Huffington Post recently published Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong. The lengthy and thought-provoking article reveals how the medical community, along with everyone else (obese people included) wrongly places the blame for the obesity epidemic on personal shortcomings and lack of discipline. The distilled version would read, “doctors should stop blaming fat people for being fat and blame ultra processed food instead.” And it would also maybe be a good idea for people to stop being so mean to fat people in general.
It’s a sobering read about medical treatments denied, misdiagnoses, and higher rates of, gulp, death. No one will hire you. And, btw, you will be socially isolated as no one wants to ride the bus with you, you can’t find a good seat in restaurants, you better be mindful of what and how much you eat in public anyway, and good luck getting anyone (who is not going to treat you like garbage) to have sex with you. It paints a pretty dismal picture of being plus sized. On the one hand, I am glad to hear someone finally say what I could have told everyone years ago – diets don’t work. On the other hand, it makes it sound like the obese existence is barely worth having.
I’m happy to report I am a fan of my existence and like to think it is most certainly worth having. It strikes me that the article is a touch melodramatic. Maybe the hyperbole is meant to get readers to PAY ATTENTION since one of its main arguments is that there is no advocacy for the obese. Or maybe it is just to solicit more readers. In any case, I think the truth is more nuanced. Or maybe its not, maybe it is worse than I think. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself and far be it from me to challenge the experiences of anyone else. A better title for this post might be “What It’s Like For Me To Be Obese.”
I do have my challenges. Flying offers a fair amount of anxiety around whether the seat belt will be big enough. I have not yet had to get an extender, but I do think carefully about what I wear onto the plane and take a deep breath before inserting the flat metal end into the buckle. My experience varies by airline and by airplane. Alaska Airlines could use another inch on their seat belts and Delta has my appreciation for having slightly longer ones. On one occasion, I did require a deep inhale and Brian’s help to get fully ‘clicked in.’ That being said, I still love flying and haven’t let that stop me from traveling for both work and pleasure.
Visits to the doctor require that we have ‘the talk’ about my weight. I don’t love this conversation. However, I have discovered if I raise the subject proactively the discussion goes better. Maybe it removes the question of whether I understand the impact my weight has on my health situation. But I also think it allows me to provide context including my level of activity and the healthy diet choices I make. And, let’s be fair, as much as I hate the overlay that *all* health issues can be traced back to weight, there are a fair number of health issues that *are* related to weight. I have chronic GERD, aka heartburn, and it would most certainly go away if only I would lose 50 pounds (or, heck, even just 30 pounds). If only. I do not want doctors to be afraid to raise the subject of my weight when it affects my health. I think it is important to have these conversations, as uncomfortable as they may be. What I also want is for these same doctors not to judge me as weak-willed or apathetic. If only losing 30 pounds would cure me, I would love a doctor to turn that question on its head and ask themselves why I can’t seem to do that and not assume it is because I am lazy or undisciplined.
Whatever people think of my size, I don’t get a lot of commentary on it, although I was called huge that one time…
And it’s not like I don’t try to lose weight or eat healthier. I gave up soft drinks years ago. I stopped putting sweetener in my tea, and then I gave up caffeine altogether. I limit anything fried, including (alas) bacon. I do enjoy a good Manhattan, but my one Thursday night cocktail is often the only alcohol I consume in the week. My diet is far from perfect and filled with plenty of those ultra processed foods, but I am always amazed by the stories of folks who eat a whole pizza or an entire friedchicken. No judgments, but I have never had those kind of extreme eating habits. I am a faithful member of Weight Watchers. Per the Huff Po article, I appreciate that WW is a corporation out to make money by promising weight loss. They also advocate for healthy eating habits and are one of the few places where those who are overweight do find community. I may not be losing weight, but I am accountable and aware of my weight, and it’s cheaper than actual therapy.
I am an extrovert. I love people. I love talking with anyone, anywhere, and learning their stories. I love telling a story or two myself (often the same story repeatedly when I’ve had more than just one of those Manhattans). I have a small group of close friends and am lucky to have a husband who thinks I am beautiful inside and out. I’m not going to go into any more detail than that about our physical relationship, but I can share that he has told me on more than one occasion the only thing he finds unattractive is when I beat myself up. I am gainfully employed and have successfully navigated the job search process on several occasions. If I have lost opportunities because of my size, it hasn’t stood in the way of me ultimately getting job offers.
I am all of those things and I am obese. Do I think about losing weight? Yes. A lot. More often than I would like to admit. I work hard to put into perspective that this is a struggle I have, just like anyone else (we’re all a work in progress). This particular struggle happens to show on the outside. I have learned that being honest with myself, without being cruel, has given me some agency in my fate. This ‘truth with love’ inspired me to start being in photographs so I would have a record of my life. Turns out smiling improves almost all photographic efforts and I focus on the where, when, and with whom over the how-much-did-I-weigh. I’m not asking anyone to pretend I’m not overweight; I don’t. My hope is that none of us, me included, are judged solely on our size.
It’s a good time to be plus size. At least the interwebs says it is. I have seen a plethora of stories about us larger ladies and all the amazing things we are doing these days like running marathons, modeling swimsuits, getting married, even making it to the cover of magazines. There is a big part of me (no pun intended) that thinks, “Finally!” Finally, people are noticing that the heavy-set does all kinds of things you normal-set people do. Heck, we might even (gasp) be normal people.
But I have to confess I feel somewhat conflicted about the isn’t-it-great-to-be-fat movement online. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, so I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in the skin of the women featured in the posts I referenced. Here’s the thing, I don’t want to be judged or ridiculed because of my body size. I don’t want my weight to be a measure of my intellect. And I think brides should feel beautiful, and sexy, and loved on their wedding day. If you want to wear a bikini in size 22, more power to you. And, as a runner myself, if you want to run ultra marathons at 250 pounds, I will be the first person to cheer you on. I want to be treated like a person.
However, I want to be treated like a whole person, and my weight is a piece of the puzzle that makes up who I am. I am an active person and generally in good health, but I could weigh less and be healthier. Losing weight would lower my risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer – or at least get rid of my chronic acid reflux… I don’t have a glandular problem, I don’t have some past trauma hanging over me. I simply eat too much. Some people smoke, or drink, or gamble. My personal challenge just happens to show on the outside more than other people’s problems.
I used to be very judgmental of people who smoked until I worked on a team filled with smokers. I watched them repeatedly try to quit. They would quit for their birthdays, make New Year’s resolutions to quit, quit on the Great American Smokeout day. They would make pacts to quit together. I saw smokers try Chantix or get nicotine patches, or gum, or e-cigarettes. I honestly never saw a group of folks try harder at anything over and over again. The experience was eye opening. Before, I thought they just didn’t want to stop that much, but I came to appreciate that the addiction of smoking is powerful and I was grateful I never happened to take it up in the first place.
That’s how it is with me and my weight. I have done any number of things to end my unhealthy eating habits. I buy fruits and vegetables (that I don’t finish and go bad in my fridge). I find new and interesting recipes. I train for half marathons. News Flash: you can train to run 13.1 or 26.2 miles and gain weight doing it. I make pacts with myself to cut out sugar, or alcohol, or processed food. I am a member of Weight Watchers and think I may have a record going for most years on the program without losing any weight. Sometimes I lose a few pounds. Generally, those pounds come back and bring a few friends along for the party. Maybe I don’t want it enough to make a lasting change, but please be rest assured I *try to lose weight* over and over again.
What do I want for my efforts? I sure don’t want to be tolerated. Tolerate means to “allow the existence.” I already exist and I don’t need anyone’s permission to keep on existing. Should I be celebrated? I love being the center of attention and who doesn’t love a good celebration. However, I don’t want to be celebrated for my plus-sizeness. Celebrate me for being smart, or a good friend, or maybe even (I hope) a good writer. That leaves acceptance. Accept me as a flawed human on this earth, just like all the other flawed humans – even the skinny ones.
Acceptance is not love. You love a person because he or she has lovable traits, but you accept everybody just because they’re alive and human. ~Albert Ellis
I was on my way to my weekly Weight Watchers meeting leaving three women behind me on the elevator. As the doors closed, I very distinctly and clearly heard one of them say *cough*huge*cough*. This was not one of those situations where maybe someone said something that was misconstrued. There was no mistaking that the comment was referring to me.
At first, I was kind of confused. Huge? Am I huge? I know that I am overweight. (I was on my way to a Weight Watchers meeting after all…) In fact, I know specifically exactly how overweight I am and how much weight I need to lose. It’s not a pretty number, but I have to say I never think of myself as “huge.” The term is relative so I suppose it’s all a matter of opinion. I also asked myself if me and my size had done something to encourage the remark. The elevator was not full, I had gotten on first and wasn’t blocking the door. It’s not like the ride was slowed down on account of my huge-ness. I certainly wasn’t doing anything undignified that we huge people ought not to be (like the often awkward looking 40-plus-year old carrying too much stuff desperate run-shuffling to catch the bus I do every other day – I might actually make fun of myself if I saw me doing that). I guess I was wearing a bright pink Lands End jacket that would probably make Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries cringe, but was that actually a reason to be snarky? Maybe I didn’t get the memo that we huge people aren’t supposed to wear pink in public.
From there, I couldn’t help thinking that those women were just plain mean. Working women mean girls. In my fantasy re-enactment of the event, I turn around just in time to stop the elevator door with my hand and defiantly say something witty and cutting like, “Did you just call me huge? At least I can actually do something about my weight. You’re going to be bitches forever…” and definitely swirl away in my fabulous berry-pink-jacket-ness and leave them shocked with the doors closing on their dropped jaws. In reality, I doubt they even realized I heard them and I was left to simply wonder what would make someone say something so mean.
I also told myself I shouldn’t care or be bothered by the comment. I was literally on my way to a meeting where I would be accepted for who I am as a person and at the same time encouraged to take steps to improve myself and my weight. It’s not like calling me weight-related names in any way motivates me to get un-huge. In fact, generally the opposite is true. If they had caught me on a day when I was already full up on my own negative self-talk, the remark might have made me cry, or added to the mountain of helplessness and self-loathing I sometimes succumb to regarding my weight. Fortunately, I was in a good mental space that day and had even shown a loss on the scale (ha-ha, mean girls, I’m 2 lbs less huge than you thought I was), so I quickly moved on with my day and my life.
But it did get me thinking. I don’t know if we truly realize the power that small words and gestures can have on other people. I’m sure those women have no idea that days later I am still turning what they said over in my mind and that it affected me enough to take it to the blogosphere. I also reminded myself that I have had some pretty positive experiences with random strangers, too.That same day when I was making my evening run/lurch/shlep towards the bus, a couple of guys got the bus driver’s attention and had him hold the bus for me. A few weeks ago someone in my office building who has seen me out training for my half marathon told me that seeing me run had inspired her to get active too.
I guess the trick is to tip the balance in favor of the positive. Because, if I’m honest, it’s not as if I’ve never been some variation of a mean girl myself. We all say inappropriate things at one time or another. Sometimes we do it to be funny, or to fit in, or we simply did not think through the implications of our words. Instead of imagining some fantastical revenge plot against those nameless women, or getting up on a moralistic high horse and pretending I’m better than them because I happened to be on the receiving end of their comment this time around, I am going to suggest a different response. Next time I hear (or make…) an inappropriate remark, I am going to find a way to put a little positive energy out in the universe in it’s place and I invite you to join me. Compliment the next person you see who’s wearing fabulous shoes. Hold the door open for a stranger. Be an inspiration to others by your actions.
I am ardent admirer of my friend Siri’s blog, Minus 40 by 40. She has set a goal to lose 40 pounds by the time she turns 40. And she’s holding herself accountable by publicly sharing the journey and tracking her weight loss. She hasn’t been perfect, but she’s following a sensible plan (Weight Watchers) and she set a goal for herself that is challenging yet realistic and that will put her at a healthy weight. She’s doing all those things that contribute to success, and she’s lost 9.8 pounds so far. I am both impressed and honestly a little jealous.
I’d like to say this post was a similar announcement that I set some BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for myself and we could all watch me transform my life, but sorry to say that is not what’s happening here. I am known for being determined and driven and in former days I even lost 50 pounds following Weight Watchers. However, I am also equally adept at denying and outright ignoring what is right in front of me, and I can rationalize with the best of them. I have set goals for myself and found untold ways to excuse myself from actually fulfilling them. I know about myself that I have to be really REALLY bought in for the big goals to work, and it is easy for me to be depressed and discouraged by setting a goal that is out of reach and therefore giving it up altogether. I need something that is both motivating and real for me where I am in my life right now.
In my daily perusing of the blogosphere on my iPad (hat tip to Steve Jobs, iRIP), I stumbled across something pointing people to register as bone marrow donors. I clicked through and started looking at the medical requirements. I half-hoped that I would be disqualified and guess what, I do not meet the weight criteria to register. I’m officially too fat to be a bone marrow donor. Ouch. I’m not over by much, just about 6 pounds. I sat there and stared at the screen. I will be brutally honest and say I am not totally sure I wanted to sign up for to be a donor, but it’s so much different when you are choosing (or rationalizing why you should or shouldn’t) and having that choice taken away from you. Because of how I have let myself go, this path is closed off to me. I don’t like that feeling – it frankly pisses me off and makes me mad at myself. But I stopped short of hari-kiri and decided that it seems very do-able that I could lose 6 pounds and keep it off in order to qualify. So, here in black and white, is my little goal: I will register as a bone marrow donor before the end of the year. It fits in with my desire to do BETTER (instead of try to be perfect), and maybe I’ll even help someone else along the way (and for a cause I am passionate about – ending Leukemia and Lymphoma), but without requiring that I dive head first into something I know in my heart I’m not ready for yet. It’s the opposite of a BHAG. I’m calling it a SAG, a small-ass goal. (And yes, I appreciate the double-meaning…)
How will I do it? The classic way – consume less calories than I burn. Which means more mindful eating, healthier eating, and moving more. No drastic dietary or lifestyle changes, but I can walk home from work one more day a week, and drop the desserts one more day a week, or eat one more serving of vegetables a week. I stepped on the scale last Monday (yep, faced that number, and yep, it sucked) and will do a weekly weigh-in, no more, no less, to see how I do. Once I have dropped 6 pounds and kept it off for 3 weeks, I will register and share the news online.
Why such a small goal? Because sometimes growing up, being a “big girl,” means being honest with yourself about your own limitations. It’s a small goal and it fits my current limitations, but is also one that sets me up to succeed, which I hope will lead me to seek other wins and down a healthier path. I think it was best said in that 80’s classic, Better Off Dead, “I think all you need is a small taste of success, and you will find it suits you.”
For me, truthfully, the answer is often no, I don’t really realize it much of the time. I am generally happy and healthy, I am an active person who does the things that are important to me (like a marathon in 2010). I have a husband who thinks I am beautiful and sexy regardless of my size. I have a good community of friends. I have a job that I enjoy and where I am professionally well-respected. My “numbers” are good – as in I don’t have high blood pressure, or high blood sugar, my cholesterol is perhaps a little high but I don’t take any medications for anything. Generally speaking, I can function pretty well in a bubble of oblivion about my weight. Most of the time.
But there are reminders that burst that bubble. After I went north of the 200lb mark, I pretty much quit standing on the scale, so there is one rather scary number I already know is not good, but I still don’t want to face. Anytime I have to buy clothes, I am painfully aware of my current weight. Any remaining delusion about my size or the size of the clothes was lost now that I can only fit into Women’s sizes. I saw a cute marathon jacket at the pre-race Expo in June, but their largest size was still too small. I didn’t like buying jeans or pants back when I wore a size 12, and now that those digits are reversed the experience is mostly an exercise in self-humiliation. Photographs are another touchy subject and when I look at them I am often shocked by what I see and wonder if that is really what I look like “in real life.”
And while my numbers are technically good, there have been impacts on my health. I have a chronic hip joint injury from that infamous marathon I did and while my weight may or may not have contributed to the injury, I know that my recovery would have been greatly improved by losing weight. I also have occasional issues with indigestion that didn’t exist when I was thinner that I am quite confident are weight-related.
I am constantly thinking that I am going to start a new diet, go back to Weight Watchers, start journaling, start this or start that. Just this week, I was looking for some paper to jot down a note for work and I found a page in the back of my notebook that I had written almost exactly a year ago. On it, in writing, were the same goals I told myself this weekend that I was going to commit myself to – being more active, eating smaller portions, eating more vegetables, and eating less sweets and junk food. And I even had some specific milestones to hold myself accountable. Why didn’t I follow through? I don’t really know. I could point to any number of changes in my life that may have triggered the initial downfall, but the slide seems to now have a life of its own. I was particularly moved by the sentiments expressed by Kara Curtis in One Woman’s Struggle to Shed Weight, and Shame:
“It’s a very schizophrenic relationship we have with obesity,” Curtis says. “I understand it as addiction, but then there’s also this other piece of me that knows that there is a lack of willingness on my part. So really, who’s to blame for that?”
I have been successful in losing weight in the past and so I know I have the tools to repeat that success again in the future. I am not sure what will turn the tide for me from contemplation into action, and perhaps this post will be a small step in the right direction. Or at least it’s a reminder that I still care enough – to care about trying.