Posts Tagged: obesity

The Whale, and taking things personally.

I’ve not seen The Whale, but here’s my review.

Sculpture of beautiful fat woman at Lake Constance
Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is on streaming, now. It is supposedly a moving look at one man’s extreme obesity, caused by self-loathing over the abandonment of his family for a male lover. He’s killing himself with food out of grief and guilt. Sounds like a real feel-good flick.

Since I’m fat, I should probably watch it, but I was angry at this movie before I ever read a review for it. On Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus was pun-heavy: “Held together by a killer Brendan Fraser, The Whale sings a song of empathy that will leave most viewers blubbering.” Really?

Aronofsky Grotesky

Based on my sole experience with his work (Mother!) I assumed Aronofsky would handle this plot with a deft mixture of bombast, grotesquerie, and mental decay. My psyche still hasn’t recovered from Mother!, but the story here was not about how much psychological torture the director could inflict on his lead female character. No, the big story here was Brendan Fraser’s comeback.

Brendan Fraser had a decent Hollywood career, but gained a lot of weight after being groped by a producer type at a Hollywood party. I read his account of this assault. It was invasive and traumatic. It’s also familiar. I could rattle off a string of events like this in my own life, both verbal and physical. So could any other woman reading this.

Trauma and Fat

It may or may not be true, but it’s a common observation that traumatized women hurt themselves, and traumatized men hurt others. Fraser hurt himself. I wish he’d sued the guy instead, like Taylor Swift when that old DJ went under her dress to fondle her butt. She filed suit, testified, and publicly refused to take any blame whatsoever for his ruin, insisting that everything that happened to him was his own fault for taking it upon himself to grope her.

Fraser hasn’t even named the man who assaulted him. Instead, he withdrew and got fat, but apparently not fat enough. Aronofsky outfitted him with a prosthetic suit to approximate weighing 600 pounds. The weight was set by the source material, a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. Still, I wonder if this amount of obesity was really necessary. It doesn’t take 450 pounds of extra weight to crush a person’s self esteem.

The Celebrity Penalty

Sometimes it only takes ten pounds to convince a person that she must starve her body into submission. Just ask Britney Spears, who was publicly humiliated for showing off a five pound weight gain after her second child. I mean, how dare she. A modest weight gain is enough to sabotage self-esteem, and it’s also enough to end a career.

That’s a movie right there. A restrained but interesting story to tell about how a gentle softening of your chiseled edges can ruin your name in Hollywood.

However, Aronofsky is not known for cinematic restraint. Of course he was more drawn to a story that involved a quarter ton of fat caused by binge eating. And that’s another problem. Binge eating is far from the only cause of obesity, but of course it is the most cinematic. It ties in well with a general perception of fat people as moribund monsters, their stomachs distended by joyless stuffing.

Getting personal.

I take this way too personally. I have never been a binge eater—I don’t see the allure—and resent this being assumed as a “why” for my weight. Will people see this movie and think I sit at home with the often cited “whole pizzas and gallons of ice cream”? Because I don’t. I haven’t. I physically couldn’t.

I also worried The Whale would kick off a wave of “fat people suffering” cinema. Would these movies resemble the “Black people suffering” movies made by White people for other White people? Well-meaning White people who always identify with the one decent White character, so they can walk out of the theater feeling reassured that they are not the problem? Would there be movies about thin saviors? Magical fatties who have no lives of their own but just exist to solve thin people problems?

How far would this thing go? Would there be marches and demonstrations? Would there be obesity reparations? Could I punch anyone who offered them to me?

As I have said before, this new appreciation for the fact that fat people are human beings is annoying to me. I don’t want a bunch of thin people offering me their heartfelt sympathy for how terrible my life has been. I will punch anyone who tells me I’m brave for lumbering along under the crushing weight of my despair (and my fat). Jesus Christ, it’s not ideal to be fat but I’ve certainly managed to have a decent life.

But now there’s a cure…

I shouldn’t have worried, because since that movie came out, Ozempic and Wegovy and all the other injectable semaglutides hit the public consciousness. These new drugs will apparently cure fat forever. Whew! No need for a wave of Fat Cinema.

I had kind of a moment about Wegovy with an online book group. No one else in the group is fat, I am the only fatty there. And someone started tsking and tutting about how famous people are all taking these injections to get thin, so vain, so shallow.

Ahem.

I pointed out that we live in a culture that turns a microscope on famous people and penalizes them for every physical flaw, every line, every pound. And we also denounce them for anything they do to remedy those physical flaws. We can’t have it both ways, can we? We can’t condemn them for being human and then condemn them for trying not to be.

Then I spoke up about my own experience; how years ago I had talked with my gastroenterologist about what to do about my weight, how calorie cutting doesn’t work for me because I don’t eat all that much so I have to eat under a thousand calories to budge the scale and I can’t sustain that. I have a messed-up heart for which I take a possibly lethal prescription drug twice a day, so heavy exercise is not an option. My older brother died from complications from weight-loss surgery, his organs failing one by one, so I have zero interest in that.

I asked my doctor, what should I do?

And he said, “Karen, don’t worry about it. There’s something coming, a shot or a pill, and it’s going to change everything about weight loss.” He told me to wait for it. He retired before it hit the market, but once it did, I went right to my PCP and requested a prescription. She wrote one, but insurance wouldn’t cover it and that stuff was wildly expensive, so I didn’t pick it up.

Well, now these drugs have been approved for weight loss, so insurance will cover them. Did you all know that Weight Watchers immediately bought a medical company that can prescribe these drugs? They are changing their model from portion and calorie control to injectables. WEIGHT WATCHERS. But of course, the drugs carry side effects for some people, mostly nausea. And now I’m reading that these drugs can paralyze your stomach. So you’re nauseous all the time, and then you can’t actually digest food anymore, so I suppose you get really thin.

Yippeeee.

On second thought, I probably shouldn’t watch The Whale.

Living While Fat

Zaftig

Sculpture of a fat woman with a big, happy hiney.
Image via Pixabay

ZAHF-tig

Part of speech: adjective

Origin: Yiddish, 1930s

Having a full, rounded figure; plump (typically used of a woman)

Dating while fat

Back when I was filling out those online dating profiles, I used to wonder what to call myself. My weight varied and I didn’t own a scale. I was fairly sure I wasn’t “a few extra pounds” because it was way more than a few. There was “curvy,” which was true—in those days I had a true hourglass with a flat stomach and admirable waist-to-hip ratio—but that didn’t take into account the exaggerated nature of the hourglass.

“Big and beautiful” seemed too much of a value judgment on my part. Big, yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A man I dated a few times confirmed my reluctance around that term when he said, “Just because you’re fat, doesn’t mean you’re pretty” (he did think I was pretty). He told me I was what his black friends in the military called “thick” (now “thicc” in the parlance of the day). To me, that term implies a certain firmness or muscularity I lack.

There was “full-figured.” I probably chose that the most, but it was a term that no one (including me) understood. My dear friend and dating guru, who is exactly what “curvy” should mean on those profiles, thought I should instead put “curvy.” She believed in casting a wide net. When the inevitable coffee date came, she thought my superior wit and charm would cancel out the fact that I hadn’t been honest.

I tried that a few times, but the disappointment in men’s eyes on meeting was more than I could take. So I always made it quite clear that I was not thin. I did this on purpose. If weight was an issue, I didn’t want to meet. I was being…efficient.

Even so, I’d be gently questioned by my correspondents, politely asking the equivalent of, “Just how fat are you?” Pretty damn fat, thanks for asking. This might be followed by a polite request for some specific data, as in, height, weight, measurements, dress size, and so on. Or better yet, a nude photo.

To which I replied, “Next.”

Other times, men would try to argue with me about my size. Something equivalent to, “I bet you’re not fat at all. I bet you’ve just bought into our society’s unrealistic weight standards for women.” The wishful thinking behind this was pretty obvious, and there was no point in stringing them along. “Nope,” I’d insist, “I’m actually overweight. I don’t hate myself, I’m not slamming myself, I’m just being honest so that neither of us wastes any time.”

Despite all my efforts to weed them out, some men who objected to my weight would be brave and meet me anyway. My guess is, they were taken enough by my face and wit that they thought they could get past it, and were disappointed that they couldn’t. A few asked me why I didn’t lose weight. “Oh, I don’t know,” I’d say. “I’ve gained and lost so much weight over the course of my life, and I want to take a break from all that.”

This was a revolutionary stance, back in the day. I wasn’t loud and proud about my self-acceptance, but I was firm in my quiet refusal to accept the idea that I had no worth or value in the world because I was fat. I also made it clear that this probably wasn’t going to change. This attitude actively antagonized some men. I guess I didn’t hate myself enough for them.

At any rate, the point of all this is that when I wanted to, I found men who admired and accepted me, and were proud to take me out and about. And even though I wrote an entire book about a very specific time in my dating years when I was laser focused on finding a man worthy of commitment, and how fruitless that particular search was, that was less than six months. Most of the time I did fine. I’m also glad to be married, and off the market.

As a side note (and to be fair), I think that combination of fat/devoid of self-hatred is rare out there in the dating arena. So many fat women cower in shame over taking up any space at all. I understand, because every six or eight months I slide into self-loathing over my weight. Usually this happens when I have to fly, because sometimes I have to ask for a seatbelt extender and sometimes I don’t. I have not completely reinvented contemporary womanhood, and that experience can melt me right down. I might even start a diet when this happens. The last thing I tried was intermittent fasting, which worked for a week, and then I boomed right back up to my starting weight, so forget that.

I have a life to live.

Living while fat

I was over at a friend’s house for dinner the other evening, and we talked about weight. My friend is healthy and slim, with a graceful, classically proportioned shape. Like, those elongated Venus on the half-shell proportions. But she was an overweight kid and teen. That will scar you. Even though she lost her weight forty+ years ago, it still haunts her. It’s hiding around the corner, a big pink blob waiting to jump back on her if she relaxes her vigilance. She weighs herself each morning, and carefully considers every bite of food that goes into her mouth. She doesn’t trust her thinness. She says she has body dysmorphia.

I told her that (like Ann Wilson of Heart) I have body promorphia. That I always think I look fine. I walk around here like I have a right to be here, thinking I look great most of the time. And occasionally I see a photo or a reflection that contradicts this, a self-view that makes me say “Yeesh, Karen. Seriously?” Those moments of reckoning (like the seatbelt extender) can trigger self-loathing, but I furiously beat it back.

The thing is, I wasn’t always this way. I used to feel extremely upset with any weight gain. Here’s a very old photo of me right after I had a baby, and was awash with self-loathing over how fat I was.

It is clear that I was not fat. It is also clear that I like myself more now than I did then, despite the enormous difference in my size.

I don’t care if anyone else understands or accepts my acceptance of being fat, but I realize this is an affront to people who fight hard not to be fat. I’ve likened it to religion. Some people find a religion and are gripped with apostolic fervor. They organize their life around it, and forego certain of life’s pleasures, and resist temptations and struggle through dark nights of the soul because they have found the answer, the one true way.

And there they are suffering for their beliefs, and here I am, shrugging, because as far as religion goes, I’m fine without it. I realize this is a slap in the face to true believers. My “whatever, no thanks” attitude about diet and fitness probably feels the same to those who have devoted their lives to it.

The formerly fat fitness influencers I see on Instagram have gorgeously muscled bodies and post things like, “If I can do it, you can do it. You have to want it enough.” I agree, you do have to want it enough and I don’t. Whatever the cost is to being thin—eating 900 calories a day, time at the gym, all that damn sweating—I don’t want to pay it. I’ll just stay over here, putting half and half in my coffee, eating whatever the hell I want to, and being fat.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a life to live.   

Eating while fat

Believe it or not, I don’t eat that much. I have something called lipedema, or lipoedema, or lipoeadema, depending on who you ask. You can fall down the rabbit hole of googling it, or you can look here: https://www.lipedema.org/  This condition has been recognized since the 1940s, but American doctors don’t diagnose it because isn’t it easier to tell your patients that they can lose weight if they just want it enough? Isn’t it more effective for the medical community to shame you for your weight? Isn’t this poorly understood medical condition just another excuse for women to be lazy and fat?

But the reason I don’t eat that much has nothing to do with lipidema. I went through a bunch of foregut testing six years ago. My mother died of small cell carcinoma of the esophagus (as opposed to the kind of throat cancer caused by HPV), and I wanted to understand my own risk factors. I’d had chronic heartburn for years and years, and treated it with OTC acid suppressors, but I was starting to have a lot of night regurgitation and thought it was time to get things straightened out.

So in addition to an endoscopy, I did all these tests. Like, they implanted a little capsule-sized sensor in my esophagus that measured every acid spike that rose into my throat. Every time I had a stab of heartburn, I clicked a thingie that then coordinated with the information gathered by the capsule. And yes, if you’re wondering, I could feel the capsule in there. I felt like I’d swallowed a pill that wouldn’t go down. It was supposed to fall out after three or four days and go through my digestive system, but it took two weeks to do that. Fun times.

But wait, there’s more!

Next, I had a tube snaked into one nostril and down into my stomach to measure something else. That was also uncomfortable. That was a swallowing reflex text. Then I sat in the office and drank something disgusting and had my swallowing reflex measured in another way.

We found out some interesting information during all that.

I had serious chronic heartburn, and yes, I could tell when I had acid spikes. Believe it or not, that’s good, because some people’s esophagi are so scarred, they don’t feel the pain anymore. Despite my huge nostrils, I have tiny sinus passages and a small esophagus that narrows at the bottom due to scar tissue from acid reflux.

I have a hiatal hernia that a nurse called “cute.” “You have a cute little hiatal hernia bobbing around in there.” I’ve always wondered about that. What makes a hernia cute?

My swallowing reflex is pathetic, which is the cause of my esophageal spasms (these are so painful that some people mistake them for heart attacks).

I have chronic heartburn because don’t have a valve at the top of my stomach. Oddly enough, my sister and younger brother are the same. My guess is, this is an anomaly inherited from our mother, and explains why her esophagus became cancerous.

There are surgeries that might help with some of this, but if they go wrong, they really go wrong. Like, goodbye to solid food wrong. So I have developed an entire protocol for how, when, and what I eat to try to deal with all this stuff. A big part of it is, I never want to be too full.

I don’t eat that much.

I’m a queen of the leftovers. I cook for two at home, but still save leftovers from most dinners and eat them for lunch. If we eat out, I always have to ask for a box.

I also eat early. This makes me a difficult dinner guest because I need two or three hours and a bunch of water before I go to bed, and if we start eating at 8 PM, I have to sit up and sip water until the wee hours before getting prone. I’ve been eating like a senior citizen for many years. There is a certain relief in actually reaching senior citizen age, because now my early eating habits seem less absurd.

So you’d think with all that, I’d just give up food and switch to protein shakes or something. But even though I’m fat, and I’m supposed to be ashamed and secretive about it, I actually do enjoy eating food, so I muddle through.

Growing up with fat

As previously mentioned, I haven’t reinvented womanhood. I do care about how I look, and it does get tiresome to be fat sometimes, but I’m determined to like myself because I was raised by a woman who didn’t. My mom also had lipidema, though we didn’t have a medical name for it. We just called it “Mom’s legs.” Mom’s legs were her lifelong shame, and I inherited those same legs—well, not exactly the same, but my fat-legged genetic destiny was inescapable. I accepted that, but I didn’t accept that my body should be a source of pain, anger and self-loathing, like it was for Mom. She inspired me to try to find a different path.

But first I had to get through my childhood.

There is so much I could write here about my mother, and my older brother, who was morbidly obese before he was a year old, and the diets my mother started subjecting me to at age seven, and my sister’s eating disorders, and my birth father’s very vocal hatred of fat women, and my own decades of up and down dieting. It would fill a book and at some point I might even write that book. I’m taking a memoir class with a friend this summer, and I assume we will be asked to pick a topic to write about, and maybe this will be mine.

I’m not sure I want to do that.

There’s a crew of people who have recently decided it’s okay to be fat because they watched some Lizzo videos or read Lindy West’s books or whatever.  They’re trying to stop pitying and/or despising fat people, and are desperately trying to find them admirable.

“You go girl, look at you, over there being fat and everything! Whoohoo, chubby woman! I feel you! Team cellulite!”

Writing a book about my weight might feel too much like initiating a conversation I’m not quite ready to have, especially with those people. I dread the idea of offering up my fat reality to their new understanding that I’m a human being.

But whether or not I ever write at length about how deeply weight affected my earliest years of life, and what weight loss and weight gain meant to my personal happiness, at some point I decided to get on with life without worrying about my weight all the time. I had a life to live, and no matter what I weighed, I went ahead and lived it.

I’m starting to understand what a radical act that was.