Note to the reader: Before I start, I should say this: My effort to take better care of myself is very much a work in progress. I am not an expert on anything except maybe my own experience. Some aspects of my experience are really difficult to admit and write about, but my hope is that my honesty will be helpful. I would welcome conversation, criticism, and comments.
PART 1: “You Are Not Fat Because You Are One of Us” and Other Obstacles
Maybe all good stories are redemption stories. And maybe the narrative arc of every human life, no matter how wrecked, is full of a thousand stories of things turned right: the lost dog coming home, the reconciling of estranged lovers, the healing of the body or mind after an illness or loss. But redemption implies an ending, a resolution. Maybe, more honestly, we can say that circumstances or moments can be resolved, but people, being perpetually “in progress,” can’t. Not in this life, anyway.
I have been trying to lose weight since January 15, 2016. I have had some success, losing approximately 55 pounds since then. I am, at the moment, a hopeful person whose life and body are beginning to show signs of healing, restoration, and progress. I have no guarantee of long-term success, but I have hope for it and commitment to it, and both become more natural and less effortful the longer I am on this path. Of course, the human condition itself is decidedly terminal. As a Christian, I have a firm and joyful hope in the resurrection, a new heaven, and a new earth. But also as a Christian, I have a firm and joyful hope for possibilities in this life. But the possibilities for renewal in this life, it seems, are inevitably laced with suffering, struggle, and work.
Fat and Suffering
To choose to lose weight– to focus one’s attention and energy on changing from being a fat person to being a skinny person, or at least to being a less-fat person– is to choose one particular form of suffering in place of another. You don’t choose between suffering and not suffering. Weight loss is a bitch, and all the sunny stories of wholesale conversion to a persistently, utterly happier life just don’t line up with actual experience. It’s not how people work. But the suffering involved in weight loss (and, I will assume, maintaining weight loss, though I am not there yet) is suffering that has a potentially redemptive character in its benefits for longevity, health, and psychological well-being.
The path of suffering with obesity is perhaps obvious, or perhaps not. There are the familiar comic tropes– the broken chair, the embarrassment at the gym, all that. But a lot of us experience it as being awful in other ways, too.
It’s often been said that being fat is one of the personal flaws that’s most difficult to hide– assuming, of course, that one sees fatness as a flaw and not as a difference. One could be an alcoholic, a chronic masturbator, a compulsive liar, a racist piece of crap. All these things can be hidden. Fat? Fat is right out there.
But the amazing thing is this: Obesity is impossible to hide, but the overwhelming majority of people pretend that it doesn’t exist in the people they encounter personally. I have actually had people talking critically to me, an obviously overweight person, about obesity and other “fat people,” not acknowledging at all that I happened to be fat myself.
Maybe there is some sort of strange parallel here between the claim that one “doesn’t see race” and the way many deal with fat people. There’s an unwillingness or inability to process otherness in a way that accepts it and the challenges it creates. So, the way we usually deal with it is to just not speak of it. Who? YOU? Or, let’s say you’ve acquired the courage to call yourself fat. People will, upon hearing you say the word, immediately deny that it’s true, or will fall all over themselves to adjust to your boundary-violating speech.
“You’re not fat.”
“I am 5’9” and weigh 300 pounds.”
“Well, you don’t look fat.”
“There are mirrors in my house, bro. And everyone’s got a camera.”
And so it goes.
The Inner Game
Yogi Berra is reported to have once said, “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” I am inclined, at this point, to say something like the same thing about trying to change habits to eat well and to lose weight. The “inner game” is, I’m learning, immensely significant, and in the end it’s the inner game, the mental game, where the struggle is either won or lost. But when you turn to the “physical” side of things– what food to eat and when– Yogi’s unorthodox arithmetic makes intuitive sense. There’s a lot to deal with. It feels like a 140% effort is required.
Why is the inner game complicated? Well, ask any fat person who’s able to verbally acknowledge his or her obesity (and again, the irreality of American social engagement makes this incredibly difficult), and you’ll find a whole bunch of things:
- Fat people are treated differently than thin people. This is true for men, but it is especially true for women. As a person who’s been both fat and of average weight, I can say: You’re treated better when you’re thin. You get away with eating or drinking stuff and not being scrutinized.. You get away with being “lazy” or even with not exercising at all. People are nicer when you’re thin. It’s true.
- Ever been in a medieval castle? People were shorter back when those castles were built, and so now when an average-sized person walks through doorways and tunnels she’s constantly bent over, hoping not to smack her head. When you are fat, the whole world feels like a medieval castle, and not in a good way– you don’t imagine yourself as a king or lord or whatever. “Will I fit?” becomes a constant concern. Maybe a more accessible comparison is this: Have you, as an adult, ever tried to sit at the kids’ table or do a kids’ activity in an elementary school? You know that feeling of, “Am I too heavy for this chair? Will my legs fit under this table?” To be fat is to have that experience in all situations. You may avoid certain social places or restaurants because they have small booths. You may avoid even walking into certain clothing stores because you know that their sizes stop two or three (or eight) sizes below yours. Will the kneelers in this church accommodate my belly? How about the bench on that picnic table? How about the seats at that theater?
- Most overweight people have tried a million times, often with grand self-inflicted gestures, to lose weight. And sometimes it works for a while. I’ve lost 10 pounds a million times. Each one of these changes feels a lot like choosing to write with your non-dominant hand. You can do it for a bit, but very quickly it starts being immensely time-consuming, unnatural-feeling, and thus difficult. Under stress to get other things done (because hey, life goes on), you revert to your dominant hand– your usual way of doing things. Some of the people I’ve known who were most successful at losing weight were able to make it more or less a full time job. Few of us have that luxury.
- Being fat just physically feels lousy. The baseline experience of my body 50 pounds ago was just discomfort. My skin felt tight even while I was flabby. My digestive system was a mess. I experienced weird pains and occasional mental “fog.” I went to the hospital multiple times over the years because reflux can give the very compelling impression that you’re having a heart attack. You skip events– or want to skip events– because they’re outdoors in the heat and you know you’ll sweat through your shirt or because the seating is such that it’ll put your fat, sweaty body close to other people.
- The “gym rat” persona– which, it seems, a lot of weight loss programs set as the new, alternate persona for the poor, fat SOBs they work with– just seems like such a capitalist, hyper-narcissistic and self-serving goal. It’s also a goal that seems comically remote to my experience. Is this really the only end game? Whatever I want to become, it’s not the guy with the lycra pants and the waterproof iPhone arm band. There’s nothing wrong with that, and plenty of my friends pursue that– I just don’t want it. To the extent that I want to change in this regard, I want to slowly grow stronger and more capable. This sort of corporatized, commodified, fetishized human body seems to abnegate everything that is useful about suffering and humbling and ennobling about the awareness of mortality. The more expensive the yoga pants, the more undesirable it seems. But OK– maybe that’s just my own issue.
To make it real: Consider what a complainer you are when you’ve got a cold or when you are hungover or grieving and someone asks you to do something significant. Now, imagine that, while sick or hungover, someone says to you, “You have to utterly change everything about the way you’re doing things, enduring all sorts of hardships, and you have to take a journey that almost everyone fails and that will be uncomfortable for a long time before it starts getting more comfortable. And along the way there will be a thousand explanations that well-meaning but often ill-informed people will give for how you achieve the changes you seek, many of them utterly contradicting each other. Oh, and the hangover won’t go away for at least a month.”
There you go. That’s, as far as I can see it, where a lot of fat people start. That’s where I started.