Aaron R. Davis
I’m fat. Overweight, heavy, whatever the euphemism is because the word “fat” has such a negative connotation now — it’s not just a descriptive word, because bullies and assholes have given it the edge of moral failing. But I’m that: a fat guy.
I got a steroid shot when I was nine to get over a series of near-constant ear infections that threatened to leave me deaf. When I was in junior high and high school, after my parents got divorced, I never learned to cook or ate healthy because my mother was too lazy to go grocery shopping more than once or twice a month. So I ate whatever was around — and not enough (yes, it’s possible to get fat because you’re underfed rather than overeating) — or ate fast food or tried and was very bad at cooking the rudiments of food when we did have it around.
For example, I ate a lot of raw, bloody hamburgers because I didn’t know I had the flame too high and figured they were done when they were overcooked on the outside. So I got sick a lot and missed a lot of school. For a few years — until about six months ago — I was on an anti-anxiety medication that produced a “static affect” that made me so complacent that I didn’t care about what happened or anything I did … and I gained 200 pounds.
So yeah, I think I’ve established my fat credentials. I’m not going to tell you how much I weigh, because the Internet is populated with 89 percent total assholes, and I don’t care to hear from them.
What I want to talk about is dieting.
My mom is a serial crash dieter. Whatever the big new thing is, she’s on it. For a little while, anyway. That’s just how my mom is. We all find it frustrating and we all try to be nice about it, and then when she’s done with it, we all move on.
I remember when it was South Beach. Or Atkins. Or when she was going to cut out all dairy. When I was a kid, she was on Jenny Craig for a while. She was on a kick a couple of years ago where she wouldn’t have anything with high fructose corn syrup in it, and swore by those energy drinks that are giving kids heart attacks now.
Currently, it’s gluten-free.
So now I get two-hour phone calls about the benefits of living a gluten-free life. It’s not like she has celiac disease, either; someone just told her about how genetically-modified wheat is harder for our bodies to break down, decided that was the root cause of all of her weight problems this month and decided to cut out all gluten.
Her method is always the same: someone says something, she tries it a little, she reads a book about it, accepts it uncritically and changes her entire life to do what the book tells her, spends a lot of time on the phone with me preaching about it, then suddenly really misses Big Macs, caves in and finally decides that she’s failed at something else and decides never to do it again. And then eventually we have to hear about probiotics or some other damn thing. And sometimes we get to eat pizza that tastes like cardboard with a smear of cheese on it because I want to be supportive of my mother. (And after that, my heart truly goes out to people who can’t have gluten.)
But this is the thing about my mom, and it’s the thing about a lot of people who want to lose weight but have bad habits that have become ingrained and are very hard to change: she’s too busy looking for the magic key to get a real handle on what she needs to change. She’s always looking for the one thing that she can do or cut out of her diet that’s just going to cause the weight to fall off entirely. And that key just doesn’t exist. It’s not as simple as no longer consuming gluten or high fructose corn syrup or dairy or meat or anything. Can those things help? Sure, if you can sustain eating that way, which is not easy for everyone. But it’s not that one Jenga piece that causes the entire structure to collapse. You’re not going to pull out that one plank and watch the weight just slough right off your body.
God damn, if only it were that simple.
People who haven’t had to worry about their weight or even people who’ve had some success with their weight too often act like the key is just “Well, stop eating so much.” They act like it’s easy. And for some people, it is. For others, it’s trying to erase years or decades of bad habits, and it’s not that easy. How many people do you know who stopped smoking by just deciding “Well, I’m done with that” and then never smoked again? Never craved another cigarette? How many alcoholics do you know who just stopped drinking and that was the end of it? Well, eating is the same thing, but just a little more insidious: we all have to eat, or we die.
So for those of us who are fat and trying to lose weight, it becomes this game of trying to find the right balance between not eating enough (which is usually my problem; my system thinks its starving and then gets shocked with food and retains almost everything, according to my doctor) and total self-loathing (which I’m also familiar with). We have to undo something that’s become an unconscious part of ourselves. And because fit people think it’s a simple matter of just making a decision, we often feel unsupported at best or like total failures at worst. Because in the same breath the media is telling us that a tray load of unhealthy food for five bucks is an incredible deal, it’s also telling us that there’s an obesity epidemic and it’s all because of our bad choices that we’re apparently abdicating personal responsibility for.
It’s hard to lose weight. I’m currently happy because I’ve lost 24 pounds in the last six months. That’s another thing about weight loss: it’s slow. There’s not a montage and then you’ve lost a hundred pounds. Sometimes people make you feel like you’re not losing weight fast enough, but if you lose it too fast, it just comes back; I’ve had that experience, too.
The best I can do is exercise, eat better (and eat enough) and not beat myself up for not living up to the standards of other people. Don’t do that. The worst thing you can do is internalize someone else’s standards. You already have the hard work of changing your default habits, as if you don’t have enough stress during the day. No one’s going to do that for you. Sometimes, the people you love won’t even support you — not because they’re jerks or they don’t care, but because they don’t understand what it means to you and how important it is, because they don’t have to put the work in that you do.
Just don’t get discouraged. Realize that this is what your life is now; there’s never going to be a point where you won’t have to be conscious of what you’re eating and its potential effect on you. And there’s no magic key that makes it all go faster; there’s nothing that just gets cut out and then you don’t have to worry about it. It’s work. It’s hard.
But if you’re lucky, one day you realize that this new approach to eating and living has become your new habit. That your old one has been replaced. And now taking that walk in the morning has become natural and practically unconscious.
You want a magic key to weight loss? You have to shape it first.
And I know, I know: I’m still fat, so who am I to lecture you on weight loss? I’m just a guy trying to think positive and who is actually losing weight for the first time in recent years of gaining it. I’m going through the hard, hard task of trying to change all of those habits, and I have faith that I’ll be able to do it. I have faith that you’ll be able to do it, too.
I just want both of us to have realistic expectations.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.