Too soon? (At least from a guy who had bariatric surgery just 15 months ago?)
The other day amongst some friends, the conversation floated to the subject of ice cream. We chatted about our favorite flavors and cafes. One person remarked how they could eat this certain brand every day if it were available. Everyone chuckled and nodded affably, myself included.
I have quite a long history with ice cream. I love the stuff. And I happen to be quite a discriminating consumer; at this point I literally won’t waste the calories, money, or time on low-quality product. Part of why I’m so familiar with ice cream is because, for many years, it was a key go-to coping mechanism for the stress of life. When I felt almost any unpleasant emotion, the tasty cold creamy dessert was what flooded my thoughts. I knew that I could mask my emotions if I just got some Dairy Queen in my hands. Of course, the indulgence usually didn’t make me feel substantially better in the short term (and certainly not at all in the long term!), but it acted as real-and-present pleasure in the face of suffering. This has been my truth for almost as long as I can remember. If there’s one thing I know well, it’s ice cream!
Off the cuff, I replied to my friend’s quip about daily ingestion saying with a wry smile, “I went through a period of time where I ate ice cream every day…[dramatic pause]…yeah, it didn’t end well.”
No one really laughed. I'm not sure if anyone even smiled (save myself). It was a bit awkward. "Crickets" might be an apt descriptor of the mood.
For right or for wrong, I felt as though everyone else in the room expected me to be a little more serious about such a serious matter. Over the past 24 months, I’ve dropped over 80lbs of weight and halved my body fat percentage. It's been quite the journey, and a significant physical transformation. Perhaps my friends were afraid that my flippancy was a signal that I was well on my way to a relapse into old patterns. Perhaps their silence was indicative of the taboo our culture has around overweight, food, and body image. Perhaps they simply don't identify with my process of suffering, learning, and healing I've been through around weight, and so don't understand my relative comfort poking fun at it. Or perhaps even my joke touched some of their own inhibitions or pain a little too closely. I honestly don't know. But for any unintentional triggering I caused, I apologize. In truth, I’m not sure any of us could be sure why the room became cold. Of course it could've easily all been in my head; my own projection on everyone else! But the space immediately felt uncomfortable to me, and I think the others, one way or another.
To a limited degree, we can gauge our healing from distressing experiences by examining our responses to jokes about them. If we find the humor offensive or outrageous, it might be a sign that we’ve still got a bit of work to do; it’s too close, to soon as the question begs. If the punchline pulls up sadness or despair, same story probably. The actress Carol Burnett is credited saying: “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.” And that is true if the time implies healing along the way. Sometimes our sensitivity around a subject is more about avoidance than distance however – and a well-placed joke can end up cutting through the layers of frosting we smooth over otherwise inedible experiences. Sometimes we can react to jokes not so much because they’re too close or too soon – but because they remind us of unfinished business we have yet to do. Sometimes we can react to jokes about experiences we haven't ourselves lived because they appear callous or cruel - when in reality insiders very much "get them."
The other end of the spectrum is probably true as well: distasteful flippancy can indicate repression or self-medicating in the face of trauma. If I keep laughing at the thing before me, I don’t have to face it as real. This behavior is something American men tend to do rather well: we laugh things off because our rigid gender roles have taught us that emotions like fear, guilt, or sadness are off limits to us. So it’s not a hard and fast rule – but without a doubt, the way we relate to funny stuff can tell us a lot about where we’re at in the process.
Humor can also be a tool of the trolls, a form of bullying and power-posturing. Twitter especially, but any form of social media really, is a case study for people intentionally shortening the gap between a traumatic event and comedy. More often than not, jokes are not a signal of healing having taken root, but attempts to get reactions out of those who are raw with very serious suffering.
Thinking back on my experience with the ice cream conversation among friends, the mood I felt in the room was not new to me.
I myself have felt similar discomfort around the same topic at times in my life. Rebel Wilson, who plays “Fat Amy” on the movie series “Pitch Perfect” has become rather famous for her unabashed willingness to poke fun at her size. I recall nervously laughing at her humor the first time I saw her acting on the big screen. She was hilarious, and also hit a little too close for comfort. Perhaps moreso for those not overweight than those who are! In fact, she has made humor related to overweight such a calling card in her comedic bag of tricks that she’s not being criticized for it. “Move on!” they have told her, “joke about something else!”
I have to ask though, for who’s benefit does that request come? Wilson certainly doesn’t seem to have an issue with her style, saying, “As long as I look like this, I’m going to make fat jokes.”. Do the critics think she ought to be more ashamed of her weight? Do they think she’s making it worse for those who feel such body-image shame? Is a public persona joking about something so serious a public health issue? In my estimation, the only humor that works is the humor that is true.
Do my friends think I ought to be ashamed about my past patterns? My current failures? Probably not. But it’s funny (and an entirely different topic), a lot of times we think of shame as a deeply personal, individual emotion because it is self-reflective. However, in reality, shame is perhaps the only emotion that is entirely social: it is built upon the perceived expectations of the group we are among. We only know shame because of the culture we live within. Shame is a knee-jerk preemptive judgment of ourselves in light of what we perceive cultural judgments already to be. Those who are “shameless” disregard those social norms, sometimes destructively so. Sociopaths are notoriously dangerous because their absolute lack of shame.
Perhaps Rebel Wilson’s insistence on joking about weight is a criticism against our cultural judgments around fat, body image, and health. Perhaps my joke unconsciously was attempting to challenge that same status quo. Maybe I find the pizza joke funny because I (and probably Rebel Wilson) have actually lived it.
The truth is that my problem with eating and obesity over the years wasn’t due to not taking my body seriously enough, that I had somehow been too flippant or careless. Instead, my judgment is that I’ve taken my weight and body entirely TOO seriously, for far too long. While my weight and overall health might’ve indicated a lack of concern, on the contrary, they were symbolic of the great shame I carried with me on a daily, moment-by-moment basis. This shame began far before I became overweight (again, another story entirely). Food for me, as opposed to pure fuel (as one of my friends recently testified to me it is for her), has been a comforter, a companion, and a symbol of safety. My problem hasn’t been lack of attention to what I’ve eaten, it’s been that I think entirely too much of it. You could say I’ve been obsessed with it. My obesity developed in part because I discovered how to use food to mask shame I feel about how I use that very food. Talk about a hamster wheel of death!
When I would eat an unhealthy meal as an overweight person, I would feel TERRIBLE about myself. The acts were as far from mindless eating as I can imagine. The shame that flooded me was toxic and penetrating. Some overweight people might be truly ignorant about healthy diets. The cause of my weight problem was never that – and while I’ve learned a lot in my weight loss, I already knew what was good for me and what was not. Like an addict who can’t stay away from whatever substance, I was drawn to calorie or sugar rich meals. After partaking, I would then carry them around not only in my body but in my mind for days and days.
The reflection of physical frame in the mirror reminded me on a daily basis of my failures when it came to food – and in a way, my failure as a human being. When I had to rock myself to get up off the carpet or hold my breath to tie my shoes, food was on my mind. When I experienced any number of other medical issues I will not name, I felt like the biggest loser on the planet. I can hardly imagine feeling any more ashamed of diet and of my body back in the good old days. When I squeezed into an airline seat (and let’s be honest, even at 230lbs, coach is a torture chamber), I felt myself subconsciously apologizing for my very existence to the passengers around me. I was seriously obsessed with what I had eaten and what I looked like.
And absolutely, all of this is tragic. Probably traumatic. And probably true for many hundreds of thousands of other people right this moment. There probably was a time when joking about my experience was too soon, too close, too raw. But that time, for me, has passed.
Today, when I poke fun at my former habits, at my former state of mind, at my former body (and even when those patterns still show up), it’s a way for me to stake a claim on my own story; to own it. It’s a way for me to take hold of my truth in a positive way, to accept myself for who I am, and where I’m at. It’s a way for me to draw what once was a taboo secret, out into the light of day.
In another post months ago, I offered some steps for how I understand the causes of my weight loss. The first and most important of these was GRACE. Empathizing with myself, giving myself grace, forgiving myself was an absolutely essential step in the process of getting more healthy. And this is a step, as I’ve observed, that I must come back to over and over again in order to continue on the path.
Poking fun at old patterns for me is an expression of that grace – it’s a way of letting mercy rule my life instead of shame. When I throw out a punchline at my own expense, it’s a way for me to own my path rather than keep it at a distance, or hidden. It’s a way for me to acknowledge that it is mine while at the same time reminding myself that my ultimate value is not dictated by my weight, diet, or state of health. “Laughter,” says theologian Karl Barth, “is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
I wasn't a worthless human being when I was fat. And I'm not a worthy human being today because I'm only a little fat.
So yes, I find the pizza joke at the top funny. It’s funny because it’s true to my life. I have lived that story in a far too serious way. I claim it because telling the truth, giving myself grace, rejecting shame, recognizing old patterns, and de-stigmatizing poor decisions, is absolutely essential to my process of healing. I claim it because I reject the cultural idea that my value as human being is in any way connected to by behavior or to my physical body.
Comedy is always a tightrope – there is always risk of offense or triggering. My hope for those to whom it offends is that they might give me some grace, forgive me if you will. Maybe even more so, I beg for grace in my own blind spots on putting these thoughts to paper (screen). None of us can be permanently tied to the seriousness or trauma of every single person on the planet. The pressure would overwhelm us. Because this is my own blog, I’m going to close by taking the liberty of quoting a well-placed comment (!!) on an internet message board of an article on this very subject. Written by Aaron M. Lizt, it captures truth: "If people cannot joke about their problems and insist on going through life in a miasma of purposeful despair, insisting that everything be treated as deadly serious, then they will be perpetually miserable (and it will be largely self-inflicted.) Laughter is medicine, and those who know when to laugh at life's misfortunes instead of always crying about them are healthier in both body and mind."