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Friday, August 27, 2004

Living at Large

I guess it was a song that made me realize that I wasn’t truly happy with me. The title of the song says it all: "Learning To Live With Me." I hadn’t really thought about it but I wasn’t happy with myself. It may sound odd, but my main problem is that I am a member of the fastest growing group of Americans. And with all that company I still wanted to be anyone but me. That is the millennium version of the American Dream. We no longer want a family, a home and an enjoyable career. We now want our neighbor’s home, family, and job. My want was even more specific. I wanted to look like my neighbors. No, I’m not an African-American, Hispanic-American, or Asian-American or any other kind of hyphenated racial or ethnic group. I don’t have any disability. And yet, the group I belong to has increased its membership 60 percent in the 90’s (Kaledin). I am a fat-American.

Depending on which set of standards and statistics you go by, about 40-55 percent of Americans are overweight. I wonder why I feel so alone in this some times. Well, I know that I believe and worry about what others think about me. I guess I even associate my internal doubts with other people’s outward expressions. Many things led me to realize that this was no way to be. So, I’m working on changing my thinking and I’m writing this to purge all of my hate and rage. Many people have treated me like dirt simply because of my weight. I need to forgive them and I need to forgive myself.
I have always been overweight. There are a lot of factors that contributed to that. I’ve never been very interested in participating in sports and just exercising has never appealed to me. I grew up learning to love to eat. And, I know it is stereotyped to death, I eat to feel better. It is important to understand how weight is evaluated to determine health. Today it isn’t just what the scale says that is important. BMI or body-mass index is how medical professionals determine if a person’s weight is healthy or not. Basically, BMI is simply a relationship between height and weight. The math is as follows: weight in pounds multiplied by 703 then divide by height in inches squared (Women’s 34). So, my weight is about 320 pounds, my height is about 6"1’, that makes my BMI 42.21. A BMI of 19-24 is "healthy weight," a BMI of 25-27 is "moderately overweight," and a BMI over 28 is "overweight" (Women’s 34). This same article in Women’s Sports & Fitness points out the fact that athletes like Picabo Street, and Chris Bailey would be considered overweight because of their BMI.
So, I’m overweight. And unlike some athletes who are considered overweight because of their muscle mass, my appearance reveals my weight. The statistics about weight are startling even for me. In the United States 55% of the population is overweight but there is also an overweight majority in Russia, the United Kingdom, and Germany (Henderson 25). So overweight is not just an American problem. And in some countries like India and China there is a minority of well off people who are overweight; in America it works the other way, the poor in America lack the education and are more likely to eat unhealthy fast food (Henderson 26). I would describe myself as likely to eat unhealthy, convenient foods. This has been a difficult obstacle to overcome when trying to change my eating habits. These foods could also be called "comfort foods." So when I’m upset about anything (including my weight) I tend to turn to these foods to cheer me up.
Eating and its relationship to my weight is definitely an issue in my life. I have a very difficult time eating in front of people, especially people I am unfamiliar with. I’m never too sure what they are thinking. And of course the weight is an issue itself. As I said above many people haven’t been too nice about it. When I started out writing this essay I was going to list all the names I’ve been called. Now I think it would be better to tell just a few stories. The first one takes place in a doctor’s office.
Many years ago I was running and I caught my foot on an uneven spot in the pavement. This caused my ankle to turn completely over. I didn’t go to the doctor at that time but the ankle has bothered me ever since. Finally, I got fed up with the ankle and I went to a doctor who specializes in bones and joints. It took the doctor about ten trips around the bush to say that maybe my weight was an issue. This just made me upset with him. Why couldn’t a doctor be frank about what was causing me pain. Many articles I read while getting ready to write this essay emphasized that physicians were neglecting to discuss weight with their patients. My regular physician has no problem discussing it with me though. Every time I go into her office she tries to give me a prescription for weight loss drugs. This just upsets me. I don’t believe that drugs are going to make my life any better.
It is time to say something else about myself. I have never consumed alcohol, and I have never used any illegal drugs. I also don’t smoke. The only drugs I use are aspirin for the occasional headache and prescription drugs (and I won’t take prescription painkillers). I believe that taking any of these substances into the body can cause just as much bad as good. Apparently, I’m one of very few who hold this belief. In 1998 $30 billion or $667 for each of the 45 million dieters was spent on programs, health-club memberships and diet drugs (Clark 103). At times I’ve considered using one of the many herbal weight loss pills on the market.
What is there to fear? The pills are all natural and anything that is "all-natural" is good for you. I’m glad that I went with my instincts and shied away from these herbal pills as well. Psychosis and heart attack are the possible side effects of ephedra, one of the most common herbal diet pills (Duffy 128). No magic pill is going to come along and rescue me.
So, I’m always looking for people with an inspirational message. But not everyone with a compelling story has inspired me. In fact there has been one man who turned me off to weight loss. Of course I’m talking about the Antichrist of Weight Loss, Richard Simmons. I always said that if loosing weight made me like Richard Simmons that I would rather stay overweight (or put on more) and die young. Let’s say right from the outset that he is annoying. If you don’t think he is annoying, you are probably annoying. But my real problem with him is that he pioneered the whole idea that you need to pay someone to tell you how to feel good about yourself.
Simmons has been the worst kind of manipulator because he has toyed with people’s hopes to make money. The money he has made with all of his gimmick approaches to weight loss makes me detest the man. He also had a saying that really got me mad. "There is a thin person inside of every fat person just crying/dying to get out." Hello schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder. So he is not only a weight loss expert but a psychotherapist. I realized a long time ago that the only person who can change my life is me. What is most depressing about watching Richard Simmons is when he reads the letters that people send to him. How emotionally unhealthy is it to need a "star" like Simmons to validate your life and help you along the way. And then he is so fake when responding to these letters. They must keep a cut onion on the set to let him cry that much. No gimmick and no stranger crying over my letter can make me like myself.
I could tell many stories about the diets that my parents tried to put me on as a kid. Dad usually offered me some kind of monetary reward for losing weight. And Mom was always cooking and baking in the kitchen. But when I tried to eat what she made she would always say, "You shouldn’t eat that." That just made it worse. I wasn’t going to let her tell me what I could and couldn’t do. Somewhere along the line they gave up. I would like to say that this was a complete relief but there is also a little bit of disappointment in this. I failed to be what they wanted me to be. Or maybe they’ve realized I’m okay.
The most important change I’ve made and am continuing to work on is not being concerned about what others think. Over about 20 years of people whispering "lard-ass," and "wide load" behind my back I’ve become quite paranoid. If I walk by a group of people who start laughing after I pass, I assume it is about me. Whether they are laughing about me or not I need to perfect the art of not caring. It gets to be quite a nasty cycle when my weight keeps me from going out and being active. Something else I’ve tried to determine about myself is if my fear is just a justification for sloth. As a college student who plans on being a teacher I will lead a pretty sedentary life. I try to be as active as possible and how much I overcome the paranoia is an important factor in how active I am.
One thing that would help, if you would like to help, don’t use the word "fat." I feel that it is a lot like using the "N" word with an African American. I am overweight. Throughout the years I’ve heard many cute and well intentioned descriptions of my weight. One of my favorites is "big-boned." I still laugh when I think about this. How absurd to suggest I look like this because my bones are abnormally large. Oh, there have been many like this: husky, opulent, rotund, robust, and portly are just a few of my favorites. And I don’t like the "Big and Tall" label the clothing industry applies to me either.
I remember that when I was younger Mom would order me clothes from a company called Kids at Large. All the jeans in the catalog were at least half elastic so I could finally wear something other than sweat pants. You might say that my mom was being a facilitator. That is so untrue. She helped me preserve some dignity. This has always been my problem and only I can decide how to deal with it. To this day though, I hate clothes shopping. I guess shopping for clothing is when I am most vulnerable to disappointment and deceit. "Oh, a color I like. Damn, they only have it in large." Of course I try to fool myself by saying, "I didn’t like it anyway."
It also costs a lot of money to shop for clothes. I can’t just buy a tee-shirt for ten dollars. No, since it is "Big and Tall" it costs an additional two to three dollars. Why is it the clothing companies can get away with this kind of price gouging? Well, I know that I am so happy when I find a shirt that fits me, and that I actually like that I don’t notice the inflated price. And when something fits me it is never right. The label might say "Big and Tall" but the piece of clothing is usually only one of these. I’m not super tall at 6’1" but the standard "Big" sized clothing is too short for me. This pricing practice that has infuriated me for a long time. The companies would give some line about the extra fabric used in making the "Big and Tall" items. But then why aren’t all the sizes priced differently? Why don’t people who wear small shirts complain that those medium and large shirt wearers are getting away with paying the same as them? Because the equal price, the fact that there is a shirt hanging there that fits them, and the fact that they are "small" lets them know that they are accepted.
Asking the employees of the store if they have something in my size is always a testing event. Apologetic smiles and disgusted expressions such as, "Well, if we had any thing like that it would be over there" are not uncommon. The most frustrating case of not having clothes in my size is right in my university book store. I have not been able to buy even a tee-shirt that fits me. Every year I ask the store manager if he could special order me a sweat shirt or tee-shirt and the response is always that next year they will carry clothes in my size. I think that he is just waiting for me to graduate. Since I’m a senior now he doesn’t have long to wait.
Every time I get done clothes shopping I truly consider taking up toga wearing. No sizes, no cost discrimination. Just buy a few yards of fabric and wrap it around. Wouldn’t that give people something to look at?
As testing as clothes shopping is, just shopping or walking down the street can be as bad. One reason is that kids are loose all over the streets and in the stores. No, don’t get me wrong I absolutely love kids. I admire their sincere honesty in making observations with no judgment attached. No one is as honest as a three year old. When I walk by a little kid I know that they are looking at me and when I check they quickly turn away. It never fails. I love walking through the toy section in department stores because behind me is always a wake of children turning to their mothers and saying, "Did you see him!" Some obviously think that I am Santa Claus even though I don’t have a fluffy white beard. That is kind of cute. Other kids say, well, "the darndest things." One child I was working with in a school stopped and looked up at me and said, "You could be a wrestler ... even a Sumo wrestler." It took all my strength to not reach down and give this kid a hug (since that would be inappropriate). He said it like it was a good thing because he truly believed it was.
The kids are fine. In fact I love them for their honesty. But the mothers and fathers are the frustrating ones. They hush and shush their kids with all their might thinking that I don’t notice. I wonder how many kids I’ve caused to get a lecture. Really the adults are the ones who need to have a lecture. One day when I was still in high school, I was walking down the street wearing my letter jacket. On that jacket I have three letters; one for band, one for academic excellence, and one for forensics. A complete stranger walked up behind me and asked what position I played. I acted completely ignorant to see what she would say. She said that the letters on my back were from playing football right? I told her that I was never interested in sports that much and that the letters were for band, academics, and forensics and she was speechless. Then she asked me a question to get me to justify my lack of interest in sports since I obviously would be good at football.
So, I’m not safe from criticism while I’m out among the general population. The one place you think that I would truly be appreciated is in a restaurant. I obviously didn’t get this way by eating salad. And yet most restaurants I’ve been in seem to be trying to subtly excluding me as well. The worst part about most restaurants is the seating. I don’t know how many booths I’ve had to squeeze myself into. I don’t really like eating out with strangers and this is why. It is always uncomfortable when the person I’m eating with asks me if I’m okay. I always have to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "Yes I’m just great. I love having the circulation cut off to my lower extremities." I also love the fact that when I need to stand up I’ll have to slide and wiggle out of this spot like an elephant seal trying to get around on land. Another place where the furniture really diminishes the experience is the movie theater. But there is something more that bothers me about the movies.
In the last days of radio and the early days of motion pictures with sound and television there was a comedy team by the name of Abbot and Costello. My father grew up watching their movies and listening to them on the radio so when new technology (the VHS tape) allowed us to get movies at home he quickly acquainted me with this comic duo. Abbot was a tall lanky fellow and Costello was an obviously overweight man. I still love to watch these movies but I now realize that they began the long standing tradition of "the fat man falls down humor." The most recent example of this type of comedy is the pairing of David Spade with Chris Farley. I also enjoy watching Chris Farley’s movies very much. There are some overweight actors who, while acting in a comedy, truly present something more. The best example is John Candy. But how many overweight actors or actresses have you seen cast in a favorable sexual role? With the great increase of sexual material in movies there still has been very little (if any) that makes overweight people appear attractive.
There is actually a large segment of the entertainment industry that is cut off from me. I haven’t been on an amusement ride since my junior year in high school. That is the year we went to Florida for our band trip. The first place we went to with roller coasters was Bush Gardens. I eagerly waited in line with my friends for about two hours to get on the newest coaster there, Kumba. The moment came, we all sat down, but when the restraint came down I knew there was going to be a problem. The attendant came over to me and said can you get that to click a few more times. I yanked the restraint and sucked in air to gain every inch possible. The attendant slammed on the restraint but it wasn't getting any tighter. I had to get off but the attendant assured me that I would get on the next one; she would make sure that I got the "special seat." I was already at the point of wanting the earth to swallow me. And it got worse. The next car came and the attendant guided me to the seat. This seat had a buckle that the others didn’t have so the shoulder restraint didn’t have to click all the way. But the attendant struggled to get the thing fastened. She finally had to stand on the seats to either side of me and push the restraint down so that she could fasten the buckle. If my memory is correct, she was very pretty. A piece of me died that day. At least my friends were great for the rest of the trip (oh yeah, this happened on day one of our eight day stay in Florida) they didn’t even suggest riding another roller coaster. I still owe them for that.
The future isn’t completely bleak; there is some hope. One study shows that regardless of weight people who are moderately active are less likely to die from hypertension, diabetes, certain cancers and coronary heart disease (women’s sport and fitness). This is the new goal. I don’t want to become an underwear model (another place you never see an overweight person). I want to feel healthy. I’ve found out that even though I don’t engage in regular exercise if I accumulate 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity almost every day of the week there will be benefits (Krucoff 45). This means taking the stairs instead of the elevator, going for a walk instead of eating a fatty snack (I wonder if it counts to go for a walk to get donuts), I’m going to try (and most likely fail) to drink less soda, and most importantly I’m going to change the way I think.
So, I’m not perfect. I have to get comfortable with myself before others will be comfortable with me. I’ve probably made it seem like all the people in the world who are not overweight are rude about my weight. This is not true. I have many great friends who it isn’t an issue for. And the majority of people I meet on the street don’t acknowledge it at all. The jerks just stick out in my memory. But there is no reason to want what someone else has. My BMI or any measure of me that does not take into account all that is important about my health are of no concern to me.
These changes I want to make in my life are about breaking down walls. The fat I wear serves many purposes. At the chemical and biological level it is stored energy that also provides extra insulation. But in the social world it serves to separate me from others. I’ve had cruel women come up to me and say, "Our friend wants to know if you’d take her on a date," with a gesture to some undefined person on the other side of the room. If I show the least bit of interest, they laugh as they walk off. I’ve only had this happen twice; but games that are played with emotions and minds aren’t right. So I’ve learned to avoid people. It is safer that way. Now, I need to realize that it is impossible to improve while living in safety. Pain helps us learn and become better. And leaving safety doesn’t always cause pain.

Works Cited:
Clark, Jane Bennett. "Worth the Weight." Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine. April 1999, 53.4, 102-105.
Duffy, Mary. "Herbal Enemy No. 1." Reader’s Digest. October 2000, 126-131.
Henderson, CW. "World’s Population Getting Fatter." World Disease Weekly. 3/26/00, 25-26
Kaledin, Elizabeth. "America’s Obesity Problem is Still Growing." CBS News. <http://www.cbsnews.com/now/story/o,1597,238283-412,00.shtml>.
Krucoff, Carol and Krucoff, Mitchell. "Is Your Life Worth 30 Minutes a Day?" Reader’s Digest. October 2000, 45-48.

Women’s Sports and Fitness. "Who’s Fat Now?" Sep./Oct. 1998, 1.11, 32-34.
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