be forgotten.

Johnny McMahon, AKA Johnny Smacks of The 2 Johnnies.

Source: Piaras Ó Mídheach/SPORTSFILE

Johnny McMahon — better known now as Johnny Smacks from comedy duo The 2 Johnnies — was just 17 at the time, attending his first development squad session for the Tipperary minor footballers, having hurled underage.

“It wasn’t judged on fitness or skill or anything like that,” he picks up the story, 13 years later, in conversation with The42 after first discussing it on The 2 Johnnies Podcast.

“There’s people who have been big and have been fit, you know what I mean? Look, I was unfit, I’m not going to hide that but I just thought it was a strange thing to say at a first trial.

I wasn’t particularly given the tools to go and lose the two stone. It was just, ‘Lose two stone, don’t really care how you do it, just lose two stone.’”

As a teenager finding his way in the world and dealing with all sorts of hormones and changes, this throwaway comment from a member of management came as a hammer blow.

But he rolled with the punches. Although in an unhealthy way, as he became obsessed with it and shed over two stone across three winter months.

“I did lose weight obviously because the training was good and stuff like that. But I done mad things to try and lose it.

I stopped eating lunches in school, I starved myself and then I’d train like a dog, run with black bags on… if there’s a fad out there to lose weight, I’ve tried it.”

Are we self conscious about appearance?

That was one of the many questions asked on the podcast in October, in which McMahon opened up about his “constant battle” with weight, food and body image in general. 

The Tipperary native spoke candidly about his journey through the years in school, sport and life as a whole, and how being in the public eye and under the spotlight has worsened things of late. 

The 2 Johnnies Christmas Spectacular was on RTÉ 2 on Christmas Eve.

Source: The 2 Johnnies Instagram.

After he received a comment on the field, himself and his partner in crime, Johnny O’Brien or Johnny B, handled the topic brilliantly.

And McMahon does so again a few weeks on as he sits beside the Christmas tree on a Zoom call, his words flowing freely with minimal questions asked.

“It’s something that’s very prevalent with women,” he points out. “You hear women talking a lot about body image and stuff like that. Fellas don’t normally talk about it but I think it’s important for fellas to talk about it.

When I spoke about it on the podcast, we got thousands messages from people; men, women, the whole lot — but men especially saying, ‘Jesus, that’s me to a tee. That’s me bang on.’ A lot of men are paranoid.

“Look, you can’t chastise people for saying, ‘Oh, you wintered well’ or, ‘You’re after putting on a few pounds, Jesus you’re enjoying yourself.’ To them it’s nothing but to the person that they’re saying it to, it could be everything. Everybody has their hang-ups, regardless of what it is, whether it’s your body or your mind.”

Body image is an issue he’s noticed more and more in his beloved sport over the past few years. “It’s something that has crept into the GAA,” he nods. “You see it now.”

As a club player himself with Roscrea, McMahon has experienced it first hand — though he takes a trip down memory lane to make a perfect comparison with the modern day first.

“If you look back on teams in the 90s or even early noughties — Diarmuid O’Sullivan and John Carroll, that was a battle of two big men.

“John Carroll is one of my favourite players of all time, would he get look in in the GAA now? To me they looked normal but nowadays, that would be considered abnormal.

Tipperary’s John Carroll and Diarmuid O’Sullivan of Cork facing off in 2004.

Source: INPHO

“It’s just strange that that’s how people are judged. I see it even down in my own club now, we’re a junior hurling club, a senior football club, and the young lads coming through just look like machines.

“If he doesn’t look like a machine, he’s almost just cast aside. People would be like, ‘Jaysis, he’s after getting a bit of gut on him after the winter,’ and he could be the best player or as fit as anyone else.

“People are just quick to judge on appearance.”

Tight-fit jerseys

Several matches jump out from through McMahon’s own playing career for all the wrong reasons. As do comments, and “abuse” — some of it warranted, he laughs. But not all of it.

His image on the pitch was paramount. He remembers starving himself in the build-up to a club senior football final. He was the captain and he was thinking about how he’d look in all the pictures if they won. Understandably, his performance was severely hampered as a result, and they lost.

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“Those tight jerseys are probably the worst thing to have ever come into the GAA,” as he said on the podcast, recalling the many struggles. He recounted them once again with The42, pin-pointing one league match in particular. 

I wrapped cling film around my arse and belly before going out playing a match to try and hide the fact that I had a bit of extra weight on in the jerseys. It’s crazy.

“Jesus Christ, I was running out for the ball and I was trying to hold off my man with one hand and I was holding down the jersey with the other. You’re not going to catch a ball at that, particularly where I play.”

He knows for a fact it’s not just him that feels this way about tight-fit jerseys. Friends and clubmates are also self-conscious wearing them, as McMahon clearly sees as he coaches the club’s minor team.

He’s even heard of players stepping away from the game because of them.

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“This fella I was talking to, he said his young lad gave it up because he didn’t like the tight-fit jerseys. That’s crazy that we would lose someone from playing the sport and playing with their friends because the jerseys are too tight.

“I was lucky when I was 13/14, we didn’t have tight-fit jerseys. They only came in when I hit 18. You can see young lads are paranoid. They’re so tight.

I’ll put it this way, we’ve got a fella playing with the club, he plays inter-county football with Tipp and the jersey is too small for him. He’s an inter-county footballer, so what hope has a fella having a pizza on a Friday night and a couple of pints?”

“Armagh, I think, could have been the first to bring them in and they wanted to make players look bigger and more muscly,” he continues. “Those first tight-fit jerseys were tight on the arms and the shoulders, now they’re just tight everywhere. It’s a nightmare. Even if you’re skinny and you’re tall, they still don’t fit you.

“Junior B teams have tight-fit jerseys. Who in the name of Christ came up with that idea? You may as well put them in high heels if you’re going to put them in tight-fit jerseys because they’re poles apart.”

But appearance and image matters too much, he concedes.

Nobody wants to go out on the field and look sloppy. Those big jerseys give a bit, you could enjoy yourself and you didn’t look that bad. Whereas now, I’ve heard lads saying, ‘Ah, he’s not fit enough.’ It’s junior, it’s Junior B, how fit do you need to be?

“It’s about enjoyment, it’s about playing. It’s scandalous that lads don’t feel comfortable in those jerseys at that level.”

GAA: the bigger picture

While our conversation is originally centred on body image in GAA, it naturally digresses into the games on a wider scale.

“The GAA has just gotten so serious, in general,” McMahon says at one point.

McMahon playing in Hurling 4 Cancer in 2017.

Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I enjoy a few pints, I enjoy a takeaway and I train no bother, but I think even at club level it’s gotten so serious. We’re going down a road that in a while I think the enjoyment will be totally gone out of it.

“I feel with some of our young lads, people are saying, ‘Ah, sure they’re no use’ because they don’t train six nights a week, or they go out the odd Saturday night and they turn up the Sunday a bit hungover. They’re young lads, they have to enjoy themselves.”

There is a line, of course, but there needs to be a little bit more leniency at times. 

He recalls conversations with Premier legend Pat Fox and the brilliant stories he told of post-match pints and dances, which are certainly now a thing of the past.

“I think we’re losing a bit of why we play it; that enjoyment level and that level of community and hanging out and team spirit. Every club team is trying to outdo one another.

“Dublin qualified for an All-Ireland final there and they walked off the field as if they were at a funeral. I don’t know. I’ve never won anything with club unfortunately all up along. I’m like, ‘You’re getting to an All-Ireland final, Jesus if we won a challenge game, I’d tare the place up!’

It is going bit by bit. We have to get it back. We have to accept that club football is club football and the same with hurling or whatever. It’s club and it’s about enjoyment. I think we’re losing a bit of sense that, people are getting so clouded by trying to win and look like an inter-county team.

“Maybe I’m wrong but I think the enjoyment level is definitely going a bit, for me anyway. I’m 30 now and lads are nearly saying to me, ‘Are you going to retire?’ At 30! I still think I’m young, others will disagree.”

Keeping the conversation going

While hanging up his boots is the furthest thing from his mind right now, continuing this incredible journey as part of The 2 Johnnies is front and centre for McMahon.

Between books, films, TV programmes, podcasts and stand-up shows, it’s all go, but Johnny Smacks and Johnny B certainly have plenty of laughs along the way. 

At the same time, it’s important to address serious issues — and they do just that. 

The body image podcast was just one example of such, done in a brilliantly casual way. It felt like you were listening to two lads having the craic, but talking serious sense at the same time.

The 2 Johnnies with TJ Reid at Hurling 4 Cancer in 2017.

Source: The 2 Johnnies Twitter.

“We’ve got a great platform, having our own podcast,” McMahon agrees. “It would be irresponsible of us to not bring up stuff that we feel strongly about whether that’s body image or…

“We had another letter in from a fella in his GAA club who wanted to come out to his team-mates. To us, if there’s 35 lads on our GAA team, odds are one of them could be gay or whatever. We felt we should talk about it.

“When we got the letter in, we didn’t want to just dance around it – and the same with body image. They’re important things to us personally so they’re definitely important to other people.

“It’s just us giving our opinion, people take that on board I think. It’s important that we talk about stuff we’re passionate about, stuff that’s important as well, in general society.”

“The podcast is great like that – and we can we can do it in a way that it’s still funny,” he concludes. “We can still be ourselves, we don’t have to go full PrimeTime on it. It’s like two lads down in the pub having a chat. Whatever gets brought up, we’ll discuss it.

“We could be discussing going to space or we could be discussing something serious; that’s the madness, and that’s the beauty of the platform of podcasts, and what we do then. We can talk about anything and people seem to enjoy it, which is the most important thing.”

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