As literally everyone who has seen me knows, I’m fat. My doctor knows, and, unless I have a cold, refuses to give me any medical advice other than “lose weight.” People on online dating sites know. Before I started dating my girlfriend, I’d get messages from ladies that read things like, “You’re pretty for a big girl,” “I don’t mind a lady with a little extra meat,” or “You look like a big ol’ teddy bear!” They never got a response, and I remained single for awhile, since my dating prospects seemed limited to people who begrudgingly accepted a size 18 if it was attached to a china doll face or fat fetishists.
You know who else knows I’m fat? My computer. Every time I get tagged in a full-body picture, I get weight loss ads on Facebook for at least a week. It takes at least 4 cat pictures to start getting ads for home pet euthanasia again. I also can’t Google a cake recipe for a birthday without getting ads for Bill’s Shake Shack.
Food has always been an issue for me. The second I started to grow breasts, I struggled with my weight and with disordered eating for more than a decade. I’ve tried many diets, like Weight Watchers and the “nothing-but-almonds diet,” weird pills and cleanses, and even bulimia, but honestly, nothing seems to work long-term. It’s hard not to want to give up.
But what’s even harder is feeling like you’re constantly disappointing everyone around you. It seems it’s okay for society to treat obese people the same way we treat people who litter. The assumption is that there is a willful laziness involved, that would only take, like, a second to fix. The sense that I’m disappointing everyone with my weight has caused me to stop celebrating holidays. I no longer go home for Thanksgiving, I don’t have birthday parties, there’s no more 4th of July barbecues. I might start skipping Christmas too.
A lot of my weight came from the stress of graduate school and living on a student’s budget. I had to make meals that cost little, filled us up, and pleased both me and my girlfriend. That’s not easy. My weight skyrocketed, and I haven’t been able to lose it.
While I was gaining weight exponentially, I was taking online classes on medical librarianship. I’ve always loved medicine, and being a medical librarian seemed lucrative and fun. What I hadn’t counted on, though, was that much of the coursework centered on nutrition and invited fat-shaming.
“It’s so crazy how fat people come to the doctor and complain of pains and illnesses! It’s like, you’re fat, duh, of course you’re sick!” a student would say. The professor always seemed to agree. I kept my mouth shut until one day when I had to design an app for a project, and a teammate suggested we do something about nutrition and childhood obesity.
“It could warn kids not to eat sugar!” she said. “Or give them nutritional facts! And help parents know what their kids are eating!”
“How about more like meal tracking?” I said, “It could remind them to play each day, even.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Well, a kid could write down what they normally eat, and after awhile, the app could be designed to suggest substitutions that would be healthier, but just as filling. Like, a kid who eats potato chips every day could be recommended carrot sticks, or baked chips, and if it’s sunny they could get a push notification that reads something like, ‘It’s a beautiful day! Go out and play!’”
“Why not just tell the kid to cut out snacks altogether?”
“That’s not realistic. They already hear that. Being hungry is hard. If it learned their appetite and how much they ate, making the transition would be easier. Giving them little goals and rewards is a good idea, too.”
She sighed. “I thought this would be easy.”
“Weight loss is hard.” I said, “But I was a fat kid. I know what I would have needed to help.”
We went with my idea.
People who’ve never struggled with their weight seem to assume that those of us who’re fat have never tried to be thinner. If we claim we’ve tried and tried, they think we’re lying. I decided about a year ago to stop going to the doctor because I had this conversation one too many times:
“Is there a way you can check my metabolism or recommend something?” I asked. “I’ve already changed my diet and—“
“Have you tried eating more vegetables and less sugar?” she said.
“Yes. I don’t eat much sugar,” I said.
“Have you tried cutting out red meat?” she said.
“I don’t eat meat at all. I’m vegetarian,” I said.
“Have you tried drinking diet soda?” she said.
“I don’t drink soda. When I do, it is diet,” I said.
“Are you sure you don’t eat meat?” she said.
“YES!” I said.
Once when I went to a doctor for nausea, and he said, “Good! Maybe you’ll lose weight!”
While that doctor was an asshole, I know most doctors are just trying to help. They also have no way of knowing that I’m NOT lying. They just don’t know how to help, and they likely don’t have the time or energy to get to know every overweight patient they have. They’ve also probably seem a lot of people who were unwilling to change their diet and suffered greatly, or died. The doctors I’ve seen, though, haven’t had much to say other than to tell me to do what I’m doing.
The fact is, losing weight is hard. It’s expensive, too. Replacing cheap and abundant fatty food with healthy food puts a real strain on your wallet. Even starving yourself can backfire. I found that out the hard way and keep re-learning that lesson. Every so often I get so frustrated that I just stop eating.
It might shock many people to learn that this is true of most fat people. There’s no ignorance involved, we don’t live with funhouse with mirrors that make us look thinner, when we went up a size we bought larger clothes, and we want to live. Many of us are just tired.
In my case, I live with my beautiful, skinny fiancée, who can eat anything she wants and whose interests in dieting stop at vitamin-enriched Pop Tarts. I am more than twice her size, and she’s studying to be a doctor. Every now and then, I watch her disparage herself in the mirror, calling herself fat. She’s not. Objectively or subjectively. I couldn’t think of any reason why she would think so, until I met her family.
Soon after I did, I noticed that whenever they phoned, they said, “Don’t get fat!” instead of “Do well in school!” or even “Good luck!” No well wishes. Just a warning to not allow her weight to go up. She must have been told that from a young age. I eventually stopped going to dinner with her to see them, and when I must for an event, I spend weeks steeling myself, because the subject always somehow magically turns to weight, nutrition, and indirect statements about how I must be failing myself.
It’s baffling to me how she even stays so thin. I sit next to her with a perfectly-portioned meal and dreaming later of my well-planned-for cookie, and she eats her meal, plus three cookies, plus a cheese stick and a late-night sandwich. We’ve stopped going out to eat, because I spend hours studying my meal choices online ahead of time, and then when we arrive, the waiter always gives me the Party ‘Till Your Pants Rip Burger and her the Whole Wheat Kale Surprise Wrap without asking who ordered what.
She eats at least twice as much as I do. Sometimes I wonder if I’m not somehow magically absorbing her calories for her. Am I cursed? I’ll never know!
What I do know, though, is what doesn’t help. And, now that I’m done complaining, I’ll tell you the top 5 things you might be saying to an overweight loved one, or to yourself, that isn’t helpful:
- “Have you tried the _____ diet?” If it wasn’t invented last week, there’s a good chance the answer is yes, or that they looked in to it, and it wasn’t right for them. For example, I’m a vegetarian and almost completely vegan. Many diets are centered around lean meat and no carbs. I don’t do ANY meat, and cutting out carbs has always left me weak and eating pretty much nothing but vegetables, which makes you sick after awhile. Most fad diets also aren’t good for people who might need to be on them long-term, those who need to lose 100 pounds or more. That takes a looong time. Especially for women. You can recommend diets if someone asks, but do NOT offer them dietary advice uninvited. Especially as they’re taking a bite of a freshly-baked brownie. Seriously.
- “It hurts me to see you like this.” It hurts us to hurt you, but it’s not exactly a choice. It also hurts me to see people who wear basketball shorts with dress shoes, but they made that decision when they got up, and could just go home and change. The more we learn about metabolism, health, and weight loss, the more we learn that weight has a lot of complex causes. Making statements like that to someone who is heavy and likely doesn’t feel great about it themselves has been proven to backfire and cause long-term psychological damage.
- “Just stop buying bigger clothes!” I tried this for a long time. I decided I just wasn’t going to buy clothes in a size up. The idea here is that not buying larger clothes will inspire you to lose weight. In the meantime, though, squeezing day after day into clothing that doesn’t fit is discouraging, and gives you low self-esteem. People who are suffering from low self-esteem have more trouble turning down cookies than most. Instead, buy a couple cute outfits that fit you right and are in your favorite colors. The second I did, I started getting compliments, and even got catcalled twice for the first time in years. (While catcalling is bad, I was glad to know I looked good enough for a stranger to wolf-whistle me from his truck.)
- “You could get diabetes, you know.” We know. Some of us DO have it. Our doctors told us. They HAVE to tell us. You don’t.
- “Have you tried going to Curves/power walking/swimming/etc?” (Also, why is it almost always exercises that are stereotypically associated with people over 60?) There’s a good chance that, yes, we have. Maybe we didn’t like it. Maybe it wasn’t working fast, and we got discouraged. Maybe we didn’t have support. Maybe we have a health problem that prevents it, or puts us at risk of injury. If you want to help and be supportive, ask us to go on a long walk next time you do. If your loved one seems open to exercising, offer to go with them. You don’t want to know how many people are afraid to exercise due to judgement and would love to have a supportive friend to go with them to the gym. Hell, I’m one of them. I’d love a workout buddy.
The most important thing you can do is be supportive and compassionate. Understand that this is hard. Understand that making it about you or shaming your loved one won’t help them. Asking them what would help them might. Encouraging them when they make the decision on their own might. Letting them know you’re proud of them will. Celebrating small victories will.
Support is the greatest gift you can give someone who feels alone or ostracized, and that’s definitely true of us.