To Sleeve (or Not to Sleeve) Series - #7, The Social Cost of Being Overweight

(This is part of a series I posted on my other (formerly anonymous) blog, tobypass.wordpress.com)

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An aspect of obesity those who are normal weights might not automatically appreciate is how it affects ones social life. In addition to contributing to all kinds of health problems, obesit also has the tendency to isolate a person in depression, decrease the depth of intimacy he/she enjoys in many interpersonal relationships, and weaken dating opportunities.

A key underlying contributing factor in all of this for me is the way we have stigmatized excess weight in American culture. Fat people are pariahs. Objects of scorn. Disgusting. Worthy of disrespect, judgment, unsolicited criticism, or paternalistic control.

Overweight people are considered to be in the position they are in because they lack self-control, are lazy, or have poor character. Because food is something everyone has intimate experience with — many who are at normal weights feel justified by assuming these things. “I’m not that heavy! I control myself! Maybe you should slow down a little bit at the buffet! Or go for a jog once in a while!”

Our culture celebrates and idealizes a certain body size – lean and thin. Women feel this more acutely than men in part because of our collective objectification of the female body; I’d argue that men feel it as well however (and this is often overlooked). Hugh Jackman’s physique as the Wolverine is just as ridiculously unattainable as ‘the norm’ as Angelina Jolie’s cover shots in fashion magazines.

These standards are difficult to not internalize for anyone who is not lives and moves through American culture. We inherit them through advertising, television, movies, and consumerism. Even product sizes available in certain stores tell us of how big or small we should be. (Even though I’d like to shop for higher quality clothing at Nordstrom, designer lines are cut a full size to a size and a half smaller than more standard or ‘bargain’ lines).

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As a consequence of these dynamics, I (and many other obese people) have developed an inner narrative that runs like a tape in my head — whether I actually hear the messages from others or not. The tape that tells me I should push back from the table and get on those running shoes? Ever present. The tape that calls me ‘fatty’ when I look at myself in the mirror when I’m undressed? Ongoing. The one that says I look sloppy and unkempt in my poorly styled xxl clothes? Every day. The one that tells me those people probably think I’m gonna go home and binge after I only ordered a salad for lunch? Like clockwork. The tape that berates me for my weight gain, even before I get in the lobby of the doctor’s office? Mine.

These voices are painful. Some have been developed from actual conversations but not all. Many are my own design – invented by an astute understanding of America’s stigmatization of fat.

One of the biggest casualties from these tapes in my life has been my confidence. It burns through it like gasoline in a dumpster fire. It’s incredibly hard to stand with my head held high, shoulders back, eyes clear, chin up, speaking clearly — when at the same time I’m telling myself that I look like a fat slob who everyone probably hates. I overcome it quite often — but it takes it’s toll.

These tapes in my head lead me to put words of judgment in the mouths of others — to assume others aren’t interested in friendship or think lowly of me. Of course, I had no way to know if those people were holding negativity overly head — and in reality, I WAS THE ONE PREJUDGING THEM!! Regardless, this dynamic has hampered intimacy in my life in many many ways.

Flowing out of these messages — I think — in part is a sense of depression. I’ve been on a mild antidepressant for the past month or so and I feel as though it’s really given me a boost. But I do think that my weight — and my inner dialogue has played a role in creating it.

Depression for me tends to drive me into isolation. I want less and less to do active things I know I like to do — or at least I used to like. I eat alone. Sometimes I compulsively crash a fast food drive through and get an ice cream cone or a hamburger — even though I know I’ll be eating dinner with my family later. There have even been times when I’ve turned down invitations to people’s homes because I just didn’t want to be around anyone – I didn’t want to have to visit – I didn’t want to be subject to whatever food they happened to cook at the time.

I think I sometimes use food to medicate my depression. I eat to try to make myself feel better. But like any addictive cycle – those chicken wings or cheerios or soft pretzels with cream cheese – only make me feel worse in the end (and usually it’s immediately after consumption).

Now — before I go on — I should say that I doubt these tapes will just end as soon as I lose weight. There is some truth to the movement afoot ‘healthy at any size’ and especially the categorization of obesity as a disease — both (in their own ways) attempt to destigmatize weight gain and to try to rescue people from these kinds of negative cycles I’m describing for myself. I’m sure I have some work to do in this area above and beyond weight loss. Dumping pounds will not be a panacea – it’s not a cure all – and it will not fix everything in my life.

Continuing on with the theme of ‘social cost’ — another way I’ve seen my weight impact my relationships is the rate at which I get invited to do active things with other people. I think I wrote about my love of sports in another post — but I’ll elaborate here a tiny bit. I LOVE SPORTS. Pretty much any one. I love playing, watching, following, talking about….etc.. There’s almost no sport that I find uninteresting…even those I’m scared of (skydiving, bungee jumping, etc) I’m absolutely fascinated by.

One of the things that happens when to people who are overweight — and i have certainly observed in my life — is that they get invited to do active things less and less. I often have large groups of friends who run races, go biking, play basketball, go camping, etc, etc, together (I know because they talk about it later, post pictures on social media, etc.) — but they very rarely invite me. These same friends regularly go to the gym together to work out, play raquetball or tennis, or do other physically intense activities with one another… These take scheduling, coordination, planning. Again – I very rarely have been included.

Now — I think there are several reasons for this. The first is the most insidious. As a heavy person, I’m not as fit as some of my leaner friends — I can’t run as fast or for as long — I can’t hike as hard — and i can’t bike as far. If they invite me to join them, I hold them back. This is aside from any determination I might have or willingness to really push myself. My 110% is the equivalent of some of my athletic friends’ 65%. It’s not fun for them to invite a lame duck to join them in their exercise. They don’t want to be held back. They don’t want to be slowed down. And I don’t think this is an entirely unreasonable concern. They have every right to want to pair themselves with workout partners that match their skill so as to maximize workout time.

The problem emerges for an overweight person in that it’s a nasty cycle… I walk alone. I bike alone. I jog alone. I go mess around on the basketball court alone. I hike alone. Accountability and a team spirit is super helpful in exercise programs. I do mine by myself. I rely fully on my own motivation and umph to get it done. The less I engage in athletics with others, the poorer fitness I have, and so the less likely they are to invite me to participate. It’s a nasty cycle.

All of this leads to a lower overall quality of relationships.

For men — we often bond by doing things with one another. Sports. Work. Adventures. Activities. We build friendships and trust by being active. My weight keeps me from a whole world of fun and by consequence — impacts my intimacy with many people. I feel sad as I write this.

This isn’t about being a victim — I certainly know I have personal responsibility and initiative in all of this — and certainly there are other factors that contribute to my situation specifically. But my weight DEFINITELY has an impact on how active I am simply by virtue of not being included in many of the active sporting things my friends and acquaintances take part in.

To state it in a positive way, one of the reasons I want to lose a large chunk of my excess weight (125lbs at this point) is so that I can be more active — work out with friends and do active things without such limitations. Activity breeds activity which breeds healthy weight — and the opposite breeds the opposite.

Finally — a word about dating.

This piece hasn’t affected me a great deal per se. I’m married to a wonderful woman who I love and adore – and have been for 10 years now. We have a pair of amazing sons – and she is a fantastic mom. She has helped me grow SO SO much over the years – emotionally, spiritually, personally. I can’t imagine life without her.

And in our case, my weight didn’t play into her attraction to me (of course when we started dating, I was about 50lbs lighter — so there’s that too). And I felt confident enough to return her affection, commitment, and kindness.

With that being said – I do think that in my dating life before I came to date my (now) wife, my weight did affect my confidence level and therefore willingness to ask girls out. I was scared. I was afraid of rejection — and I think arguably to a larger degree than other normal-sized men — because of my weight.

My sense is that the dating scene is particularly fraught for women — who, as I’ve noted, are subject to a far more strenuous and irrational standard of feminine beauty than men. An overweight woman is seen as unattractive by many many people — including women themselves. How do obese girls fare on dating websites and in bars? My only knowledge on this is anecdotal but my sense is that it’s fairly rough. (and certainly stressful).

While singleness isn’t a death knell for anyone — the prospects of not being able to create a long-term relationship or a family (or even delaying that process for many years), the prospects of having a limited sex-life even outside of a long term commitment, and the prospects of even being able to go through the fun of dating and relating are all negatively hindered by obesity. The cost is simply too real to ignore.

Yes, fat people get dates and marry.

And yes – it’s also arguably more difficult than those who are more normal sized.

Others might have dozens of other social realities that come from their excess weight. I like this little article that samples people from interviews and tries to coalesce a picture of the day-to-day experience of morbidly obese people. Check it out!

To Sleeve (or Not to Sleeve) Series - #4, How I Gained My Weight

(This is part of a series I posted on my other (formerly anonymous) blog, tobypass.wordpress.com)

 

Well it didn’t happen overnight.

I may have mentioned that I wasn’t always heavy. It’s true. And I certainly wasn’t always THIS heavy either! At 308, my current weight is at a lifetime high.

My weight has fluctuated over the course of my life much as I gather it has for most overweight people. I have been on many diets and I have always regained the weight (and then some). I recently watched an HBO documentary about how our body works against us to maintain a given weight — driving us with food cravings, extra efficient muscles, and a super slow metabolism — all to keep us from losing more weight and in fact pulling us back to where we were. One doctor on the documentary said that our body regulates weight in as precise of way as it does blood pressure or sodium or any other complicated system. My own internist has told me much of the same — that my body kind of ‘settles in’ to a give weight and will fight tooth and nail to stay right around there.

This concept REALLY helps me to have a bit more compassion for myself given the situation I’m in. I’m not a victim in all of this. I know I have made choices — many choices — some good some bad. But I know too that what I’m suffering through is also a form of a disease — and that I’m this weight not ONLY because I have poor self-control. This seems to be the narrative of our culture and certainly is the narrative I tell myself routinely.

Anyways, to the topic at hand. How I gained all this weight.

I remember having to do calisthenics outside on the playground as a first grader. The whole school did as a matter of fact. At the end of the workout each morning, everyone had to run a half mile or so around the very large playground area (at least it was large to me as a 6 year old!!).

I remember being rather slow. I wasn’t heavy per se at that time. Just not a fast runner. Never-the-less I remember being embarrassed of my body. I remember feeling ashamed of myself. I felt defective and bad. It didn’t help that the coolness level of our social system was determined by foot speed.

I finished last or near last essentially every day. I got tired easily. My feet hurt. My chest heaved. My legs hurt. I just couldn’t keep up.

While I don’t know for certain — I think this collection of experiences was the beginning of my issues with food and body size. I think these moments began to create in my mind a sense of destiny — that I would inevitably and always be ‘fat and slow’.

It’s weird though. I loved sports. Still do. I have always liked to play. I like to watch too. For many years in my life, I even participated in organized athletics. I was good at quite a few. (Still am). But my weight has always been a hindrance. From the very beginning — to this day.

So there’s that.
Several other factors came into play as the years went by.

First – Family Culture. As with many people in American culture, my people use food as an accessory to life. We eat when we’re happy, we eat when we watch the game, we eat when we’re sad, we eat when we’re mad and plotting against that jerk who hurt us. In fact, we use eating as a justification to get together in the first place! This in itself isn’t a bad thing either! Many cultures use food like this. It’s dreadfully common in American culture. And I learned it thoroughly in my family tribe.

My family never has eaten particularly well — (or poorly per se) — just ordinary home-cooked american fare by and large. But they do EAT. In fact, someone who doesn’t eat (and well) — sort of stands out like a black sheep in the culture and will more likely than not be goaded into getting more food on his/her plate. Some of the older women in my clan take particular delight in doting on the men, bringing them plates of food and deserts, ensuring their drink cups are full and their mashed potatoes are well gravies. Eating has always been encouraged. My people aren’t generally thin; they’re not profoundly overweight either. Plump. Happy. Well-fed.

Adding to this is our family culture of how food is used. More or less, I grew up learning that when something happens in life: be it good or bad, food is a very helpful way of working through it.

Win (or lose) that little league game? “Let’s go get Dairy Queen!!”

Rejected by a friend? “How about we commiserate over a milk shake?”

Get all A’s on that report card? “Let’s go out to eat and celebrate!”

Missing that loved one who passed away? “Well Chinese food it is then!”

Get accepted into that college? “How about a prime rib?!”

Seahawks playing in the big game? “How about a mountain of chicken wings!?!”

Ordinary Sunday night in June? “COOL! Let’s eat hamburgers and hotdogs and fries and macaroni salad and chips and…”

No matter what it was, our family always found a way to dig in hard. We laugh and gossip and eat and eat and eat. It soothes the soul. It masks the pain; it commemorates the joy. And in many ways, it is a beautiful thing.

It also ended up being a harmful thing for me in certain ways…

So as an adult, to this day, whenever something good happens — whenever something bad happens — whenever I complete something difficult or finish a project — whenever I get done with a week or a hard day — whenever I do something I’m proud of — whenever I do almost anything, the way to commemorate it that immediately comes to mind is food. Ice cream, a cake, cinnamon rolls, a dinner out, sweets, something special.

“Let’s celebrate”.

I’ve done it all my life. And I’m overweight now — in part because of it.

Second – Training –

It’s weird. I grew up in a religious culture that prides itself on healthy eating. I was part of the Adventist Christian tribe (still am actually — not in a fanatic/loony way though). It’s a pretty conservative bunch all in all although there are some more progressive/open pockets with which I identify.

Anyways, one key part of Adventist theology is healthy living and a healthy diet. Many many adventists are vegetarian or even vegan because of this principle. If you’ve ever heard of “Blue Zones” — 4 key regions in the world where people live abnormally long — and often well into their 100’s — well, Seventh-day Adventists in Loma Linda California are one of those blue zones. That’s my people. I grew up in their culture…in which the vast majority of people I knew ate EXTREMELY healthy. I mean — SUPER SUPER ahead of their time healthy. I have a grocery store in my town that would put whole foods to shame…and has for 40 years. It’s unbelievable. Local. Fresh. healthy.

Never the less — my HOME culture was not quite as strict on the whole religious culture of healthy eating. In a way however, I actually think that experience was better than some of the rigidity many of my friends had. I can imagine myself developing a whole other relationship to food that involved binging and hiding, sneaking and experimenting due to a lifetime of denial. Instead, my home culture was more moderate — albeit somewhat chaotic.

I lived in a divorced single-parent home for much of my childhood. My mom worked full time and had her own business. She had three kids in private school to worry about and a house with 10 acres to manage. Although she worked incredibly hard and is quite competent, something had to give. It was just about all she could do to put food in the fridge, period — let alone teach each of us kids in careful detail how to eat the healthiest possible meals. Much of what I learned about eating as a kid and teenager came from commercially produced and marketed products. I warmed stuff up from the freezer section from costco, learned to make french toast with syrup, I grew to like bagged caesar salad kids for a season, and downing carby soft pretzels with cream cheese. I don’t resent the way I ate as a kid — or the reality of the situation I was in. It’s just the truth.

I grew up learning how to graze. I grew up learning how to eat what was available at the time and what I could grab out of the fridge or freezer. I grew up not really knowing how to control portions or even knowing what appropriate portions were. Hell, half the time I ate my meals in front of the computer screen or with a game controller in my hand. I don’t know what it looks like — really — to live in healthy balance. I don’t totally know what it feels like to be satisfied. To feel comfortably full. To not snack. To eat healthy.

Of course, when I was at school, I ate an ok vegetarian meal but even those were hit and miss in terms of their healthiness.

This ‘education’ piece is yet another aspect of my life that has played into my obesity. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t make me a victim. I’ve made choices and still do. To this day — I’m still learning. But it’s hard for me to not admit that my background has played a role.

Third and finally — Coping

This is the big one for a great many of us in America (and I kind of already alluded to it in my first point here).

We use food to cope with our emotions – with daily life – with stress and sadness and anger and fear. Food feels good. (Perhaps moreso for some of us than for others). Food is a way of escape.

I have learned this many times over throughout my life.

I learned it when I couldn’t make friends with other kids at school and I came home and had an ice cream sundae.

I learned it when my brother’s dog died and there was nothing we could do about it but go out to eat at our favorite mexican restaurant.

I learned it when my grandparents died and I consoled myself with sweets.

I learned it when I screwed up on a test and washed the stress down with a milkshake.

I learned it when I lost my brother as a teenager and people brought us casseroles and pies and cookies and lasagnas.

From an early age I believe I ingrained a pattern in myself that food is a good coverup for uncomfortable and negative feelings…in fact, I think I learned that food could even help me not have to really think about or face those things directly. Instead of digging into the source of my loss — accepting it — wrestling against it — raging with it — sobbing for it — I could sidestep it completely. Not really explore it. Almost act as if it weren’t there. I could eat and eat and eat… And it’s like it would just fade.

Many things in our lives can do this.

Success. Exercise. Good Looks. Thinness. Money. Career. Degrees. Oh and of course the usual suspects: Sex. Drugs. Alcohol. Porn. Gambling.

In the Christian tradition, we sometimes talk about this dynamic as putting idols up in our lives — “what are the things you go to to make yourself feel ok?” we ask. “Instead of God, what do you look for? What do you reach out for? What do you need? What makes you ok?”

For me – it’s always been food. And often — it’s been ice cream.

Today — a strong craving for food is actually a trigger for me that I’m feeling something strong. It’s often the first thing I recognize. The food dynamic is so hard wired into my way of doing things that I don’t often feel the feeling first — I feel the craving and then walk backwards reasoning, “oh, I must be stressed or afraid or angry or sad…I wonder what’s going on?”

All these things played into my life over time — and each probably played off of (and complicated) one another as well. I’m sure there were other factors adding to the mix too (such as the great American industrial food complex and marketing machine, dieting patterns, lack of primary medical care etc.). I mean, would I have ended up so addicted to food had I been born 50 years earlier? Seems unlikely. But it certainly could’ve been possible.

In any case, those pieces bounced off one another for years in my life and produced weight gain, negative patterns, binging, unconsciousness, and the quintessential yo-yo dieting. And I do consider dieting to have played a realistic roll in all of this. I decided to take on my first diet in 2001 at the age of 20. I feel sad writing this and reflecting on it. I was about 260 lbs and (as I do now) felt very negative about my weight and appearance. [What I would do today to be 50lbs lighter!!] Anyways, I did the atkins diet for about 8 months and I was very serious about it. I cut out candy and sweets. I didn’t eat bread. I was a true believer. I lost a lot of weight. 40lbs or so. Everyone commented on how I looked. I had/got to buy new clothes because my old stuff was too baggy. I felt proud.

But that was during a year of service in college. (Think peace corps). In the summer following when I was back working at summer camp, the stress of work and 18hr days pushed me back into old patterns. My body betrayed me. By the time I was back in school in the fall, I had already regained some of the weight I had lost the previous year. By the following winter, I was back over 260 again.

Over the years, I’ve been on weight watchers (twice, both times losing more than 30lbs), carb restrictive diets (losing 20+), dieting pills (losing 30-40), etc., etc., etc. — ALWAYS to regain the weight. This is discouraging to recall. This is discouraging to remember. This is discouraging to hold as I look forward.

And I guess it is to be expected. This is the norm. This is what it looks like to inhabit an overweight body. Ours pulls us back to the weight with incredible force.

I’m heavy for many many reasons. I’ve gained all this weight over many many years. It’s been slow. It’s been a lot of food. It’s been a lot of small choices. It’s been a great collaboration of forces — some outside my control. Some within.

I want to close this post with a quick word on responsibility. I don’t write any of this in an effort to ‘pass the buck’ as it were. Earlier in this post I kind of alluded to the fact that we live in a culture that hasn’t really come to understand weight gain as anything more than a sign of poor self control. Without a doubt, I’ve had my moments. I’ve over eaten. I’ve eaten by myself. I’ve gone to drive thrus by myself. I’ve binged. AND I’ve also been influenced and impacted by a variety of forces outside my control or choice. It’s a system.

I have responsibility. It’s my life.

But I think saying ‘the reason I’m overweight is because I’m a slob’ is nonsense in the same way as ‘it’s because I’m a victim’. The truth lies somewhere in between. And I believe deeply that in order for me to recover, I will need to have compassion for myself. To give myself grace, as we call it in the Christian world. Unconditional love – unmerited favor. The benefit of the doubt.

We can start from there.