Since October of 2019, I have been working to lose weight. It’s been going really well so far. I don’t talk about it much, because I’ve been down this road before. I have struggled with my weight my entire life. I cannot recall a time when I wasn’t at least a little bit overweight.
In the past, I have had periods of success trying to lose weight, but they are always short lived. I will start a new diet and exercise routine. The pounds will start coming off. I will get very excited and hopeful, thinking that I have finally turned this problem around. Inevitably though, I will get bored or frustrated with whatever routine I’m following. I will slide back into my bad habits and put the weight back on, long before I even make it to my weight loss goal.
So even though my current efforts seem to be going very well, I’m hesitant to crow about it. In the back of my mind is the fear that this will all come crashing down, as it has so many times in the past.
My frustrations with myself in this regard are paralleled by my frustrations with certain people around me. Those who have never had to deal with a chronic weight problem, and they just don’t get it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to restrain myself from choking someone who says, “What’s the big deal? Just eat right and exercise.”
I shrug and nod my head humbly at such a remark while thinking, “Oh fuck off, asshole.”
It was maybe fifteen years ago, when I was living in Los Angeles, and I started seeing a new doctor. During my first exam with him, the inevitable awkward conversation about my weight occurred. He asked me to describe my diet. I did, as best as I could.
“Have you ever considered changing your diet?” he asked with great sincerity.
I wanted to slap him.
Oh shit, Doc, I never even thought of that! You’re a fucking miracle worker!!!
Those of us who are chronically overweight are not that way because we’re stupid. It’s not that we don’t understand what we should and should not be doing. We get it. But there is a psychological and emotional disconnect between knowing what to do and getting yourself to do those things consistently.
For anyone reading this who has never had a weight problem, I ask you to consider it this way. Think of something you don’t like about yourself. Some bad habit or annoying personality trait that you wish you did not have. You know it’s bad and you’ve tried to change it, but you just can’t quite seem to get a grip on it.
That’s being overweight. At least, that’s what it’s like for me and I suspect that’s what it’s like for many people like me. The way we eat, our relationship with food, is one of those things that gets carved into our psyche at a very early age. It is forged into our personality by events that occurred so long ago, we often don’t even remember them.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve, just as you should do your best to improve whatever shortcoming you just thought of. You have your issues to grapple with and I have mine. It doesn’t make either one of us a failure or a bad person. We’re both doing the best we can within our limitations. Please consider that the next time you feel the urge to make a fat joke. Ask yourself if there might be a better way to address the situation.
In September of 2019, Bill Maher did a segment on his show, Real Time With Bill Maher, in which he essentially blamed fat people for the problems of America’s health care system. Rather than getting bogged down in all the ways that premise is unfair and absurd, I will like to zero in on two specific points that he made.
At the 2:50 mark, he mentions footage from the 1960’s that recently aired during the anniversary of Apollo 11. He marvels at how skinny everyone was in 1969 and wonders why America doesn’t look like that anymore.
Well Bill, it might have something to do with how radically the production and marketing of food has changed in America since 1969.
The rise of factory farming, processed foods, and fast food over the last fifty has transformed the way America eats. These industries make a fortune mass-producing food that is cheap and plentiful, but also unhealthy and often addictive. These companies market their wares to children in an effort to get people hooked at an early age.
I’m not saying this absolves anyone from taking responsibility for there own health. It does present a significant obstacle though. Many people struggle to find healthier options that are affordable in a marketplace flooded with this junk. Unhealthy food is a cheaper, easier habit that is difficult to break.
Which brings me to my second point. At the 6:03 mark, Bill claims that, “we shamed people out of smoking.”
No we didn’t, Bill. That statement is complete horse shit.
I have never smoked in my life, but my father and my brother both did. Anyone who has ever lived with a smoker knows that shaming them is the absolute worst thing you could do. Shame makes people feel bad about themselves. Often these unhealthy behaviors are something people lean on to comfort themselves when they feel bad. So shame only makes them want to do it more. Compassion, patience, and positive reinforcement are much better tools for helping people improve.
Bill is correct that national attitudes about smoking have changed, but shame had nothing to do with that. In the 90’s, as we learned more and more about the dangers of second-hand smoke, state and local governments started passing laws banning smoking in public places.
(Maher had a show on ABC called Politically Incorrect at the time. I seem to remember him being very critical of those new laws, claiming they infringed on personal freedom. I suppose it would be too big of a concession for him to simply admit that those laws worked.)
Also, in 1999, the federal government launched a massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry. It targeted Big Tobacco for lying to the public about the addictive nature of nicotine, working to make cigarettes as additive as possible, and marketing their products to children. Sound familiar?
Public awareness, changes to our laws, and the consequential shifts in societal norms are what made the difference when in comes to smoking in America. We need a similar push against the bad practices of today’s food industry. Changes to the law and public pressure can work together to incentivize a healthier approach. That’s the lesson we should be learning from what happened with tobacco.
Until that happens, and even after it does, we all just have to keep doing our best. We also need to be kind to each other.
Four years ago, I started seeing the doctor I go to now, here in Portland. During my first exam with him, I once again had to have that awkward talk about my weight. I explained to him that I have always struggled with it. I described my past attempts to change and how they had failed. He responded with the words I wish someone had said to me a long time ago.
“I would rather you keep trying and failing than not try at all.”
Every doctor in America should have those words tattooed to the back of their hand. They should be required by the AMA to speak those words every time they consult with a patient about their weight or any other unhealthy habits. Those words have been so much more useful to me than any shame or fat jokes or feckless bits of advice from people who just don’t understand what I’m going through.
In the last four months, I have lost 36 pounds. That’s about halfway to my eventual goal. It feels great, but like I said, I don’t want to crow about it. I am painfully aware that six months from now, I could easily be right back where I started. I hope I’m not. I hope I can keep this going. But history has shown just how hard this is for me.
It will probably always be hard. I may never be perfect when it comes to managing my weight. There is a degree to which we all have to accept our flaws, even as we do our best to improve upon them.
But today, I have a much better understanding of what drives this behavior in me. And I know that there is a value in trying. Even if I never quite get it right.