It’s Not Okay to Be Fat

December 23, 2007

Am I a glutton for punishment?  (or maybe just a glutton).  No, I’m not talking about Holidailies.  What I’m referring to is a topic so highly polemical that I am probably setting myself up for all manner of excoriation by discussing it.  But this issue has been weighing on my mind, and the rest of me.  May as well just spit it out: I may BE fat, but I really don’t think it’s okay to be fat.  Let me explain.

I am an avid reader of Kate Harding’s blog about fat acceptance.  I love the quality of the writing and its bang-on tone, with just the right mix of snark and smart.  I almost always laugh when I read it,  and I definitely always come away with something interesting to think about. I may not consistently agree with what’s being propounded over there, but that’s perfectly okay with me.  I believe we can all agree to disagree. . . and isn’t that what acceptance of any kind is all about?

I am also fully aware there’s a powerful movement toward fat acceptance out there. And on so many counts, I am right behind it.  I come from a long line of women–mother, aunt, older and younger sisters, cousins (and let’s not forget me!)–who have all struggled with a lifetime of overweight and have all been technically obese at one time or another.  Did their girth make me love any of them less?  Respect them less? Value them less?  No, of course not. 

Do I concur that society foists an unrealistic and virtually impossible standard upon young women today, primarily through the media but trickling down through essentially every other aspect of our lives?  Why, yes; yes I do. And we’ve become so accustomed to these edited, nipped and tucked, revamped versions of women’s faces and bodies, as well as the unrealistic expectations from (mostly) men, that we begin to forget that the perfection we seek is not really “normal.”  I believe we’re wrong to judge someone because of her looks, or tease her, or reject her, or fire her, or not hire her in the first place, or insult her, or devalue her, simply because of excess avoirdupois.  At the same time, does that make it okay to be fat? Sorry, I don’t think so.

To paraphrase Cher (or Sophie Tucker, depending on how far back you want to go): I’ve been slim, and I’ve been fat.  Slim is better.

Now, I do not mean this in a subjective, what-I’ve-been-brainwashed-by-the-media-to-believe sense.  I mean this in an entirely objective, what is actually better for my body, sense.  (Which, by the way, still may not coincide with what my mind finds preferable).

I’ll put it this way:  when I was slim, yes, I thought I looked better, and well, yes, men objectified me more.  I enjoyed being able to wear mini skirts and fishnet stockings without irony. But that’s not why it was better.  It was better because my body moved more easily and fluidly, my aches and pains went away, I could climb stairs without panting, I didn’t have heart burn as a constant companion, my back didn’t go “out” on me every fortnight, I woke up feeling light and capable most mornings, and, in addition, I liked the way I looked.  But even if I’d been unable to look in a mirror that entire time, I actually felt better.

I am well aware that it’s possible to be overweight and still be healthy (as I mentioned, I do read Kate’s blog).  But I have to tell you, most of the overweight women I know, unlike Harding herself, do not eat nutritionally sound foods, exercise regularly or do yoga backflips. When I gain an unsightly amount of weight, it’s not because I’ve acquired too much muscle from my workouts or ate too many brussels sprouts. No; when I’m overweight, I am keenly aware of my excess heaviness, in my legs, my stomach, my back; in the way I lumber across the parking lot in winter, the way I have to maneurver out of a cozy chair, the way my thighs rub uncomfortably together in summer; in how my waist oozes out over the tops of my pants (and woe betide, sometimes even my elastic waist pants); and by way of so many other lovely indices. It’s just not a fun way to live. 

But what’s worse, for many of us, fat can bring with it devastatingly bad health consequences.

Oh, my.  I can almost feel the portentous clouds as they gather, the skies about to slice open with a jagged bolt as it makes a beeline for my very heart.  But let me reiterate:  I am NOT suggesting that fat people in any way are deserving of the derision to which they are so often subjected, that overweight people are not “okay” as human beings, or that they ever deserve to be the target of constant ridicule (as I was, mercilessly, when I was a teenager).  No; that’s not what I’m talking about at all.  But I think we need to clarify just exactly what it is we’re accepting when we recommend fat “acceptance.”

Years ago, my therapist tried repeatedly to get me to “accept” that I was fat.  And I just didn’t get it; I could never bring myself to say it was okay.  “But I don’t WANT to be fat, so how can I accept it?” I’d whine, then go home and eat a pound of chocolate brownies. 

These days, I finally recognize that I misinterpreted what she meant by “accept.”  Accepting one’s excess bulk doesn’t necessitate also enjoying it, or embracing it as good, or liking it.  In other words, I can accept the FACT that I am fat, choose not to berate myself about it, yet simultaneously wish that I were slimmer, and even make a concsious effort to achieve that goal. 

After many years of struggling with my weight, these days I acknowledge the current reality that I am overweight; it’s who I am (right now), and I don’t want to put my entire life on hold until I do, or do not, lose the pounds.  I’ve lived that fantasy in the past:  just lose 20 pounds, and I’ll get a boyfriend; lose the weight, and I’ll have a book published; drop a couple dozen kilos and I’ll travel; and so on, and so on.  In the past, when I finally did lose a whack of weight in my early 20’s, I was bitterly disappointed to find that life did not suddenly become perfect, and even when I DID find a boyfriend, I still had the same emotional problems I’d always had before meeting him, despite my svelte body.

Like anything else, if you wait to achieve an imagined goal before beginning to really live your life, you’ll be putting life on hold for something that might never happen.  Not a good strategy, especially if you aren’t convinced that there is something else after this life. So I believe in doing what I can, now, to the fullest extent possible.

However, if you are carrying extra poundage and kidding yourself that it’s okay, that’s another story entirely.  I can’t help but think of my mother, for instance, and her older sister, both obese, and both Type II diabetics.  My mother never accepted her weight, and struggled her entire adult life against it.  She was filled with self-loathing, was an emotional eater, and continued to regularly eat foods that didn’t have her body’s best interests at heart.  My aunt, on the other hand, also ate unhealthy foods, but never suffered psychologically as my mom did, as she had an equally hefty dose of self confidence and self esteem to carry her through life.  Did my aunt live a happier life without all that angst?  Yes, she certainly did.  Did she even live several years longer than my mother?  Yes, again.  Did they both ultimately die of complications of a chronic, degenerative disease that caused a protracted, achingly slow and gut-wrenchingly sad demise in the intensive care unit as their devastated families looked on, helpless?  You betcha.  And quite simply, that’s not okay.

My dad, on the other hand, has never been overweight, exercises regularly, and at 87 is in great shape.  He has always walked for about an hour a day, engaged in fairly strong physical exercise, and, long before it was fashionable, ate a low-fat, whole foods diet. He is one of the only men in his “Golden Agers” club who can still trip the light fantastic with his (second) wife, and he maintains an incredibly positive outlook on life.  And here’s another irony: even with my excess pounds, my last visit to the doctor’s office for an annual physical proved the theory that fat doesn’t equal “unhealthy.” My cholesterol levels, triglicerides, blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar levels, and all the other test results were stellar (thank God).  I am relieved to know that I’m not killing myself the way my mother did, at least not now. But still, at this weight and size, I just don’t feel my best.

I realize this is an age old debate.  And really, if you honestly feel okay with yourself just as you are, whether that’s with a BMI of 25 or 35, slim or chubby, overweight or not, who am I to suggest otherwise? I applaud you. In fact, I’m entirely envious.  I just know that for me, looking good is bound up with feeling good.  When I feel good, it extends to both physical and emotional realms.  So aiming for a slimmer, healthier physique, even if I acknowledge it’s not the one I’ve got right now–well, that’s something I can accept. 

I’m Not Pregnant, Just Fat

November 27, 2007

For a long time when I was younger, my weight would fluctuate fairly regularly, sometimes quite a lot in a relatively short time. My basic pattern seemed to be this:  I’d feel some kind of impetus to stay on a diet, get charged up to lose weight, and would begin eating to accomplish that goal (ah, such fond memories of An Entire Box of Weight Watchers Chocolate Mousse For Dinner; or One Compressed Cube of Dried Ramen Noodles for dinner; or Three Boiled Artichokes for Dinner; or A Raisin-Bran Muffin and Peanut Butter For Dinner).  Eventually, after semi-starving myself for several months, taking up weights and power walks, I’d manage to get into shape and lose anywhere between 20 and 35 pounds.  I’d revert to a size I could be happy with (usually a 10), and regain some sort of confidence and the sense that I could actually be attractive to the opposite sex.

This shift in mental state would, inevitably, precipitate a change in the energy I projected, and–bingo!–like magic, I’d seem to meet men.  I’d find another boyfriend, get serious, start dating, and after four to eight months, gain back all my weight.  Believe it or not, it wasn’t the stereotypical reason (ie, being so comfortable that now I felt I could eat whatever I wanted) that caused me to gain; it was sheer stress from being in a relationship (I’m still trying to work on that one with my H.H.).

In any case, as a college teacher at the time, I was forced to get dressed every day and head onto campus to teach.  My increased weight and blooming midsection were on display for all to see. 

Now, I wonder, how many overweight, 30-something women in the prime of their childbearing years haven’t had this experience:

[passing you in the hallway] “Hi, Miss.  Wow, congratulations!”

[Blank stare.  Congratulations?  Did they just announce a promotion and I missed it?  Did I win the lottery and not realize it?]. “Congratulations?  On what?”

[Blank stare, followed by uncomfortable silence]. “Uh, congratulations on your, you know, upcoming addition.”

[Truly stumped]. “Addition? To what?”

[Longer silence. Visibly uncomfortable now]. “To your, your family.  You know, um, er, uh. . . because you’re expecting.”

[Blood draining from face.  Light-headed silence.  Following the thread to its inevitable conclusion]. “Expecting?  Expecting what?”

[Desperately glancing around for a loose floorboard, garbage chute, natural disaster, abducting alien, or any other exit strategy] “Um, a baby? I mean, aren’t you–?”. . . . .

It makes sense, really.  When students see a 30-something woman gaining weight at such an accelerated pace, and especially when said 30-something tends to carry most of her weight in her abdomen (I’m a pear-shaped person, and it all settles on that expanse between waist–such as it is–and upper thigh, though at least that means I’m less prone to sudden heart attacks), well, when they see that kind of weight gain, they most naturally assume that the 30-something is pregnant.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “Oh, when are you due?”  To which I’d reply, in a voice shrinking with humiliation, “I’m not pregnant.”  After the 27th incident or thereabouts, I’d gotten over being mortified, and it basically just started to piss me off. 

Now, seriously, what kind of person asks someone else if she’s pregnant without already knowing the answer? I would never dare to pose such a question unless the last words the woman had uttered were something like, “Oh, by the way, I’m pregnant, I mean with child; you know, expecting a baby, in the family way, with a bun in the oven, and and I’m going to be giving birth to a human infant in a week or so.” 

After years of awkward conversations concerning my faux fecundity, I decided I had to combat this pattern somehow.  So I came up with a battle plan:

  • The next time someone asked if I was pregnant, I would smile sweetly and respond, “Why?  Do I look pregnant?”
  • If someone asked me when I was due, I planned to say, “In —-,” and name the previous month. In other words, if the inquiry came in January, I’d say I was due in December.  Let the questioner do the math and figure out I couldn’t possibly be pregnant yet. Either that, or I was the next miracle to be profiled on Unsolved Mysteries.
  • If anyone asked whether I was pregnant, I’d answer, “No, I was pregnant until a couple of days ago, though.”  Hah!  Now let’s see what kind of quip s/he could come up with! 
  • My favorite:  I intended to have a custom T-shirt made, to wear whenever I gained uncomely amounts of weight in a short span, emblazoned with the words, “I’m Not Pregnant, Just Fat.” That way, I could avoid the whole uncomfortable exchange entirely. 

This embarrassing question hasn’t been directed at me in recent years, thankfully, mostly because I’m now too old for people to think I’m pregnant any more.  Or maybe my weight has redistributed, and now I’m just fat all over instead of only in my belly.  Either way, I am grateful I haven’t had to deal with it.  Of course, just because I’m not asked that question any more doesn’t solve the real problem of my freqently erratic weight gain–but that’s another issue entirely.