The danger of trying to be happy when you’re fat November 2, 2012

Living obese is like a couple of ambulances screeching by, sirens on fire. Those ambulances don’t affect you presently, but knowing that their rush is to tend to multiple casualties brings that passive foreboding, that palpable feeling that something has gone quite wrong. Like any prolonged health problem, the foreboding doesn’t really catch up to you until that ambulance is ordered on your behalf.

This is where my conflict comes in reading Ljudmila Petrovic’s article recently published in The Peak [“Fat happiness: Is it wrong to be fat?”, February 20]. That article focused on Kalamity Hildebrandt, a sufferer of the slings and arrows of a culture that values a human life so long as the body containing it fits certain parameters. While it is undeniable that the psychological damage conquered by Hildebrandt far eclipses my own, I know a thing or two about the receiving end of one of the last casual discriminations sponsored by people today. Her conviction and dedication to what she calls “fat politics”, however, is something I cannot identify with, as it would be an act of hypocrisy as I do everything I can to exit their ranks. It’s a hypocrisy that could well enhance the lives of those that embrace it.

As universal equality marches forward, the normal start to squirm a bit. When women got the vote, when the slaves were freed, and when civil rights was racing into existence, it’s not a stretch to imagine the psychological state of the previously “normal”, the people (invariably white men) who just had their superiority dismantled. “Who am I better than now?” was surely a common topic of inward conversation. With a new lack of socially acceptable targets comes the search for green pastures.

Luckily, nobody really sweats about coming down on fat people. Make a crack or disparagement about a person of colour, creed, or sex in mixed company and chances are that somebody is going to say something, or at least feel some righteous indignation. Not with fat people. Fat people are guiltless fodder, even for other fat people. Everybody likes feeling superior, and the fat have that nice padding to insulate them from feelings.

This is the social fabric that led to the vilification of the uncanny that Hildebrandt and I experienced in our earliest years. Her parents deviated from mine, in that mine figured a growth spurt and active adolescence would sort things out. Hers decided diet pills were the answer, putting them in league with her tormentors. This is second only to an acquaintance of mine whose parents looked the other way on a nasty cocaine habit because it made her skinny, and my heart feels for both of them. My heart sympathizes for that special moment, too, where the lion’s share of verbal and overt discrimination gives way to a quiet preference that never includes us, with that cutting “no fat chicks” adage that isn’t as gender specific as it looks. My heart is with these women, and everyone that dealt with fat discrimination in youth. But where in my heart is my brain?

My brain can’t subscribe. It is, in fact, a little chapped at the insinuation that there is a civil rights argument to be made for fat people like myself (“like myself”, a chorus that will run through this as I attempt to bait authority, a pudgy Richard Pryor standing in judgement of his own). Far be it for me to paint myself as a temporarily embarrassed skinny person, but I can’t put myself in a political struggle that co-opts the language and struggle of women and other minorities. Because the truth is, fat politics is consolation for a population with more in common with cigarette smokers fighting prohibition laws than with any suffrage movement.

Fat politics is consolation for a population with more in common with cigarette smokers fighting prohibition laws than with any suffrage movement.

Hildebrandt points to the unfair language of “epidemic”, describing the rise in obesity as troubling but gradual, not explosive. Similarly, the language adopted by Dr. Scott Lear, the much repeated refrain of “giv[ing] people the education and the tools with which they can make healthy life choices,” are fingers shoved in the ears of the overweight to drown out the klaxons of their own hastened mortality. Soft-pedalling the danger of obesity with a semantic argument or politicizing the lack of basic nutritional common sense is excuse-making of the highest order.

I’m not a fat person because of a lack of nutritional knowledge. I know constant snacking and large meals will keep me overweight. It’s not my mother’s fault I asked for seconds and her kindness granted it. It is the ingrained personality of the glutton, one alive and well in me. Even as I make the first real, successful strides of my life to exit the world of the fat, that gluttony is there, a drooling devil on my shoulder, trying to convince me that the pleasure felt by . . . anything, really, can’t last and can’t be repeated.

That thought pattern created the Super Size at McDonalds; have pleasure now because it might not happen later, damn the consequences and the logic. It’s an adorable lack of self-confidence in your ability to create pleasure at a later date. If it’s available now, eat it all. Where is the instant gratification of moderation?

While that same gluttony under control has served me well in other areas of my life (that hunger translates rather nicely into the areas of knowledge and relationships), it highlights the main difference between a fat person and an actual oppressed group: there are immediate health benefits to exiting the demographic.

There are citations to be made about the health risk factors of being in a recognized minority or group traditionally thought of as oppressed, but your risk of heart attack doesn’t plummet if you just stop being gay, an impossibility in itself. You can’t stop being a person of colour, and if you could, your cholesterol wouldn’t hit the skids if you did. You can, however, ‘stop’ being fat, and the benefits to doing so are many.

The carrying of excess weight is a documented, obvious health risk. To argue against the “medicalization” of the language surrounding the condition borders on delusional. The medicalization of obesity exists because it is a medical problem. To say otherwise is to fly in the face of decades of medical science, and is shockingly irresponsible.

Buy a sandwich. Not a hamburger, and not with a bunch of bacon on it. Some lean meat and a bunch of vegetables. Eat half. Throw the other half away. Do this for every meal for six months. You just lost weight. It’s not your glands, and it’s not your metabolism. It’s not medicalized to the point of shame, and it’s not conforming to what GQ has decided is the ideal man. It is a good caloric intake, and it’s putting yourself in a position to not die early, and to not spend those twilight years on a Rascal, beeping a horn at the able-bodied to accommodate your useless knees. It’s a person I don’t want to be, and that I refuse to be. So I throw that half a sandwich in the garbage because that moment of gratification isn’t worth years of disability, poor health, and being a strain on our system of medicine.

The first pieces I wrote for The Peak were part of a column called “Big man on campus”. They were a humour-filled look at the life and trials of fat people in a culture where a visible ribcage that can be played like a xylophone is a desirable trait. The pain of being ‘other’, and the pain of being ‘normal’ wasn’t lost on me then. It wasn’t lost on me when my parents were having conversations about whether they would be the ones planning my funeral. And it’s not lost on me that a brave section of our kind have decided to reject expectations and love themselves. It’s beyond commendable, and something I struggle with every day. But the rhetoric that placates the voices in their heads and the voices in the heads of others that suggests the health risk is minimal has to be nipped in the bud with as much prejudice as the voices that would keep us down and scared and ugly.

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