Reflections on Being Obese

No one ever gets up in the morning and says I think I’ll get morbidly obese today. It’s not like deciding one day to learn how to ski or ride a bike. Those take intention, practice and skill. Becoming obese isn’t intentional, it takes no practice and requires absolutely no skill.

 Many obese people begin life that way. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child. She wasn’t a great cook and knew nothing about balanced meals, so much of what we ate was battered, fried or boiled to a mushy mess. Fruit was a treat.  Cookies were available at all times.

Mom made excellent pies and apple dumplings. Her homemade noodles were delicious. Her concoction of sauerkraut, polish sausage and drop dumplings was to die for. I hated her fried chicken. The top half was crispy but the bottom half was drenched with oil. Mom’s bacon was inconsistent: sometimes it was done to a crisp but most of the time it was limp and soggy. I still dislike friend chicken and bacon!

So, if you believe that being obese is a learned condition, then I learned from my mom that I had to anything and everything that was put on the table. It made no difference whether you liked it or not: you were watched and monitored for food consumption. I never saw my mom write it down, but somewhere in her head she stored how much of what we had eaten.

If you believe that being obese has a genetic connection, then I am my Grandma Reiske’s relative. She was short like me and quite round. Grandma was not a good cook so she snacked. A lot. She loved cheese and crackers (so do I), chocolate (same here) and cookies (yep!). She could make a meal out of those items and feel quite proud of herself.

If you believe that becoming obese is inevitable for some of us, then that’s also me. When your diet is not balanced as a child, you put on weight. When you’re not allowed to play outside as much as you’d like, well, that’s what my life was like. When you spend most of your time in your room, alone, imagining happy scenarios, that was me. Without healthy food and limited activity, I was doomed from the start. Years of that set my body on a weight-gaining course that was hard to stop. I’d have “lean” years for me, but then more and more weight would pile on.

If you believe that morbidly obese people really like how they look, then you’re an idiot. Imagine standing naked in front of a mirror and seeing rolls of fat. Imagine watching your blubber jiggle with the slightest movement. Imagine taking a hand and pushing those rolls up and down. Then think of the clothes you have to wear: saggy, baggy plain, unattractive outfits designed to sort of mask the fat beneath.

No one gets up in the morning and tells themselves that they’d love to be puffy like the Pillsbury dough boy. No one revels in having a body that resists all movement except for down. No one wants to wobble like a duck when they walk through a grocery store, especially knowing that people are going to be checking out what’s in your cart. No one wants feet so bulgy that you can only wear slippers.

Your response is to say, then quit eating. Nice. If only it were that simple. I have a friend who records everything she eats and tries to stay at 1800 calories per day. You’d think she’d lose weight, but she doesn’t. Monitoring and maintaining is all she can manage.

You can eliminate all sugars from your diet. However, when you do, that oatmeal raisin cookie hollers your name so loudly and so persistently that you cannot block it out. Unless you’ve heard that call, you have no idea how powerful it is. It’s like being pulled by the largest magnet on earth, a magnet with so much leverage that you cannot fight it no matter how hard you try.

That’s what life is like for the morbidly obese: day after day that magnet pulls, your name is called, you resist and resist and resist until your willpower is weakened. And when you give up, you can either consume everything in sight or portion things out. The problem with portioning is that the other half is still there, still calling your name.

So when you see a fat person, instead of staring while you shake your head in disgust, stop and think about what that person’s life is like. And then remember that no one sets a challenge for themselves to be obese.

Reality Check

My friends know that I have always struggled with my weight. It defines me as a fat person. Many people see it as a symbol of slovenliness, laziness, and carelessness. Fat people are thought to be so stupid that they don’t understand the connection between what they ingest and how it manifests in the body.

Although weight isn’t supposed to be a factor when applying for a job, it is. I have sat on interview panels looking for teachers to fill particular positions. Despite being the most articulate, the most qualified in terms of experience and having the most confidence of all those interviewed, often they won’t get hired. Why? Because of a perception that weight will interfere with job performance.

What feels like a gazillion years ago I took a weight management class that my health care provider offered. I learned a lot about nutrition, self-talk and tricks to use to distract myself from eating. I did lose weight during the four-week class so I took it again. And again. As long as I was attending, I lost. It wasn’t huge amounts, but it made a difference. I felt in control.

A long dry spell without outside reinforcement passed before I broke down and joined Weight Watchers, now known as WW. I had stayed away because I feared being weighed in public. It’s one thing for me to look at myself in the mirror and be appalled: it’s another for a stranger to see the numbers. I’m not sure what I expected would happen, but in my mind, I imagined people gathered around the scale watching as each person was weighed. Everyone would see. Everyone would know.

That’s not the way it happens. From the first meeting I was hooked. I have been attending meetings for years. I would lose a little, and then put some back on. Lose a little, gain more. Up and down, week after week.

When my knees needed replacing I took it more seriously and lost more. Due to inactivity, it returned.

It seemed that I lacked discipline and focus. I wanted to lose because it would change my life in powerful ways. A skinnier me would be a respected colleague at work. When I spoke, peers would listen to the words, not gawk at my fat.

I would bring home the proper foods and stay on track. Except for the cookie that would turn into four and the M & Ms that fell into my palm in a cluster. There would be cake and pie at parties that I had to eat. Hamburgers and candy bars that I needed at the end of every shopping trip. Over and over I overindulged in things that I knew put on fat.

Thanks to WW I began to understand that I was not alone: millions of people are just like me. It’s like being in a club of like-minded individuals. Meetings brought us together to share our stories. We listened, knowing that the words spoken represented us.

Every week I was welcomed for who I was, not for who they thought I should be. Such acceptance from strangers was new to me.  Sometimes I was the fattest person in the room, but most of the time I wasn’t. Sometimes when I was frustrated I was silent and moody, but then someone would share an insight that opened my eyes.

Even so, my pattern of deprivation followed by indulgence continued. I’d lose a fair amount of weight, buy new clothes, then something would happen and the weight would return. I saw it as a natural process: something that occurred because of an injury or illness. That image allowed me to put the blame somewhere other than in my mind, in the things that went into my mouth.

Two years ago I needed an operation that was important enough to be done quickly. However the surgeon wouldn’t operate until I had lost at least thirty pounds. Do you know how embarrassing that is? The youngish, virile man looking at me as a slab of fat, like a roast to be trimmed. If I hadn’t been in tremendous pain, like other times when doctors told me I was overweight, I would have walked away and my pattern would have continued.

Instead I accepted his words for truth. For the first time I realized that I could no longer close my eyes and pretend that even though my clothes were huge, that it wasn’t all that bad. That was my first reality check.

I cried each time I wanted something unhealthy to eat. I walked past the package of cookies, the canister filled with candy with a sense of gloom. I couldn’t eat those things. I shouldn’t eat those things. I wouldn’t eat those things.

The pounds slowly disappeared because I embraced WW’s philosophy for the first time. I tracked what I ate. I stayed within my points for the day. I had been exercising for years, but I took things up a notch. Because I wanted that surgery, I took responsibility for myself being overweight and I lost the required amount of weight.

When I looked in the mirror in an honest fashion, I was proud of myself because of what I had accomplished. I still had more to lose in order to reach my goal weight.

Before I ignored the distance between where I was and where I should be, telling myself that I would never, ever get there. Now I told myself that I was on the way. All I had to do was keep following WW, keep attending reinforcing meetings, keep walking by temptations.

When I reached goal weight I was shocked and pleased. I also understood that because unhealthy food calls my name, that it would incredibly easy for me to put all those pounds back on. It might have taken me years, if we go back to when I took the classes, to lose eighty pounds, but if I fell back, those pounds would race back.

Two weeks ago my WW leader shared the message for the week. When tempted, we should pause and then do a reality check.

Imagine standing before a package of oatmeal cookies, your favorite. You pick up the  package salivating over the tender raisins, the oat texture. Then you pause with the package frozen in place. Conduct a reality check. Ask yourself if you’re truly hungry or if you’re just looking for something to put in your mouth.  If you’re hungry, ask yourself if there’s a better choice you could make. If not hungry, then question why you need food.

Recently I put this method to a test. I was in a grocery store and saw a package of prettily decorated miniature chocolate cakes. It called my name. I picked up the package and it was heading for my cart when it dawned on me that I should pause. I held the package, looking at the cakes. How many would I eat, I asked myself. I really only wanted one. I wanted to taste it, to see if it was as good as it looked. But then there would be eleven left. Who would eat them?

Anyone passing by probably wondered what I was doing. Imagine how peculiar I looked, standing there with a package of cakes hovering over my cart. Pretty comical, right?

The next step is the reality check. If I bought them, despite only wanting one, I would eat more. I would have at least one a day until they were gone even if they didn’t taste as wonderful as I hoped.

Did I really need them? Was it important for me to buy them? If I didn’t would I have other things to eat?

The answer to all questions was a resounding no. The package returned to the display and I walked away, telling myself if, after getting the healthy choices on my list, I still yearned for them, I could go back.

Guess what? The reality check really worked. Those cakes never entered my cart.

I have used this method several times a day since then. Every time I pass through the kitchen with the intent of grabbing something, I pause. Do the reality check. Reach for fruit or walk away.

Reality check keeps me focused on my health, my well-being, my desire to present myself in a positive image. I never again want to be the obese person that I was before. I could lose more weight, but I am pleased with who I have become. I am determined to utilize the reality check method whenever temptation arises.

Imagine if everyone utilized this method! There would be no fights, no drive-by shootings, no theft, no injuries to self or others. No hurting words would be said. No haughty smirks or cutting glances. No hurtful posts on social media. No angry emails or phone calls. The world would be a safer and happier place.

I am grateful to WW for sharing this with us. Reality check is a powerful tool that I intend to rely on as long as I have the cognitive power to do so.

How about you?

A Never-ending Battle

There are days when I feel like giving up.

Why do I have to sit and watch friends devour delicious looking food while I nurture my cup of low calorie soup and a bland garden salad? I so badly wanted the Thai curry that I read and reread the description so many times that I could taste the savory sauce, but, no, when you’re fat you don’t get to eat things like that. At least not in public.

Why do I feel guilty when I buy a bag of candy to bring home to share with my husband? When the clerk scans the bag, I feel like she stares at me wondering why a fatso would buy candy in the first place. I want to rip open the bag and unwrap a piece, stick it in my mouth and chew, all the while daring her to say something because people like me aren’t supposed to eat candy. At least not in public.

Why are public toilet stalls so narrow and the seats so low? Do the architects only envision skinny people using them? To be comfortable, truly comfortable, I like to use the handicapped stall, and I would, except for the evil-eye looks that you get when you emerge. And then I feel guilty because “normal” people fit in “normal” stalls, so there is obviously something wrong with me.

There is an assumption that all fat people eat themselves to death. That fat individuals sit in front of the television stuffing their mouths with bonbons while they feast on soap operas. That fat people don’t even bother with paper plates but eat right out of the bag, devouring everything inside. That fat people choose to be fat and refuse to do anything to change their status.

If only the scoffers knew the hours I put in at the gym. All the laps I’ve swum and the miles I’ve done on the elliptical and bike. All the weights I’ve lifted and the trainers I’ve hired and the steps I’ve climbed, all in an attempt to control my body.

If only they sat with me day in and day out and saw what I put in my mouth. All the fruits and veggies. The limited amounts of carbs and “bad” sugars. If they looked at my plate and saw all the white space in between each item and realized that I only take one helping and often don’t finish that.

Let’s talk about clothes. Designers don’t cater to fat people. Beautiful fabrics and styles are only for the emaciated. Fat people get frumpy looking old-lady sacks in cotton that pull and bunch in all the wrong places. Don’t they realize that fat people want to look nice? That they want to wear clothes that feel good, that hang just right and sport fabulous colors? The selection is so limited and the styles repetitions of what fat people have been wearing for generations.

Dressing rooms are not designed to make fat people look half-way decent. Often they are so poorly designed that fat people have to turn sideways in order to open and close the door. Often there is no chair or bench so that you have to stand to undress. Almost always there are mirrors on three sides so that a fat person can see their naked body from all angles, in glorious detail, a reminder that they don’t belong in a dressing room pretending that they’re going to find something that fits.

Cars and airplanes and theaters and restaurants are designed to let fat people know that they aren’t welcome there. Try squeezing a fat body between arm rests and sitting there for hours. Imagine holding your arms across your body for the entire voyage so as not to encroach on your neighbor’s space. Imagine what it feels like when you enter and see the expressions on people’s faces, hoping, praying that you aren’t going to sit next to them.

Even doorways and hallways conspire against fat people. Some doorways are so tight that a fat person feels like turning sideways in order to squeeze through. The same is true for walking down aisles, as in an airplane. Imagine what it feels like to look down the aisle and see arms and legs and bags sticking into the narrow space and wondering how you’re going to get through the obstacle course without annoying too many people!

Sometimes homeowners place furniture along walls that have to be passed through in order to get to the bathroom. Or furniture is arranged in such a way as to create a maze which requires turning this way and that in order to get through. Imagine how it feels to know that people will be watching, with mouths hanging open, waiting to see if the fat person will successfully navigate the path.

More than anything I hate the repeated failure.

I’ve know I was fat since I was three and saw a picture of myself standing next to my ninety pound mother. I was so puffed up that I had folds of fat at my wrists, ankles and elbows. My tummy stuck out like a barrel. I didn’t know the word fat then, but I learned it in Kindergarten when my classmates teased me and called me fatty. When the neighbor kids invited me to play games in which, no matter what they called it, the rules required that I stick my butt high in the air in order for them to laugh about the size of it.

From 1st through 7th grades I attended Catholic schools that required uniforms. Because we were poor, I never had a brand new one, but instead wore the hand-me-downs from give-away day. There was never any choice for someone my size. My mom would walk to the end of the table, sort through the three or four in my size, and pick out two that weren’t too badly stained or faded. Now hear the teasing about being too big for new clothes, about being so fat that nothing fits and picture tears running down my face.

About this time a new cigarette came on the market, Tareyton. My brother loved the name. He turned it into Terry weighs a ton and would follow it with pretending that his finger was a needle that could puncture my thigh, followed by a whistle that indicated excess air spewing forth.

In fifth grade, sitting next to a classmate at church, I heard laughing. I looked toward the sound, only to discover that every girl sharing the pew with me had tucked their skirts under their thighs which were thinner than just one of my leg. From then on I hated church.

I attended two different high schools and was the fattest kid in each. This was when I learned the torture of PE. Imagine undressing in front of dozens of thin girls, day after day. Imagine lining up, buck naked, to go into the shower, where the only salvation came at the end when a teacher handed you a postage-stamp sized towel. Hear the snickers. Hear the derision.

It made no difference that I was one of the best athletes. Give me a sport, any sport, and I could play better than most of my peers. Did I earn respect? No.

Make me run laps around a field and I come in dead last, every time. My sophomore year I decided to train on my own. Weekends and nights I’d run the track, around and around, stopping when it hurt too much to continue. Did I lose weight? No. Get any faster? No.

Over the years I have dieted. I have lost weight. Lost more weight. Lost even more, but then would get stuck, still at fat. Then I’d put on weight. Lose some. Gain back even more. Lose a bit. Gain back lots more. Up and down, over and over, until now, at my age, I’m stuck in a cycle of miniscule changes.

I’d like to be thinner. I’ve never wanted to be skinny like a model, but thinner, yes. I’d like to go to a meeting and not be the fattest person in the room. To sit with my church choir and not be the fattest person there. When I’m a reader at church, to believe that the congregation is listening to the words I’m proclaiming and not looking at the size of my butt as I climb the steps up to the ambo.

I’d like to go into a department store, a regular store that sells stylish clothes to beautiful people, and know that I can find a variety of things to buy. I’d like to have racks and racks of clothes to pick through. I’d love to be able to go shopping with a friend and know that I can shop in the same part of the store where she can shop.

But at my age I find that I’m giving up.  I’m tired of the fight. I lack the energy to keep pretending that someday my body will look like other people’s. I’m tired of weighing in every Saturday only to discover that sometimes I’ve lost a fraction of a pound or that I’ve gained three pounds in two days. I’m tired of walking through life with my eyes locked on a distant target, imaging that if I can’t see people looking at me, then it isn’t happening.

I also know that I cannot succumb to my frustrations. That I will not give up, because if I do, then I am admitting to myself that I am a failure. Have been for over 66 years. And as my birthday approaches this week, I understand that my health is being compromised in ways that I have yet to discover.

I don’t want to die young. I don’t want my body to give up on my and cut my life short. I have too much to live for. A husband who loves me. Wonderful children and their significant others of whom I’m proud. Grandchildren that I love spending time with and whom I want to remember me as a kind, loving person, not as a fat lady. (Unfortunately they have been old enough for some time now to ask why I’m so fat!)

I am angry at myself for failing at losing weight. I am angry at the world for having no room for people like me. I am angry at the many industries that cater only to skinny people when the vast majority of people are no longer skinny.

I don’t want to give up, but I am tired of the fight.