Note: When I started working on this post, I didn't know that I'd be posting it just a couple of days before the first anniversary of my first run. On May 14, 2012, I ran eight one-minute intervals, interspersed with 90 seconds of walking. I told myself that I would not quit until I could run a continuous mile. By the time that happened, there was no way I was going to quit. The following post isn't about that time, except in the ways that it totally is.
I'm going to change some names here—all of them but mine and Jed's—because this is a discussion about shame, and I don't want to shame anybody. I love the people involved, and I'm engaging in speculation, and it's best for everyone if we keep it private. At the same time, it is very much my story, and mine to tell at that. It's important, and I've been looking for ways to talk about it for a while now. In fact, I've given the daughter in this story my middle name—her mother might as well have been talking about me a year or so ago. And, now that I think of it, probably was. But, really, this conversation could have happened between me and any number of people, or between any number of other people about me.
The other day, a woman I know complimented me on my running, and mentioned her daughter. "I hope you'll talk to Ellen the next time you see her," she said. "Maybe you can inspire her."
I didn't really know how to answer this. It was supposed to be a compliment, an encouragement of me, an expression of pride in my accomplishments. But what I heard was this: "I hope you'll talk to Ellen because she's unacceptably fat like you were and now that you're not as fat, maybe you can help her decide to be less fat because I don't like how fat she is."
I wasn't even, at the time, upset about the implications for me ("You used to be unacceptable, too, and I'm so glad you're almost not unacceptable now."). All I could think about was Ellen who has, for various reasons that aren't terribly important to this part of the story, put on a good deal of weight in the past few years. I haven't always been fat, although I was often treated as such as a child, and I understand what it's like to wake up one day and realize that your body is out of your control. I also know what it's like to have people criticize me, be it to my face or behind my back or—my personal favorite—via some sort of backhanded compliment. I know what it's like to have people pause for a minute when they talk about other fat people around me. I know what it's like to have an awkward silence fill the room.
I should be clear about the fact that Ellen’s mom loves her—and loves me, for that matter. It’s not a question of love. It would be nice if unconditional love meant unconditional acceptance, but I’ve already talked about how unrealistic that is. Ellen’s mom loves her, and would be heartbroken to think she was hurting her in any way. She doesn’t see it as part of her nature to hurt anyone, much less her own children. But she does. She does hurt the people she loves, as we all do, as every person who has ever been loved has done since whenever humankind first stepped foot upon the Earth. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.
Fat in this country is treated like a moral failing, despite a 2010 CDC study which states that almost 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese. Even fat people condemn those who are fatter than they are, or are secretly grateful to not be the biggest person in the room (I suspect that if you've never surveyed a room full of people to determine whether you're the biggest person in it, you've probably never had a weight problem. Or maybe you're just way more comfortable with yourself than I will ever be. If that's the case, good on ya, as my friend Sugah says). Fat people laugh at fat jokes to prove that they’re not injured by them, and it perpetuates the idea that it’s okay to do so. After all, we are fat because we're uninformed. We are fat because we're lazy. We're fat because we're gluttonous. We're fat because we lack self control or impulse control or willpower.
Let me tell you this: the people I know—and there are a lot of them—who struggle with weight do not do so due to a lack of willpower. People with weight issues, both those who weigh too much and those who don't weigh anywhere near enough, have some of the strongest willpower I have ever seen. Problem is, it's not a question of will. It's far, far more complicated than that. Those of us who have unhealthy relationships with food are fighting a battle with a necessary substance. We cannot survive without it, plain and simple. One of the women I talked to while I was preparing this post told me she "loved it" (and even though we were chatting online, I could see the eye roll) when people said to her, "Just stop eating!" I told her she should tell them to just stop breathing. It simply doesn't work that way. I believe this complication is one of the reasons why what I think of as "un-food" diets—plans that require pre-made meals or meal replacement shakes or some sort of appetite suppressant—are so popular. I believe—and I've asked a couple of them about this—it's also one of the reasons why some of the friends I have who chose bariatric surgery found success with that route. If we can remove food from our lives, the way an alcoholic can empty the contents of the liquor cabinet down the drain, then we have evened the playing field enough for our willpower to be enough. It’s also the reason why those plans and even surgical options, so often end up failing: we cannot exist without food, and the plans themselves don’t change our wiring. They can however, if participants are lucky, give us the space we need to do so.
After I had this conversation with Ellen's mom—whom I'm going to start calling Alice for no particular reason than that it's my own mom's middle name, and it'll help me keep the fake names straight—I said to Jed, "I hope Alice doesn't make Ellen feel like shit about her weight. But I think she probably does."
Jed agreed, and then said, "I never know what to say—to Ellen, to [one of our obese friends] Jacob. I didn't know what to say to you. I just kept quiet and hoped that you'd figure out a way to start taking care of yourself before it caused you any serious health problems."
And here's a longer, more detailed version of what I told Jed: There is nothing to say. I can talk to Ellen, and I probably will the next time I see her, about my own process and about the almost magical way I managed to get my own head straight. I can tell her about what I went through as I was starting my running program. I can tell her that I was never successful at figuring out my own relationship to food until I started eliminating processed foods (especially artificial sweeteners, but also frozen meats and factory-produced breads) from my diet. I can tell her about my constant battle against my own perfectionism and the various methods I have of letting myself know that I don't have to be great at everything: I only have to be enough. She might know all this already. She might read the blog. She might follow the posts on Facebook. I don't know. But I'm pretty sure she'll ask me about it, and when she does, if we have some time and maybe some privacy, I'll tell her about it.
What I can't tell her—and what trying to "inspire" her is sure as hell not going to help—is how to figure that part out for herself. My ability to figure it out as much as I have is a mystery to me, and I'm well aware that I could lose my grip on it at any time. I don't know how I put the various pieces together, how I somehow managed to take my stress and grief and turn it towards gaining control instead of mourning the control I was losing. I don't know why I turned to running in the face of Turquoise’s impending death, or why I continued to run after that death, and I don't know why this appears to be the time—after an entire life of trying to fix my relationship to food and my relationship to exercise—that it's sticking. I know what I have to do to hang onto it—keep with a program, be open about my exercise so that I'm accountable, continue to make conscious choices about what food I buy and what food I eat, repeatedly remind myself that success comes in accepting life as a normal person and that normal people sometimes take a day off or eat dessert. That food is neither reward nor punishment, that enjoying food isn’t a moral weakness, but that it also, most likely, is not the solution to whatever problem I may be facing at the moment. I also have to remind myself that it’s not all that much more healthy to replace a personality of food excess with one of exercise excess. Mostly, I try to keep in mind that I can have anything I want, but that doesn't mean I can have everything I want.
And I can commiserate with her about people—like her mom—who don't have an unhealthy relationship with food (or at least not in the same way we do), who make it clear by the way they approach us that they don't understand what our problem is or how it works. Because if they don't have a stake in this particular fight, then odds are good that they don't understand us at all. Maybe they think it's a matter of willpower or maybe they think that we're putting our own pleasure ahead of whatever the hell they think we should or maybe they're just so happy to be feeling superior to us in this one particular aspect of life that they don't really care about what we're experiencing. Maybe, like Jed, they are pained and keep silent anyway and wait.
I'm well aware that this won't be a popular stance, but I'll tell you this: that's the best thing they can do. Stay silent and wait. And I mean actual silence, not disapproving silence, not pointed silence, not the kind of silence where everyone involves knows what they're thinking. The other thing they can do is offer genuine support. Jed has never argued with me about keeping sweets out of the house, about rearranging our schedules for workouts, about how I eat or when I eat. He joyfully joins me for ice cream or some other treat on occasion, but never suggests it. He signed up for a 5K with me, and ran it, despite being unsure he would be able to finish (he finished). When he hugs me, he'll sometimes pause contemplatively and say, "Hm. Littler." And he has done this year after year, through various abandoned plans and regimens, for almost all the time we've been together. And the times when I've fallen off-track? He has voiced his concerns—gently, and in brief—and then he has returned to keeping his mouth shut.
So here is my advice for those of you who do not struggle, and for those of you who once struggled and have now figured your way out, and for those of you who are somewhere in the middle of the process: be loud in your support. Be vocal and cheerful and tell the people you love that you love them. Be the one place they can stand without judgment. Be proud of them for all the reasons you love them in the first place. Be honest (telling an obese person s/he is not fat doesn't do anyone any favors), but only when the conversation is opened to you. Be kind. And be that person for them for as long as it takes. Their task is difficult; yours is almost impossible, but it is desperately important.