Why do people assume that if you are fat, you’re also stupid?
My life’s journey has taken me through landscapes both harsh and beautiful, and various shades in between. In my earliest memories, I am in shame country, and it is a barren and unwelcoming place.
First grade (or was it second, or even preschool?): I am standing on the bathroom scale. Sixty-eight pounds. I have gained a pound. I feel anxiety squeeze my chest. I had been a good girl this week. I had cottage cheese in my ice cream cone instead of the real thing.
But the scale does not seem to register this. I feel a sense of desperation. I am not good enough. Because I am the fat kid. I am in shame country and I don’t know how to get out. I’m trapped.
Elementary school: I stare at my face in the mirror. I put my nose up inches from the glass and examine it from every angle. I am searching, searching for ugliness, the mark of Cain that stamps me as not good enough. I cannot find it, but I know it must be there. I know it because of what people tell me — and what they leave out.
You would be so pretty if you lost some weight.
That dress looks so slimming on you!
High School: I am in obese country. This is harsh and unforgiving terrain, and I am duly informed by the collective powers that be that you better get out of there fast. This is no place for a girl your age.
I want to get out. As Hashem is my witness, I want it more badly at that point than I’ve ever wanted anything in life. There is Weight Watchers, and Grey Sheet, and the magical “three day diet” that, to put it mildly, overpromises and under-delivers.
Enticingly named “healthy lifestyle changes,” and “weight-loss mentors” they are as alluring as shining stars, and equally as likely to combust into a black hole. Society demands an explanation for my intransigence, and I sense an obligation to excuse myself, to offer up a confession for my sins, to assure the vanguard that I am trying, that I am doing enough, that I have chased every weight-loss option to its logical end point.
Then, one day, I have had enough. I decide to stop eating. I eat nothing all day, and I eat a quarter of a portion for dinner. The pounds melt off me. It is exhilarating.
Months into my no-eating campaign, the comments roll in.
“Wow, now you look just like any other regular, slim girl. You look normal!”
“You look so good that from the back I almost mistook you for your sister, (the slim, pretty one)!”
For once, I dare hope that I can become one of them, the normal ones.
One day during class, I feel as if the top of my head is floating and I see darkness and pinpoints of light. I begin to have dizzy spells. My father notices that I am refusing to eat dinner.
“I will not have an anorexic daughter!” he proclaims sternly. And I think, He doesn’t understand, if I am going to be sick, I’d rather be anorexic than obese. At least then people like you.
It is not to be. Within months, hunger takes over and the weight creeps back up. It had been a brief visit to Planet Normal. But obese country has come calling for me. I cannot escape my destiny.
Why do people assume that if you are fat, you’re also stupid?
I ask this of an adult I look up to. I experience success in enough areas to know what respect feels like, and I am also intuitive enough to sense how strangers who don’t know me on a personal level view me.
Because only stupid people would ruin their own lives and not take care of themselves like they should.
I have been living in shame country for long enough that this response feels almost normal, almost like I deserve it. I have lived here for most of my life, and perhaps this is where I am meant to be.
Shidduchim: You can’t get married if you’re fat. Everyone knows that. I meet shadchanim at various points in the parshah.
I will not redt you a shidduch until you lose 20 pounds.
I have some pressing questions. It’s no secret that 20 pounds will get me nowhere near the ideal body weight. So why stop at an arbitrary number like 20? Maybe it should be 38? Or 62, for good measure?
Then, one day, dumbfoundingly, I am married, and happily so, too. Soon I am flooded with birth and babies and blessings.
But one day I look in the mirror and can no longer find my eyes among the flesh and the flab of my face. I am only in my twenties and I have become that woman. I am clinically, legally, morbidly obese.
This is not a country for the faint of heart. This is a no-man’s-land, where complete strangers question your entitlement to full respect as a human being, as an upstanding member of polite society. You are deserving of nothing, not even of the basic presumption of innocence. Your very being is personally offensive to some, and distressingly puzzling to others. Friends and relatives kindly conceal the pitying glances, and strangers treat you with anything from a concerted effort at respect to mild contempt.
I wear shapeless clothing with endless XXXs marching off the sides of the tag. I avoid weddings and public events, and when I have to attend, I escape as soon as possible, sometimes even before that. I cannot face anyone, I cannot face myself. My transgression is measured not only on a physical plane, but as a moral failure of unforgivable proportions. The shame is like a blender crushing in my chest over and over again.
I consider weight-loss surgery. There are voices, some in my head, some real.
Weight-loss surgery is for unmotivated, pathetic people. If you really had it in you, if you were any kind of strong woman, you’d find the willpower to do this on your own.
What kind of normal person can’t simply shut their mouth and stop eating? You have to go cut yourself up for that?
It’s not normal to go under the knife when all it takes is a bit of self-discipline and motivation.
You haven’t tried (fill in the blank) diet. Or this one. Or that one. You know so-and-so? She lost 100 pounds and kept it off by doing this-and-that. You have to try it. I’m telling you, it’s gonna work.
I go under the knife. I’ve been told again and again that it is not magic, that surgery requires self-discipline to be successful. The months pass and a miracle occurs. For the first time in my life, I have achieved normal. I am in drool land. Flowers are abloom, the sun is ablaze, and people drool when they meet me.
You look so good, you look like any other lady in the street.
You look like a doll!
Wow! How did you do it? You’re amazing!
I have never seen you looking this good before! You must feel like a million dollars.
The admiration is evident in their eyes. I have done this. I am good, I am successful, I am beautiful, I am a welcome member in the exclusive club of normal. To me, this is unlike anything I have ever felt before and the sense of acceptance is thrilling. I have achieved atonement. I’ve been absolved of my moral failure.
I eat tiny amounts. I work out nearly every day of the week. One day, there is a newcomer at the gym, and the woman on the treadmill next to mine points an excited finger at me.
You see this woman on the treadmill? A few months ago, she could barely even fit between the handlebars!
It is meant as a compliment, and I decide to accept it as such.
But inside my kishkes, trouble is brewing. The small amounts I am able to eat become smaller with time. My body rebels. I can no longer hold down food. I give birth again and everything goes haywire. I can’t keep anything down. I make several emergency visits to my bariatric surgeon, who cannot figure out what is going on.
The vach-nacht for my newborn son is a drool fest.
Look at you, you look gorgeous, your stomach is flat, you can’t even tell that you’ve just given birth.
You’re wearing a belt! Wow!
I cannot eat the seudas bris. Even the grape juice comes straight back up, and my doctor sends me to the emergency room. I am hospitalized. I can no longer swallow my own saliva. Even the nurse in the ward has something to say.
You had weight-loss surgery? You look so good, I would never have guessed you ever needed it!
I am in the hospital, I am starving and in a state of exhaustion, I am suffering and desperate, far away from my newborn baby, and I hear the voices. They are strident, indignant, a conglomeration of snippets of conversations I have overheard.
Nebach, people have crazy complications after weight-loss surgery! They got so sick from surgery! You think it pays, to suffer that much?
Why can’t people just get their act together and stop eating? They’d rather suffer complications than go on a diet?
I lost 20 pounds after I had my baby! It just takes discipline! Who wants to risk dying when there are better options?
For some, my struggles are proof that I should not have decided to do surgery. But not once do I regret my decision.
I’m given nutrition through an IV, but it is not enough and I’m put on full nutrition through a PICC line. My doctor suspects some kind of internal tissue swelling and I’m scheduled for exploratory surgery. The night before surgery, I realize that I can swallow a tiny sip of water. My loved ones celebrate along with me. Within days, the apparent swelling recedes, and I am released from the hospital.
Hashem is at my side, and I recover.
I am in college. I choose to do my research on obesity. I need to understand how and why. I don’t want some fluffy, feel-good answers. I want cold, hard facts. I come up with data and statistics that are rarely mentioned in typical weight-loss conversations. The multiple known and unknown physiological factors contributing to obesity. The data that indicates that people like me, with chronic obesity, have a less than 1 percent chance of successfully losing weight and keeping it off. The short-term hunger hormones and the long-term hunger hormones and persistent efforts of the body to achieve homeostasis. It is just a research paper, but I feel like I have written my own autobiography. I get an A+.
I read a feature in Family First on weight loss. The next week, a reader expresses her objection to the obsession with slimness. A columnist I respect asserts that dieting is not really about a secular obsession with body image, but a desire for self-discipline and genuine attempts by women to rein in achilah gasah.
I am a good girl. I don’t want to be guilty of achilah gasah. I also want to stay slim.
Complications from surgery hamper my efforts to keep the weight off. So do additional pregnancies. I diet and diet and diet again. I also go through periods of starvation and deprivation, and I let go after the hunger becomes too much. Voices, wise ones, knowledgeable ones:
No, no, no, that’s not how you do it. If you’re hungry at night, it means you didn’t eat the right foods during the day.
No, no, dieting doesn’t work. If you make genuine changes to your lifestyle, it will last.
It’s not to be. It becomes evident that my stay in drool land is over. I had been granted a taste of what it is like to live as a bona fide member of society, but my visa has expired. Gradually, as pain and complications force me to undo my surgery, the numbers on the scale creep interminably up, and keeping them down is like running down an up escalator. It is futile and once again, I am in the no-man’s-land of morbid obesity.
It is déjà vu all over again, except it is not. I am different. I have experienced society’s approval from up close, and savored it. I have touched that elusive normal with my fingertips. I have reached the pinnacle.
Not that it wasn’t as thrilling and enticing as I had thought it would be. It was all that and more. But I am a wife and a mother. I have seen and experienced life in ways deep and genuine, and have gained a sense of my own self outside of the parameters of acceptability constructed by society.
In those moments of slimness, when social ostracism was no longer a part of my daily experience, I was also able to step back and more objectively examine common attitudes toward our bodies as human beings and women.
I also know a secret. I know that the person inside this big body isn’t much different from the one that inhabited that elegant, lithe body of a while ago, perhaps just a bit braver for facing the vanguard’s disapproval every day and rejecting it calmly. Otherwise, she is neither morally better nor morally worse.
I’m offered a different option for bariatric surgery. I discuss it with my loved ones, we speak to medical professionals, with our rav. My body is different and scarred now. The risks are greater this time around, and the potential benefits lower, for many reasons. The doctor gives me no guarantees. We agree that at my weight, additional surgery is a valid option, if I so choose.
And I am left to choose. I make this choice with a different awareness from the one I made years ago. I accept that I have not chosen this body, created perfectly imperfect, custom made for me by Hashem. I make this choice from a place of respect for the vessel I have been given to hold my spiritual self.
I am honest with myself. It’s no longer my deepest dream to be slim. But neither do I feel ready to live with severe obesity. The physical ramifications are a factor, but to be brutally honest, it is the social consequences that loom most largely over this decision.
I do what I need to do. I go under the knife again.
My weight goes where it goes. I am blessed with more beautiful babies and my body does what it does. These days I look in the mirror and accept whatever it is that I see, because it is what Hashem has given me at that moment, and I treasure everything He gives me as a blessing.
I still get various comments and looks, from those who remember me from slimmer days and those who recall my heavier years, who attempt to engage me in some manner of weight discussion. I smile graciously, and internally I shake my head.
You don’t understand. I have quit. Ich shpiel nisht. I am not playing this game anymore.
I am not slim. I am not fat. I have a body granted me by my Maker and I am beautiful because I am.
I no longer wait to live life fully “when I will lose x amount of weight.” I buy myself beautiful clothing now, and I do the things I dreamed of doing but didn’t have the courage to, because Hashem has given me this moment and this body to live and accomplish.
Today, my arduous and winding journey has brought me to a quiet place, a mountaintop. The sense of peace I experience is like a cape thrown around my shoulders, rippling in the breeze, teasing me with its warmth but never quite hugging me tightly. They are tendrils of peace, but they have been a long time in coming.
It is game over. I have left that hall of mirrors behind, I am not playing this game anymore. On my mountaintop, this is not a fierce proclamation, but a gentle whisper. Ich shpiel nisht.
You can hear it if you are searching for it, if you tune in. I invite you to join me if you’d like. Bring a cape.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 728)
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