Do these Genes make my butt look big?
BY T. DEAN ADAMS
On a long road trip a casual lover revealed that she wanted our relationship to become more serious. Completely surprised, I asked why she hadn't brought this up before. She hesitated. "You know what I'm going to say, don't you?" She began crying.
I nodded and kept my eyes focused on the road. "It's your weight," she said. "I always pictured myself with someone thinner." Still crying, she insisted that she now loved my body and wasn't asking me to change a thing. "I was attracted to you," she continued, obviously embarrassed to admit, "but I worried what other people would think…" My glare stopped her from finishing with "…if I had a fat girlfriend."
The car filled with a roaring silence and I remembered my favorite purple dress from childhood. I was wearing it the first time a classmate teased me about my size. I looked in a mirror and wondered, "Do I look fat in this dress?" I was 10 years old.
All grown up now, I was no longer happy to be traveling with my lover. My feelings were hurt. I've had lots of experience being judged for my appearance. I expect it to get easier. Sometimes it does. Not this time.
Would she ever have mentioned an initial dislike of any other part of my appearance? I can't imagine hearing "You have a huge nose, but once I fell in love with you I got over it." Her confession carried the subtext that I should not be angry because she was being honest. The conversation implied that she loved me in spite of my size. I stared ahead, glad to be driving, to have a reason to not look at her, and I refused to let myself cry.
In pictures from college I am thin. I worked full time, went to school full time, smoked cigarettes and lived off fast food, soft drinks and Vivarin. Friends comment that I don't look like myself in those pictures. I look ill, sad and unhealthy.
Now, at a weight considered "morbidly obese" by insurance industry charts, I live healthier than ever. I quit smoking, and I eat mostly vegetarian food. I enjoy biking, walking, swimming and Nia dance classes. I exercise and eat well because I love living, not to lose weight. My doctor tells me I am healthy—all the lab work confirms this: blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. I've learned that being fit is more important than being thin. Research shows that overweight or even obese men who exercise have a lower death rate than "normal" weight men who do not exercise. (The study did not include women.)
Fat prejudice begins in childhood. One study showed that as early as nursery school children preferred images of disfigured or disabled peers to images of fat kids. A 1988 survey of college students said they'd rather marry an embezzler, a cocaine user, a shoplifter or a blind person than someone who was fat. The prejudice creates discrimination that affects fat people in every part of their lives, including finances. Fat white women usually earn less than thin white women—24 percent less, according to one study.
People often justify their judgements about fat people by saying they choose to be fat. Choose? Who would choose life as a fat person in this weight-obsessed culture? There are many myths about fat people. That all fat people have eating disorders or unresolved emotional or mental issues. That if they really wanted to lose weight they could (implying laziness). This is completely illogical since body weight is determined by many factors such as genetics, metabolism and dieting history.
Some people are naturally fat. My belly is front and center, like I am pregnant. I look like my mother, my sister and both my grandmothers. Of course, I look like my family; I am a reproduction. Genetics are simply science, not character flaws. The Center for Disease Control reports that 78 percent of American women are actively trying to lose weight, and at an amazing failure rate—95 percent of dieters regain what they lost within two to five years. After dieting, the body often gains back the lost weight and more. Determined to survive, the body prepares for the next starvation period.
The diet industry is extremely profitable, pulling in $33 billion each year. But if diets worked wouldn't we all be thin by now? Recent estimates say 55 percent of Americans are overweight.
The cliche compliment of "you have a such a pretty face" is not flattering to me because of what's left unsaid. "If you'd just lose the weight you'd be gorgeous." Beauty is a taught concept and the cultural standards for beauty change frequently. The time and money we waste trying to meet cultural standards is a shame. The emotional pain and guilt we feel because our appearance is not "in" at the moment is unnecessary.
I learned the difference in cultural beauty standards in a wonderful way. I asked a very persistent local man in the British Virgin Islands, "Why are you hitting on me? There are women who look like swimsuit models here."
"Bones is for the dogs," he said with a smile. "Meat is for the man."
Fat discrimination exists in more ways than I can cover here. Notice and question your thoughts and behaviors toward fat people. Count the number of times you see, read or hear something that insults or discriminates against fat people. Think of all the people you know who are fat. Then investigate some resources to lead you to more information on size acceptance.
As for the lover, her comments haunted us for the short time we were together. Always there, not able to be taken back. I cannot remember what I said to her in the car that day, but I know I didn't say much. To make peace with my silence, my experience needs to be said, read and heard. Yours does, too. Silence is approval. Wounds acknowledged begin to heal.
T. Dean Adams lives and works in Columbia.