On October 28th, I turned 28 years old and for most of those 28 years, I have been fat. I say “fat” because it scares me. “Overweight” is a much more easily digestible word—ah, puns. Saying you’re overweight feels more acceptable, like it’s a temporary stage in between periods of fitness. Almost like a season. And if being overweight is a season, it would surely be winter. I say this for two main reasons; winter is the season in which animals hibernate and pack on pounds—namely bears, which I have often been compared to—and, as anyone unlucky enough to have been fat during a humid summer knows, there is almost nothing more unbearable. In fact, on those humid days in the summer, you almost fantasize that someone will come with a giant knife and carve the fat off of you because the pain of that temporary flesh wound is more tolerable than the agonizingly annoying experience of standing still and sweating for no apparent reason.
Most of my fat is carried around my waist, particularly in the love handles. My face also takes some of the weight as well as the upper portion of my arms and a little in the chest. Though I should acknowledge the fact that I am lucky enough to have my fat resting on a particular large and muscular frame. I am 6’1 with a 53 in chest, a 20ish inch neck, and a massive cranium. My legs are enormous but solid. I have a history of participating in high-level athletics and intense weightlifting, power-lifting and Olympic style lifts specifically. Though my exercising has significantly dropped off in the past few years, my body is mostly solid, save for some specific areas. So the reality is that even if I dropped all of my excess weight, I would be well over 200 pounds.
I’ve always been a large human. I was just over 23 inches and about 9lbs when I was born, always one of the tallest in my elementary and middle school until high school and college where my frame was still larger than most, but had somewhat normalized as I was encountering more peers who were roughly my size or larger.
My size has been one of the defining characteristics of my personality. It has made me cautious of antique furniture—always slightly paranoid that it may be utterly destroyed by my large frame, keenly aware of personal space—as I’ve always felt like I’m invading someone else’s, and completely contemptuous of shopping for clothes—it’s rare to find something that fits someone with my frame that doesn’t look absolutely ridiculous (ie, the shoulders of a shirt fit but the stomach is a tent, or the waist fits fine but the thighs and crotch practically neuter me).
Some of the earliest memories I have—probably because they were so painful at the time—were of some older male cousins making fun of me when I took my shirt off at my great aunt’s pool. I remember in pre-school a crush liking a friend of mine over me and being utterly convinced it was because I was fat. I remember not being able to wear the popular clothes that my classmates wore because they didn’t fit me right, and not getting to have the “cool” haircuts that I wanted because my face was far too big for them to look right.
Of course I recognize now that the haircuts and clothing were silly issues, but it felt isolating, and made this lower-middle-class-too-smart-for-his-own-good only child feel completely isolated and horribly alone. These early incidents were some of the first fuel for the repressed self-hatred and neuroses that would start to devour me years later.
My chubbiness, and my nerdiness, got me plenty of bullying and the occasional after-school rough-up, but perhaps more damagingly, it made me hyper self-conscious. I was always concerned with how I was looking or what others may think of me. It didn’t help that family members were always offering up comments about what I should and shouldn’t be eating to help lose some pounds. I have one particularly sad memory of being on the large trampoline outside of my grandmother’s house, lying on my back, looking up at the darkening sky on an early autumn evening and wishing to the stars that I wouldn’t be alone forever, that there would be someone who would want me the way I wanted them to, who would love me in the ways I was incapable of loving myself.
Around this same time, my elementary school had started to do aptitude tests with me and suggested to my parents that they skip me from 3rd grade to 5th and move me to the Advanced Placement program at another city school. I was completely insecure, unhappy with the way I looked, terrified of being ostracized, and paralyzed with a Sartre-esque neurotic fear of how other people saw me, and now they wanted to move me to another school in a whole other grade where I’d be almost two full years younger than everyone else? It was a legitimate nightmare for me.
My parents decided against moving me, or skipping me the grades, allowing me to make the decision for myself. In reality, it probably would have been the best move for me. Maybe I would have been challenged early on and developed studying skills, and you know, learned how to be a student? Anyhow, that didn’t happen and I remained at Charles S. Ashley Elementary school, a neurotic and pudgy overthinker.
The insecurity about my weight led to a realization that many fat people have, particularly fat males; if you’re funny or clever, people won’t pay as much attention to your weight—or at least it feels that way. In reality you’re still the fat kid, except now you’re funny so people want to be around you more. Being naturally adept in the classroom, class clowning came fairly easily. I could goof off in class and still manage to pull high marks, As with the occasional B, and a near constant C in conduct. I was never a true class clown, rarely getting detentions, never getting suspended. I just wouldn’t pay attention in class, and would hope that my wit would get the attention of girls I had a crush on, and maybe even get them to like me…oh gosh!
What’s ironic is that my self-hatred and neuroses were so pervasive that even if a girl had shown interest in me, I would have been too doubtful of my own position to recognize it. Instead, I would hope that the personality I was fabricating—to protect my true sensitive self, in part—would be what they would latch onto. Who could ever like the nerdy and sensitive fat kid? The thought was absurd. So instead, I acted out. Sometimes I wonder how many crushes, friendships, and relationships I rebuffed with that type of behavior between elementary school and college.
This personality issue was compounded as I flew through puberty and into college; relying on relationships with women to determine my self-worth, being incapable of facing rejection, staying in relationships I had no reason to be in due to only the paralyzing fear of abandoning a partner and the prospect of being alone again. Self-worth was at zero, brash personality at 100, and my weight still above average. Even when I’ve been in my absolute best shape, from late high school to mid college, I have felt fat. It’s a nasty self-image problem that I drilled into my own head, which came back around with guns blazing, attempting to destroy any ounce of self-confidence and self-worth that I managed to muster up. In place of that self-worth I developed an attitude which often came off as arrogant.
Truthfully, it was an almost satirical position for me to take. I wasn’t actually an arrogant person, in fact I was cripplingly insecure. The arrogance was a front in which I could simultaneously protect myself and lampoon the generally self-centered approach to life that I felt most of my peers had adopted. The only problem was that I hadn’t let many people in on the joke, and I was too insecure to be comfortable enough explaining myself. What if someone else liked my fake-self better than my real-self? I felt that I couldn’t afford to lose that opportunity. So instead, my personality remained nebulous and my behavior confusing. After all, in my own head I was fat, and no one wanted fat people to be around them. What’d Vonnegut warn about? Something like, be careful of what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.
This perhaps exhibited itself most dramatically in college. By this time I had figured out how to get what I physically desired from a woman without opening up and risking being found out as the fat and nerdy kid who cries sometimes. I was acting. The closeness of a physical relationship, even if only temporarily, provided another haven for me from my own fiercely judging eyes. I could use my own self-hatred to fuel whatever yarn I was spinning in order to get to the result I wanted and I could feel okay about it because at least the woman I was with liked me, if only for that moment. It was a way to build what I thought was self-worth. I recognize now that it was empty, a fact I probably recognized then as well. But, it was easier to pretend and carry on. It was all such a vicious cycle.
Last Saturday I went to Cable Car Cinema in Providence and saw David Lynch’s Eraserhead. It was a fantastic experience, anyone who likes film, or movies, or art for that matter should make it a point to see that in a theater. The sound system was absolutely jacked, the walls were literally shaking. Anyone who is familiar with that film knows the sound is the most important part, it unsettles you, and at one point during the concluding portion of the film, it unrepentantly devastates you. [spoilers here for you lame-os that would complain about not having seen a 40 year old movie yet] After Henry kills his child and the electricity starts to short, there’s a crescendo, some unholy combination of organ, industrial noise, and the cries of a baby (and maybe wild animals?) that sustains for what feels like an eternity. While the sound is eviscerating you—my seat was actually shaking it was so loud—images start to flash that are at the very least disquieting.
The film had completely swallowed me, I didn’t know what to do with myself, it almost felt like I was going to die, or explode, or have a heart attack, and that’s when I noticed it. My natural reaction to the discomfort was to take the collar of my t-shirt and hold it in my lips. BOOM! It was in that moment that I had an out-of-body experience and saw myself neurotically putting something into my mouth when I felt supremely uncomfortable.
So, “Why am I still fat?” I ask myself.
“Habit,” I reply.
It was in that moment in the theater that something became very clear to me about my fatness. Though slow metabolism may have been the reason why I was a fat child, the neurotic behavior I had adopted as a coping mechanism had fulfilled my own prophecy and kept me an overweight teenager and now, an overweight twenty-something. All I had been doing for years was providing myself with more fuel for self-hatred and doubt, standing in my own way, creating a problem for myself when there needn’t be one. And now, here I am recognizing that I have basically trained myself to be fat.
After a few years of turmoil, and now reaping the benefits of taking responsibility for my own life, I no longer am a fat person in my own mind. I am able to talk about my painful memories because I understand that they shaped me, but they don’t define me. I am unafraid of sharing my insecurities because I now understand it as empowering, not self-defeating. I have been able to shed those walls of personality that I built up around myself and I work every day to develop a better relationship with myself and my family/friends/community. But, I am still fat. Currently, I am lighter than I’ve been at my heaviest, but I’m still fatter than I would like to be.
It’s easy to see why food is so good at comforting us, it causes our bodies to dump a bunch of chemicals that make our brains scream, “Fuck yeah!” It puts an exciting item in our mouths, so we don’t have to worry about something stupid coming out of it. It’s something we can do by ourselves while we’re still around other people—so it doesn’t feel quite so lonely. It’s an engaging experience. And worst of all, it’s an easy habit to defend; “I’m hungry,” or, “I didn’t eat breakfast.” What’s funny is that as a fat child, you are deprived of certain foods or treats, you don’t get to have the soda or the cake, and adults make you feel bad for wanting them, You know, that’ll only make you even more husky! So then, the food becomes more desirable and even more comforting, so you sneak an extra cookie and run to your bedroom to eat it, just because you feel shameful for desiring it.
Woah, shame. I hadn’t thought of it that way until I just wrote that word down in the last paragraph. Shame for being fat, shame for being different, shame for wanting the same foods that your peers do, and shame that you’re denied them. Shame for your self-hatred, and shame for the shitty way you cope with it. Hmm…
Being fat is a funny thing. Other people remember you by it, you constantly get the dreaded, “How ya doin’, big guy?” You even start to resent the cutesy politeness that some people take in trying to avoid talking about your size, “He’s like a teddy bear!” You start to wonder how many people are looking at you and thinking, “Yeah, he’d be totally cute if he wasn’t fat,” or, “Yeah, I like being around him, but I don’t like big guys,” and there’s even the devastating face-to-face, “You’re just not my type,” aka, “You’re fat and that’s gross.” Many fat people become over-thinkers as a result of this, the type who just want to crawl into themselves or disappear into a corner. But the great irony is that it’s nearly impossible to disappear when you’re one of the most noticeable people in the room.
You do not know what it is like to be fat if you haven’t been fat yourself. Every time you hear a floorboard creak, you think it’s your fault. Every time a glass shakes against utensils on a table as you walk by, it had to have been motivated by your excessive weight. There’s no second thought that the creaking may just be a poorly fastened floorboard in a 100-year old house, or the table that the glass is resting on may have uneven footing, and the people sitting at it may have leaned on it the wrong way. In the mind of the fat person, everything that could be a result of your weight is a result of your weight. It’s even embarrassing when someone offers you seconds or a larger portion of a meal. It does not matter if in reality they’re just generous, or that they’re trying to get rid of extra food. It’s because you’re fat and fat people eat a lot. And never mind social media, woof! Face pictures only, please! And don’t ever post an image of your food, that’s asking for an avalanche of judgement.
Maybe shame really is the answer. A painful emotion resulting from an awareness of inadequacy or guilt, that’s how shame is defined. I might alter that definition to include ‘or an awareness of perceived inadequacy or guilt.’ Maybe, in a way, shame has become habitual for me as well? Just a thought…
The fact is that I don’t enjoy being fat, and I’m not naïve or delusional enough to champion a body-positive position like, Be what you are, we’re all beautiful! I’m fat today, and I’ve been fat for 28 years. It’s been one of the defining factors of my existence and I don’t want that to be the case anymore. Though now, in my mind, what I look like when I glance into a mirror, and who I am when I envision myself are two different people. And now, I think I’m just mature enough to understand that I am the only one capable of making that change.
I’m not writing an inspirational piece here claiming, I’m gonna change, and I’m gonna do it now! In fact, I don’t really want to change much, only one thing really. I don’t eat too poorly, I do compulsively eat occasionally, but I really don’t exercise enough. I walk an awful lot, but that’s not enough to effect the type of change I desire. So, I need to exercise, probably to run. When I’ve regularly run in the past I have really enjoyed it. I totally get a runner’s high—blame my addictive personality—and I like the exhaustion and restful sleep that comes after a good workout. I’m just a poor self-starter when it comes to exercise, probably because I often find myself feeling mentally exhausted. Maybe because I’m guilty of over-extending myself, but that’s another issue entirely.
Almost 3 decades is enough. I’ve forced enough foreign and domestic laborers to make extra-large clothes for longer than I consider fair—though in reality, I’ll probably always be at least an XL, not a XXL-Tall as I currently am, sorry laborers. Addiction psychology says that change only happens when you A) Truly want it to, or B) Truly have to. And if I have understood my position correctly, that my fatness is a habit, I guess what I’m saying is that I want to quit being fat before I have to.