Here’s the skinny: I am a fat woman. And I’m not talking fat in the way an average-sized woman might, as in, “Does my butt look big in these jeans?” I’m talking fat as in, “Jesus Christ, look at that woman over there; I can’t believe she’s eating in public.” Fat as in morbidly obese, as in unforgivably and gluttonously swaddled in it. I’m talking about a BMI that is, literally, off the chart.
I may be a fat woman, but I wasn’t a fat kid. I experienced all the wondrous freedom of skinniness, living in a body made to run, run fast, run forever. I had a skinny family: I have an image of the four of us from 1978, The Summer of Fuzzy Blue Letters (the naming of summers being a childhood habit I refuse to grow out of). We’re wearing those t-shirts popular in the late seventies, the ones with a dark coloured band around the neck and sleeves, which my mum had taken to some store and had messages printed on them in raised, velvety letters. I don’t remember what mine or my brother’s said, but my mother’s said “Loraine with one R” and my father’s said “Dad Pal,” that being my moniker for him. I remember, as recent immigrants from the United Kingdom, that we were attempting something quintessentially Canadian: spending a day at the lake. Three of us were a matching set: blond-haired and whippet-thin. Then there was my father, black-haired and built like, well, a healthy human being.
My mother, at five foot nine (although age has eaten away an inch or more), has weighed between 113 and 118 pounds my entire life. I have no idea what my father weighs, but I do know, strangely, that my brother weighs 163 pounds. I am five foot eight, and weigh 254 pounds, a number that had been a secret, even to me, since 2001, the year my parents returned to the UK. But I recently dragged the scale from its dust bunny nest, stripped off my clothes, stood starkers on that sucker, and saw the number. 254.
If you are still reading, I thank you, because, whether I like it or not, sizeism exists. More, it’s de rigueur, a socially acceptable bigotry because the benefits outweigh the harms, which are merely psychological (there have been no reported fat-bashings yet). We also have a multi-billion-dollar dieting industry to support, and, hey, fatties—I admit it—do itto themselves. Besides, sizeism isn’t exclusionary: everybody hates fatties and none more so than we fatties.
I wouldn’t have bothered to bring up sizeism at all, except that the nine years I have just spent going from normal to super sized began with my assimilation of sizeist attitudes. Prior to 2001, I struggled with sizeism and my weight, losing and gaining the same seventy pounds over and over, a cycle as sure as the seasons. I couldn’t bear the labels that being fat stuck to me: Greedy, Gluttonous, Weak-willed, Lazy, Ill-educated, Dull-witted, and worst of all, Unattractive. My mother, being generationally-challenged, believed that a woman’s power, her means of survival, was her attractiveness, something to which I unwittingly subscribed, having no belief in or awareness of other traits I might possess. The syllogistic reasoning I lived by was thus: fat equals unattractive, and unattractive equals an utter failure.
Then, in 2001, following The Summer of Endings and Beginnings, I went back to school and began writing. At the time, I had just completed the losing-weight cycle, so I looked good and felt great. But writing released an entirely unknown me, creating a self-worth unconnected to my physical being. Writing is an act that negates the body; my size, for the first time in my adult life, was immaterial. And my mother could not argue this for she was now an ocean away. I no longer measured my worth in terms of my sexual attractiveness, and because cyclic raging against sizeism had ended only in my failure time and again, I let it go. I dropped it as if I had unzipped a heavy, woolen dress, let it slip over my shoulders and fall to the floor.My freefall into freak-show fat brought a certain kind of freedom and even, incredibly, love: I met the man I am to marry. He, unlike any man I’ve known, sees my body as the manifestation of the woman he loves.
Must letting go inevitably lead to a weight gain of 140 pounds over nine years? Not unless you are me and have a deep-seated belief that you cannot function without the rich, the creamy, the savory, the gooey. And now I could live deprivation-free since I had surrendered to sizeism, which to me meant embracing sizeist attitudes—I would accept that I was unattractive, weak-willed, lazy, greedy, gluttonous, and any other label stuck on a fat person, but I would also accept that I was intelligent, generous, a reader, and a writer with something to say.
But the underpinning of my capitulation was another deep-seated belief based on something my father, a medical doctor, told me when I was in my early twenties. “Your size is a matter of genetics,” he said. Being the only fat person in my entire family tree, I scoffed. Yet he persisted; he believed that researchers would one day discover a genetic propensity for obesity and a genetically predisposed weight. “Accept who you are,” he told me. I paid heed because I adored my father; I would have been a model daddy’s girl had he been so inclined, which, sadly, he wasn’t.
It was a most uncharacteristic conversation to have with a man so mistrustful of certainty. And, though I believe he spoke out to counter my mother’s unceasing disgust, the words were discomfiting: who wants to be a fat person, natural or not? But by the time I was thirty-one, I ascribed to them wholly, as if a mantra. I believed, no, assumed, that my body would find its ideal, pre-ordained weight and I would accept that weight, be it overweight or obese, hallelujah and amen. After all, I was well-educated in nutrition and I ate balanced, albeit Sophie-sized, meals. Yes, I indulged in junk food, but I exercised, walking my dogs in an off-leash park an hour a day.
So, really, I told myself, how fat could I get?
In the waning months of The Summer of Coming Loss (2005), I euthanized one of my dogs. Seventeen years old, Dylan would no longer sleep inside; he haunted the backyard like a low, yellow moon. The day following the first frost, I bade him go gentle into that good night. And we adopted Chico, a dog with issues, principally his habit of attacking other dogs without provocation. Walking the dogs at an off-leash park meant muzzling Chico and keeping him on the leash. He fought it everystep of the way and every day meant returning to the car when my arms or my pride tired, neither of which ever lasted more than twenty minutes. It wasn’t worth the struggle and I stopped, deciding to walk the dogs leashed in our neighbourhood.
But the stop and start, sniff and piss pace didn’t suit me, and neither did the rectangular grid. Soon, dog-walking was a chore, not a pleasure. The number of blocks dwindled from four to three to two, at which point I started to experience a pain in my lower back, but—hey—who doesn’t have back pain?
But by The Summer of Dead Ends (2007) the latter half of the dog walk often seemed to push that same back pain closer and closer to the front of my consciousness until—Wham!—it would flare, white hot, and I would find myself literally unable to take another step. Finding relief was easy—I had to shift my weight off my hips; sitting was best, but in cases like dog walks where seating was unavailable, I soon learned that crouching down and bending forward would relieve the pain. Except it only took ten steps for it to return.
A person experiencing debilitating pain should go to a doctor. I won’t argue with this. But I knew the cure was to lose weight; I didn’t need a doctor’s visit to be told something I wasn’t going to entertain, given the sure knowledge that I could not survive the deprivation of a diet. So, I went with Plan B: avoid all actions that caused debilitating pain and tell no one.
I stopped walking the dogs, and by that fall, not only was I unable to walk half a block, I couldn’t stand on my own two feet for more than a minute.
I was teaching at a local college by this time. Imagine conducting a three-hour class when you can’t stand up unsupported for five minutes. Thank goodness for well-built lecterns and tabletops to lean on. Writing on the white board? Fuck that. That’s why they invented PowerPoint.
House-cleaning was a total non-starter: vacuuming, mopping, dusting, doing dishes. Instead of doing chores once a week, they became a biannual ordeal. Cooking I could manage, as long as recipes were simple and I had a stool nearby. But the food I was willing to die for was no longer a part of my diet because I couldn’t grocery shop. My fiancée Ted and I speak different food languages, so ingredients were limited.
November 23, 2007, was my father’s seventieth birthday, and to celebrate, my mother threw a party at a posh restaurant in London. As I landed in Heathrow, I realized I hadn’t fully considered the ramifications of my disability. At home, I drove everywhere. In London, I had always walked, taken buses, and generally reveled in a functioning, efficient public transportation system. But how was I going to manage that now? Luckily, my sister picked me up at the airport.
It didn’t take long for that luck to run out. That first night, the night of the party, we set out for the restaurant on foot. I made the first block, but the second proved too much. I clung to a lamppost, and acting the tourist, pretended to look at something riveting. The third block, I heaved myself from lamppost to lamppost, no longer needing to act the tourist because by then my tribe of relatives, more than a block ahead of me, had turned a corner and vanished. I began to panic. I didn’t know where the restaurant was and suspected I’d soon be arrested for lamppost molestation. But when I lurched to the end of the block and made the corner, there stood my entire family: aunts, uncles, cousins. And my mother.
Upon returning home, I found an email from my mother informing me I was no longer welcome until I lost weight and regained my mobility. I believe my mother means not to punish but to save me, but in either case, banishment is cruel. Because you see, in The Summer of Silence and Loss (2006) my father suffered a severe stroke, and though he has recovered much of what he lost, he cannot communicate in speech or in writing. And so, since 2007, I’ve been cut off from the person most precious to me.
I am able to accept that my weight will likely cause premature death, and am even willing to accept the interpretation that it is a kind of slow suicide, but I can’t accept the loss of my mobility. And I cannot live without seeing my father again. Still, even knowing I could no longer carry the weight of these consequences, it took me until the first heat of The Summer of My Revelation (2009) to act. Eighteen months of avoidance, of feeling powerless to make a change, of suffocating in my belief that, somehow, I was a victim of circumstance: genetics, depression, addiction, the food industry, the media. For nearly a decade, I allowed wishful thinking to rule.
I can’t blame ignorance. I’ve done much reading on the subject of obesity. But I never questioned my idea of a “natural weight.” In The Summer of My Revelation, I did question it. Hard. When you strip away factors such as metabolism, genetics, and hormonal diseases, the body is simply an engine, and calories the fuel that powers it. There’s no such thing as generically preordained (or even predisposed) weight. And there’s no such thing as a natural weight. A weight—any weight I choose—can be maintained once a point of stasis is reached, when the number of calories consumed equals the number of calories burned. There’s no magic to it, no wishful thinking involved; it’s an equation utilizing facts and computation. Gaining a pound of fat requires an excess of 3,500 calories; losing a pound of fat requires a deficit of 3,500.
Take a can of cola, 140 calories devoid of nutrition, and add it to what I already consume and burn. Drink one every day and I’ll gain almost fifteen pounds in a year. After a decade, I’ll have packed on 146 pounds.
Which sums up my decade: an extra 140 calories a day. How such an inconsequential number effectively managed to cripple me is not my concern now. Reversing the damage is. Looking beyond my personality, with its self-entitled wants and desires, its susceptibility to fantasy and distraction, I can see that the solution is mine to choose. It’s like shrugging off that heavy woolen dress again, only this time I’m going to let go of my wishful thinking.
The Summer of the Well-Oiled Duck (2010) is now behind us. I’m fifty pounds lighter than when I visited London for my father’s seventieth birthday, and I have regained much of my mobility. I’m exercising again, but I am still morbidly obese, still banished, still despairing. My feeling toward sizeist attitudes is in flux. I question whether bigotry can ever be moral. That question aside, sizeism exists and to escape its burden is my responsibility and mine alone. But with accepting great responsibility comes great power, which is also mine. Still, I confess I do occasionally indulge in wishful thinking: I wish I could tell the difference between feeling full and feeling filled. I wish I could rub out the FAT label stuck to me and write something else instead, something like Work in Progress. And I wish I could see my father.