Full disclosure: in the summer of 2012, I weighed 198 lbs. If I weighed myself today, the scale would probably bounce around at 202-204. At the doctor’s a week ago, I was 206, but I was wearing a lot of clothing (and I had not taken a dump). In the summer of 2010, however, I weighed 246 lbs. I’m only a fraction over six feet tall.
My post comes in vague response to this article that originally appeared on xoJane and was later republished by my colleagues at The Good Men Project. It deals with the stigma of being fat, and takes issue with various critics of Gov. Christie of New Jersey and Melissa McCarthy, the star of the film Identity Thief. I encourage you to read it, even if you don’t like McCarthy or Christie. I can’t say much about McCarthy, as I’ve never seen any of her work, but I disagree categorically with Christie’s politics, even in the wake of the human side he showed following hurricane Sandy. He did earn my respect in the aftermath, but I doubt I’d ever vote for him, certainly not in a presidential election.
All this is beside the point. I share something in common with both Christie and McCarthy: I have struggled with my weight since childhood, and spent a good portion of my 30’s obese, with a BMI of well over 31. As a graduate student, I was rather thin, but this only because I could barely afford food. Once I got a job, the weight started to grow. I gained over 50 pounds between my thirty-second birthday in 2005 and the birth of my daughter in April of 2010. I was certainly not in any public eye, but I still endured comments from people, some who meant well but others who did not. I would learn second-hand that obesity had become, at least to a few people, my new identity. I was “the fat guy” and “my fat son”.
What’s shocking to me in retrospect was that the comments often came from people who were obese themselves, and obese for reasons very similar to mine, which I’ll get to in a moment. Even when the comments came from those who meant well—a colleague thought I’d be setting a bad example for my children if I remained fat—they were delivered in such a way that only exacerbated the problem. I wasn’t obese because I overate and did not exercise. I overate and avoided exercise because I was depressed and had low self-esteem. Food, especially sweets, provided comfort, albeit a complex variety: I often actively behaved in ways to harm myself, usually unconsciously, but sometimes masochistically.
I remember once craving a White Hen Pantry doughnut. Out of hatred for myself for having these cravings, I stormed over to the White Hen and bought two doughnuts. Here, eat these, you piece of shit, if you want them so much. Then I sat on the sofa and played video games, feeling bloated, utterly useless, my weight rising. I’d learn later, in therapy for PTSD, that these behaviors were related to my abusive upbringing. At the time, I only thought they were normal, as I had nothing to compare the feelings to, no alternative self. I was a piece of shit. This was absolute.
Obesity is not an exotic American problem. However, it very often is a private one, paradoxically, even in a culture that sees The Biggest Loser among its favorite television shows. If that show makes anything clear it’s that obesity’s roots are as much psychological as they are physiological. We separate the obesity and depression epidemics at our very great risk. Is it harmful to oneself (and to those who depend on us) to be fat, and should we encourage people to be healthy? Let’s not ask dumb questions. We accomplish nothing by turning someone’s weight problem, which is often a seriously complex matter, into a nicely packaged identity for them. In fact, this is counter-productive—if we have their health in mind, we might draw attention to their abilities and character. If we don’t like their politics or acting skills, but still have their health in mind, we can stick to critiquing their foolish ideas or poor skills. But pointing out that they are fat is not a criticism; it’s the same as pointing out their cholesterol, the strength of their optical prescription or their blood pressure.
How and why did I lose weight? It was not because I suddenly stopped being lazy—I’ve been industrious my whole life. I did not have a heart attack or other health scare (although my blood pressure freaked me out). I had support from people who loved me, medical professionals who taught me things about myself that had been mysteries, yoga instructors who offered encouragement and education, and friends who asked me if there was something the matter with me, if I had something I wanted to share. At first I didn’t think so. Eventually, though, I couldn’t help it. I ended up diagnosed with PTSD and, in a fit of fright, realized I needed to change my habits, hundreds of them, from how I ate to how I thought, if I wanted to be a decent father and husband. I never had a tight pair of jeans as my goal. If anything, part of the goal was to realize that the tight pair of jeans was a construct of beauty no different from the value we place on fame or political power, values that lead us to put ourselves down and leave us feeling isolated and powerless.