This post will be first in a series about weight, health, spirituality, and food issues, which I am labeling after the title of my second book. They’re not excerpts from that book, more like posts about how my views have changed, what my body life is like now, and what I am doing, thinking, and working on surrounding those issues that drove me to write The Body Sacred in the first place.
This will be the only time you get to see me in my undies, though, so enjoy it.
“Hello, my name is Dianne Sylvan, and I am morbidly obese.”
At time of writing I weigh 310 pounds and my BMI is something like 48. I don’t really trust either of those numbers as indicators of health–I wrote an entire book on the diet industry, spirituality, and body image, and I still believe at least 95% of every word I wrote.
The thing is, when I wrote that particular book, I was about 80 pounds lighter than I am now. And believe me when I tell you it’s a whole different world for me six years later.
I’ve been belittled, ignored, and openly mocked for my weight since I was in my early 20s and only topped out at about 220 pounds. Now, I find that I’m basically ignored, until my back is turned, whereupon I get eyerolls that people think I don’t catch in my peripheral vision. When I tell people I’m a vegetarian they look at me as if I’m a liar, and when I say that I dance, they almost have to stop themselves from saying, “Yeah, right.”
Here’s something I’d like all smaller people to remember, and not just for my sake.
When you see a morbidly obese person at the grocery store on her motorized cart trying to buy food, or get out of a car, or fit into a movie seat, sure, you see how hard she’s fighting to do normal things. Sure, you think of the misery, and the potential for disease and the incredibly hard wear she’s putting on her joints. Maybe you feel scorn, maybe pity. Maybe she reminds you of the people in your family–and I’d bet even money someone in your family qualifies–who have dealt with diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, all of which are easily treated, if not reversed, by a switch to a plant-based diet. Or maybe you think she’s lazy and nasty.
But don’t for one second, ever, ever assume that she’s not aware of it too.
There’s never any reason to give a stranger “tough love” about her health. There’s no reason at all to think that the woman you’re about to belittle for being too fat to go through a door without turning sideways is completely ignorant of the risks and pain. There’s no need to mock her or tell her she needs to lose weight, because she lives in America, for fuck’s sake. She already knows.
Have you ever met an American who had never, ever heard about Jesus Christ? Probably not, despite what the streetcorner evangelists cry. And you’ve never met anyone who hasn’t heard the Skinny Gospel either.It’s on every channel, in every magazine, all over the internet, on billboards, in grocery stores, doctor’s offices, the sides of buses, the radio.
We’ve all heard it. And chances are, we’ve all been trying.
For most of us, being obese comes with a high price tag. We’re uncomfortable, we’re hot and sweaty, we’re in pain, we have to plan our day based on limited mobility and trying to avoid huge crowds of assholes–and diet book authors–who think it’s all right to belittle someone and make them feel like a huge fat blob of worthlessness…for the sake of their health. You know, because they care so much about our health. At no point are we ever not aware of how fat we are. We know, okay?
No matter how many books it sells for you, no matter how justified you may feel, repeat after me: YOU CANNOT HATE SOMEONE FOR THEIR OWN GOOD.
When you scorn the fat girl on the bus, you don’t know anything about the circumstances that led to her size. She might have already lost 200 pounds by nearly killing herself with anorexia. She might have gained the weight because she was gang raped and part of her coping mechanism was to insulate herself against the rage of men with a layer of fat. She might have been in therapy for years trying to resolve that. She might have just started the life changes that are going to help her achieve good health–and that health might not include being thin. She might have started out at 400 pounds, where even a year later of intense mindfulness training, exercise, and nutrition counseling she’s only gotten down to 325 because losing it slowly is healthier and more sustainable. She might have had bariatric surgery and now has to worry about malnutrition, blood clots, scar tissue, skin fold removal, and possible complications up to and including death. And she might be working her ass off, literally, day after day, overcoming psychological and social stigmas that amount to being considered worthless and disgusting simply because she has that fat ass.
So shut. The fuck. Up.
Leave us alone. If you’re our friends and you’re worried, say something, and talk about it rationally. Some of us might be really defensive, but it’s probably because of people who do what I was just talking about. But still, chances are, we know. We’ve tried. We’re still trying. But there’s so much more to it than calories in/calories out, despite what all the Weight Watchers/Jenny Craig/Nutri System “scientists” claim. If you’re not addressing the emotional issues that cause you to reach for food as a way to cope with life, then nothing is ever going to work: not Points, not premade meals laden with chemicals, not drugs, not gastric bypass. They’re all bandages for the wound that is still gaping year after year: a wounded and hurting spirit.
It all seems so straightforward to people who aren’t living with actual obesity. Calories in, calories out. But until you’ve been in this body with its constant back pain and aching knees, the inability to wear normal clothes, the fear of disease looming even after blood chemistry comes back 100% normal, and the whole world looking at you like some kind of fatty pariah, the reality of it is safe to laugh at from the other side of the TV screen or the other side of the restaurant.
Don’t assume you know what I’ve been through. Don’t assume you know what I eat. Don’t assume you know anything about my issues or what attempts I’ve made not to be what you consider a sexless, heartless object who is apparently also deaf.
I’ve noticed that people who are cruel to the obese also tend to use the same kind of tone and language when talking about farm animals, as if we’re only as smart as a hog because we look so much like a hog. That makes it okay to be cruel to a woman who reminds you of an animal it’s okay to be cruel to because hey, it’s not as if it’s a real person. All you can see is fat. When you try to give “advice” to someone from that mindset, you don’t really care about helping them. You care about assuaging your own fear that one day you’ll be in the same shape and everyone will hate you too.
I long maintained that being fat was not the death sentence that pharmaceutical company-funded studies wanted you to believe. And to a large degree I still believe that. I believe that it’s possible to be healthy at a wide range of sizes as long as you’re active and eat a healthy diet of whole foods, minimizing animal fats and proteins and emphasizing plants.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think there are limits. Each person has a sort of healthy zone of size, diet, and activity in which they function optimally without having to do anything extraordinary to maintain that health. Now, for athletes that might be different, since training and so forth might involve a different diet and workout regimen for however long the event goes on, but for most people, “wellness” is a green area (sounds healthier than “grey area”) in which you maintain a range of weights for your height based on your activity level, all fueled by the optimal eating habits for your body, not anyone else’s, not what some chart says, not what some celebrity says. You, and you alone, are in control of your overall health, and only you can decide what feeling healthy is. For you it might look very different from me. And that’s okay.
We’ve had it drilled into our heads that health means uniformity of size, muscle mass, and calories in/out, but that’s just not true, and to try and force ourselves to conform to someone else’s body is not only placing unfair pressure on them, but on ourselves, because we’re trying to do away with what makes us unique and beautiful…to become someone else. A copy of the original is never as beautiful. To paraphrase Margaret Cho, don’t fail as someone else. Succeed as yourself.
No, I am neither satisfied with nor comfortable with my obesity. I am taking steps to address it, but it takes time. Any solution for this condition that has a hope of succeeding over the long term is going to require two things: time, and change from the ground up. It’s not enough just to change what you eat or how often you jog. If you don’t address the underlying issues that got you to obesity in the first place, you’re going to end up right back where you are as soon as your enthusiasm fails, because those old patterns and beliefs are still in place waiting for a chance to whisper in your ear that you’re not worth it, that you can’t succeed, that you’re a loser who’s never been able to lose weight before…why should you now?
It’s not impossible. But the world we live in does its damnedest to make it seem impossible. If all you have to do is eat a healthy plant-based diet and get moderate exercise, then what would the weight management centers, bariatric surgeons, pharmaceutical companies, “diet” cola makers, “fat free” snack makers, “Biggest Loser” shows complete with DVD tie-ins, books, weight-loss bars and shakes, clothing, supplements, and branded water bottles and pedometers do to make money? What about all those “healthy” fast food salads which end up having more calories and fat than a Big Mac? If food were not the enemy, and our bodies not an ongoing war, then what about those desserts that claim “you deserve indulgence,” or the countless plastic surgery centers who claim getting pounds sucked out of your thighs is as easy as a manicure, or the TV personalities who sell exercise DVDs as well as their own personal line of weight loss bars and pills?
It’s so hard to pull back the bullshit curtain and see what’s underneath: it’s just you and your body and a world full of food. And I’m sure you, like me, have treated your body like a war zone for most of your life, and developed such a dysfunctional relationship with food and your flesh that it could be its own episode of Jerry Springer.
And while I don’t have any solid answers on how to make it all better, I can tell you with absolute conviction what can’t: hatred.
Much of what we do to our bodies is violence. We restrict and starve. We binge until our stomachs hurt. We go under the knife and have foreign objects implanted in our abdominal cavities. We have fat sucked out. We run and run and run on the treadmill until every muscle tears and we cry. We eat processed, unsatisfying, chemical-laden food aiming for a certain number of calories or carbs without regard for taste or joy. And we stand in front of the mirror screaming, “Why aren’t you thinner? Why can’t you be beautiful?” as if we were at basic training in our own personal hell.
All of this in the name of health and beauty.
The basic choice for all of us is this: Do I want to totally abnegate my physical form, gradually hacking parts off and starving it down and making it smaller and smaller until I have no body at all, living only in my head because I’m afraid to face the years of pain I’ve stored in my flesh? Or do I want to live fully in this body, the only one I get this time around, and learn to live in healthful ways that make my heart and body both feel loved, cherished, and strong? One choice is essentially death. The other is life. Live, or die: that’s what it comes down to in the end.
You can’t make that choice for anyone else and you can’t force it on them. But when someone’s sword is pointed at her own throat, you can’t disarm them–it’s up to them to lay that sword down.
Meanwhile, try laying down your own…as I’ll try to lay down mine.
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