When I was in my early twenties I had a friend, who had many charms, beauty not being among them. She was a wonderful girl, with a quick wit and an salty, irreverent take on life that made it easy to ignore her peculiar appearance and laugh along with her. When I say peculiar, I don’t simply mean that she had an oddly shaped nose or was a bit on the chubby side, she was quite the spectacle. A goiter had swallowed up her neck, and her body was a display of tattooed rolls and valleys. She had noticeable hair loss in the front, which she jokingly referred to as her “Elizabethan hairline.” The hair that she retained was frequently dyed some preternatural shade of the rainbow. Looking back now, after having consumed one Discovery channel special too many, her facial features seemed to be indicative of acromegaly, a condition in which too much growth hormone is secreted and body tissues engorge and become disproportionate (however, I have no right to make a diagnosis.) She adorned her broad face with piercings and lavish swirls of eye liner.
I had always just assumed that she embraced her unusual appearance, having gone so far as to exaggerate it with such accouterments, and why not, more power to her. Why should everyone become enslaved by popular fashion? Maybe some people don’t want to live lives dictated by the runway and magazine set.
It wasn’t until one day at Denny’s, when we were discussing a young man with whom she had become infatuated that I ever considered the contrary.
“Do you think I’m hot enough to pull off the naughty librarian routine?” She asked me point blank.
“Which routine is that?” I inquired.
“You know, I just whip off my glasses like so” She said, tearing her spectacles off and tossing her fuchsia locks with decided flourish. “Lean across the desk and say, take me now!” She leaned forward, illustrating her intentions with a tumble of cleavage upon the table top.
“It can’t hurt to chat him up.” I replied non-commitally. “Maybe you two will hit it off!”
“Yeah.” She said unenthusiastically, pushing her glasses back atop the bridge of her nose. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to just walk up and talk to people. I have to keep reminding myself that what I see in the mirror isn’t what everyone else sees. You know…body dysmorphic disorder and all.”
I was familiar with the condition, a mental ailment versus a physical one. People afflicted with body dysmorphic disorder have a fixation with their appearance, constantly obsessing over a trait they perceive to be grossly disfiguring . In most cases the person exaggerates a minor flaw, a birth mark perhaps or slight asymmetry in the face to the point where it controls their life. In her case however, I was intrigued. With someone who is clearly atypical in appearance, could this disorder manifest in reverse? Could a person with what common society perceives as a flaw see themselves in the mirror as quite beautiful, and should that necessarily be considered a disorder?
“Well, what do you see in the mirror?” I asked, my interest piqued.
“You know, I just see myself as crazy ugly…” She stammered. “I know I’m not but…just like a monster or something, that’s what I see.”
“That must be hard.” I pandered. She nodded ruefully.
I was taken aback. Far be it for me to sort the wheat from the chaff with respects to human attractiveness, but what she described was exactly what I had heard people whisper about her behind her back.
“Pure Negligence, that’s how people get to look like that!”
To the common eye, someone who had never taken the time to get to know her, this girl’s appearance was quite startling. She was far from a monster but I recalled that upon our first meeting I had myself inwardly cringed. I was ashamed of it now, though I realized such a response was very predictable human behavior it still seemed cruel.
That’s when I began to consider the possibility that her psychologist, wary of inflicting the same shallow wickedness that a girl of her proportions no doubt regularly endured, had given her this diagnosis as a sort of buffer. Perhaps her doctor, in his or her clinical wisdom had decided to tell her a little white lie.
“You aren’t ugly my dear, you merely believe yourself to be ugly, it’s all a delusion.”
I had thought before that certain conditions of hers, like the goiter, might be easily treatable but she had simply not cared pursue such options. Now, I was confronted with the possibility that maybe she never sought treatment because she had been convinced these things didn’t actually exist. That seemed a bit unfair to me, to deprive a person of the option of treatment for the sake of sparing their feelings.
I can’t confirm that such a thing ever happened, and I dearly hope it never did. However, that conversation started my mind moving in a different direction. I myself am not a person without fault, far from it. If we limit the critique to merely encompass the physical, I would say the main battle I fight is with my weight. I’ve been up and down my whole life, 135 lbs being my lowest adult weight, 250 lbs being my highest. I’ve sought help from physical trainers, nutritionists, diet clinics, prescription medications, hypnosis and even an endocrinologist.
None of these had much lasting impact because each time I saw a specific weight as my end goal. So long as the scale read that number I was fine. I was absolutely fastidious about my health right up until that point, once back in my skinny clothes, I tended to ease up on my regiment.
“It’s only two blocks to the store, but I’ll drive, it’s just faster”
“I can have a slice of cake for breakfast just this once!”
I find just this once to be the most abhorrent phrase in the English language. I seldom took into account how many just this onces I worked into a day, or a week, even a month, so long as the scale read an acceptable number, I was golden. When that number started to climb, well I started to weigh myself less often.
“It’s just water weight, I’m bloated, that’s all”
“I still fit into my clothes, so I can’t have gained any weight”
“Well, maybe I have gained a little weight, but at least I’m not as fat as (insert the pudgy example of your choice.)”
In the modern era, we really don’t have an operational definition of health that does not include weight. At current I am 5’10” and 190lbs, down from 203 late last year. At my build, that places me at about a size 12, and in the U.S. I’m considered quite average. In fact, when I tell people I’m writing a on a blog called “Healthy Old Fatties” the first thing they say without fail is that ever patronizing;
“Aww, you’re not FAT!”
Well, there are people fatter than me. The name of the blog no doubt suggests someone who is practically spherical mans the keyboard, but make no mistake I am overweight, and that my friends is what that nasty adjective “fat” describes.
“You’re not fat, you’re just tall. Tall people weigh more.”
I suppose such comments are meant in kindness but no, I am fat. I have a BMI of 27.3, which puts me in the overweight category for women my height, (below 2.5 is “normal”). In all honesty however, the BMI doesn’t take into account a lot of things, muscle mass being one of them. It would be easy to talk myself into believing that all my extra weight was muscle, or even water, but if I’m honest with myself, I know that’s not the truth.
“Seriously, you are sooo not fat!”
What people fail to understand that my concern isn’t with my size, but with my overall health. I’ve been unable to get out and do much of anything for nearly a year because, as I mentioned in my previous blog, I spent that time taking care of my dying grandmother. The only exercise I got was helping lift her for bathing and toilet duties, and I more or less obliterated my back in the process. Does someone with a surplus of muscle get winded going up just one flight of stairs, or have to sit down at the book store because walking up and down the isles is just too tiring? Doubtful to say the least.
I know my body isn’t functioning at peak capacity, and I want it to be. What weight or size that happens at is not my primary concern, so please, stop trying to make me feel better about being FAT! There are healthy, fat people, I’m just not one of them. We’ve had it so pounded into our heads that fat is equivalent to lazy, sloppy, ill…insert any negative adjective you like, I bet someone has tried to link it to weight.
“You’re big boned!”
“You’re just curvy!”
Regardless of what I look like, I want the freedom of mobility, unencumbered by huffing and puffing or torrents of sweat pouring into my eyes. I want to know that I am giving my body what it needs to function, and maintain the standard of living I want. No euphemism you care to toss out with regards to my weight is going to have an impact on that.
One of my major struggles is that my options are more limited now. Aerobic exercise and weight lifting seem to throw my back out, even when performed with the supervision of a trained professional. I’m sorely out of shape, and things that I once did with ease now make my muscles ache horribly.
I saw a chiropractor for my back, and so long as I have three appointments a week for readjustment I’m great. Unfortunately, I can’t afford that. My chiropractor kept promising me a print out of stretches and exercises I can do at home to build strength, and yet they always failed to materialize. In the end, Google was a better ally in that respect than my chiropractor ever was, but then I don’t pay Google per appointment.
“It’s all that extra weight you’re carrying!”
My fellow gym members volunteer with a smarmy smile.
“Drop that flab and you’ll be fine.”
No, it isn’t really the extra weight, it’s the fact that I have been living a more or less sedentary lifestyle for too long. Extra weight may be a symptom of that, but it isn’t the total cause.
“Come on, you’ve dropped 13lbs so far, that’s moving in the right direction!”
Sure, that’s great, but people seem a bit too fixated on the fact that I have lost weight. What’s more, people in my life, even fitness professionals, seem utterly disinterested in whether or not I’ve made any sort of advance in my fitness level. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t I be congratulated on running a full five minutes on the treadmill when before I could only keep that pace for a few seconds before getting winded? No, all congratulations are to be awarded at the scale.
Quality of life is everything, and we are each given a chance to impact our own, but it takes discipline and persistence. Watching my Grandmother suffer inside a body broken from her heedless lifestyle really reaffirmed this with me and I have set up my exercise routine as a kind of homage to her. Her eternal resting place is in Los Angeles, right beside her husband. I, living in San Diego, can’t visit her grave on a regular basis. I can however, walk to the home she passed away in. I call it “The Death March.” Morbid, maybe, but it’s a motivation. This walk forces me to keep my own mortality in the back of my mind, and the consequences that come from inactivity and poor diet. I have to wake up two hours early early to fit it in, but I want a body worth living in, not one that I feel trapped inside.
According to the WalkJogRun app on my iPhone, her former house is located 2.79 miles from my own, 5.58 miles round trip. For me, this is a leisurely, walkable distance, something I can tackle everyday without feeling exhausted, or throwing my back out. I don’t have anyone pushing me to go faster or work harder, I govern my own workout. That’s what I need, a fitness regiment that isn’t so insurmountable that I’m afraid to try it again the next day. Working out sporadically does little to increase one’s overall fitness level.
I’ve talked to people who insist I’m over doing it, offering words of home grown wisdom like;
“Five miles! You need to take it easier on yourself!”
“What are you, anorexic?”
“The human body wasn’t meant to have that kind of strain put on it!”
“Oh my gawd, you are sooo not fat!”
The truth is, yes the human body was designed to have exactly that kind of strain put on it, and yes I am fat. Walking is something we have been perfectly engineered for, it is after all our primary form of locomotion. The body was not designed to sit behind a desk for 8 hours a day, then run into the gym and fiddle with equipment for a half hour only to return to a seated position in front of the television. I don’t mean to knock the gym, every piece of equipment there is designed around simulating tasks and motions that the human musculoskeletal system was designed to do, and when used correctly can be very beneficial. However, limiting activity to a quick burst, a chore to simply get out of the way is not enough. We have to become dedicated to adopting a more active lifestyle, and stop telling ourselves these little white lies to justify our inactivity.
My goals are no longer centered around the scale. I’ve started a training regiment with fitness touchstones rather than dress sizes to mark my progress. When I first started walking this route in November of 2012, my average pace was 1 mile in 23:40 minutes. At current, my pace is 1 mile in 19:29 minutes. My next goal is to get my overall pace to 15:00.
“Well, if you really were walking 5 miles a day, you wouldn’t look like THAT!”
Well, maybe I won’t in a few months, maybe I will lose weight, but that isn’t what drives me on.
To be completely honest, yes, I would like to be thinner, but that’s my personal choice. For one, I’m engaged to be married in October of this year and while I do believe that healthy is achievable at any size, I sincerely do not want to be a fat bride. Of course, intellectually I realize that I was even fatter when my fiance met me, and fat still when he proposed, so why should it really matter? Chances are that if I set my weight loss goal for my wedding, I’d still fall back into unhealthy habits after the big day and only continue the cycle I’m trying so hard to break. I can however make myself into a healthy bride, one who might wear a plus sized gown but can rock the dance floor till her heels give out from under her (I know I’m just leaving myself open for a fat joke there…)
Unfortunately, telling me I’m not fat, or even not THAT fat is completely non-productive. Honestly, what does it accomplish? Avoiding the word FAT only validates it as a negative term. The reality is, fat is an adjective, describing a physical build. It happens to apply to me, and pretending it doesn’t in no way changes my reality.
Trying to convince me I don’t need to work out, because I’m lovely just the way I am is equally dangerous, and quite honestly shallow. We need to stop associating exercise with the quest for beauty. Exercise is necessity, fat, thin or in between, it’s just basic maintenance. When you change the oil in your car, are you doing so because you hope it might change the way your vehicle looks? If you drove up to Jiffy Lube and asked for an oil change only to have the technician respond with “Aww, I think your car is beautiful just the way it is!” you might seriously have to consider his or her mental health. Much like a car, your body is your transport through life. The major difference being that you can trade your car in for a new model when it breaks down, but you can’t do the same with your body (at least not yet anyway.)
Do I mean to suggest that everyone ought to walk 5 miles a day? No. While our bodies were designed to walk, life takes it’s toll on us and we all have different levels of mobility. Then there’s the time consideration. Not everyone can allot 2 hours to their training regiment. You have to be mindful of your personal schedule and listen to your own physiology. Find something that works into your own life. You can start small, waking up early and just marching in place for 5 minutes if your able, or stretching while you sit and watch television, even just getting up from behind your desk and moving around every 45 minutes at work is a great start. If you do find that you can clear a half hour or so for exercise, there are programs such as Super Slow, Silver Age Yoga, and Silver Sneakers which are all designed for people who have differing levels of mobility. If you’re reading this blog, take a look at some of our previous articles on these organizations or search the web for something that fits your life. The goal is to get active and stay active, whatever that might mean for you.
I think a dangerous amount of effort has been put into sugar coating truths, and making sure no one’s self esteem gets a nicked. While I don’t endorse being outwardly cruel or hateful to people (we all have the right to be comfortable in our own skin) I do encourage everyone to really evaluate your own lifestyle and health. The truth is, it’s your body, you’re the one living in it and you are the only person who can. If we allow ourselves to lose objectivity, falling back on comfortably turns of phrase, excuses and ugly little white lies we can expect all progress we might have made as a person to stifle and stagnate, and not just with respect to health.
As for my friend, I lost touch with her over time. I tend to believe that despite what her psychologist said, she knew what she saw in the mirror was not a complete fallacy, and she never wasted her time crying over her appearance. She pushed fearlessly through life and learned to use tools other than her looks to win people over. Though I only knew her a short while, I trust that if any of her conditions threatened her health she would have had the sense to get medical treatment for the root issue, and not try to mask them with convenient lies and euphemisms.