Thursday, July 30, 2009

How It Happens

(orignally posted here)

I’d like to send a special shout out to all the first time visitors (and kisses to my returning visitors, too!) who breezed by my little patch of the web yesterday. I’m not sure how it happened, but July 29, 2009 was a banner day here at with over 300 unique users clicking in. I started this website because I was tired of the silence surrounding obesity, and I was hoping that that there were other people out there who were too—and I haven’t been disappointed! Breaking my silence and starting a conversation about the fat and everything that comes with it and what it takes to fight it has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life, and I am so glad to have found you all and to still be here and still be talking.

It’s an uncomfortable dialog for most of us, because it turns out that living with obesity and talking about obesity are two completely separate endeavors. When we go out into the world, we wear our condition not just on our sleeves, but stuffed tightly into them. Our obesity is the most immediately visible, identifiable thing about us…and yet we’d rather just not talk about it thankyouverymuch. I sometimes think that because we cannot hide the fat from the world that we compensate for that by clinging fiercely to our intellectual and emotional privacy on the subject.

But I believe that the enemy of change is silence, and the world isn’t waiting for us to get comfortable, they’re starting to talk about it now—and I figure that those of us who are intimately familiar with the subject should probably enter the conversation. Case in point:

On the front page of the Omaha World Herald this morning is a story about the efforts of local fire & rescue officials to purchase emergency equipment to accommodate the increasing number of severely obese people they are called upon to help. The article (you can read it here) discusses possible plans for adding a special ambulance to the fleet that has an integrated winch, a larger compartment and a reinforced floor to accommodate larger passengers. They also talked about newly available stretchers with higher weight limits and hydraulic lifts, as well as detailing several creative ways that fire & rescue crews have been forced to transport obese patients. Plans to acquire both a forklift and a construction crane that would be ready in an on-call capacity were also mentioned.

I am getting better at reading articles like this without my insult-o-meter rising immediately to stack-blowing status and having smoke shoot out my ears. I accept that obesity is not exclusively a personal matter, but a medical issue worthy of scrutiny and a societal issue that must be addressed. The article in question deals with the subject matter in a dignified and fair fashion, I think, and the questions of how to deal with a growing severely morbidly obese population need to be answered. It is estimated that that there are currently over two million people in this country who weigh 550 pounds or more and the inevitability of the need for medical attention for them requires us to do some planning. I read the article with interest and empathy, all the while knowing that many people would see it and feel much differently about what they read.

The hosts of my favorite morning radio show read the article too, and their reaction was what I expected it would be. Some shock, some horror, a little bit of snide joking, a smattering of serious head bobbing, and a nearly total lack of understanding of obesity in general. This doesn’t surprise me, because the truth is that the most of the world doesn’t understand much about obesity either. Even those of us who live with it don’t know much about it beyond the idea that fat people eat too much. Medical science is just beginning to do some real research into the condition, but still has yet to elevate obesity above the status of a mere character flaw and lend credibility to the idea that there might be more complicated causal factors involved than “too much pie”. The radio personalities commented on the major themes of the article, pontificated broadly about the “obesity epidemic” in this country, and then settled on the real question that was weighing on their minds:

How, they wondered, could someone let themselves get so big?

I understand why they don’t know how that could happen. Part of being able to blame someone’s weight problem exclusively on their own slovenly nature and inability to control oneself with food is believing that morbid obesity could happen to anyone. That way, they can point out that they know how to stop themselves form eating too much on a regular basis, so we can all assume that everyone else should be able to do the same.

But the truth is that not everyone has the natural potential in them to be morbidly obese. Many, many people on this earth are blessed with bodies that don’t long for food the way that mine does, with brains that don’t spend their days and nights consumed by the thought of it. Most people aren’t even physically capable of eating enough food on a regular basis to gain an extra 100 pounds (or 200, or 300, or 500) without making a concerted, directed (and kuh-RAY-zee, I might add) effort to do so. To them, the idea of ever letting your weight spiral out of control the way that so many of us have is, literally, unthinkable.

But I do understand how it could happen, because I know how it happened to me. I’ve been overweight for the majority of my life. When I look back at my progression from normal sized little girl to morbidly obese adult, it is interesting to me to see just how fat I wasn’t, comparatively. I’ve joked that if you stacked up a portrait of me for every year between the ages 6 and 36 and used the edge of your thumb to reveal them in quick succession you’d have a flip-book that could be titled “Girl gets lips stuck on bicycle pump”. What started out as a minor weight problem grew incrementally with the passage of time. Later in my life, as I crossed each line I drew in the sand of the weight I said I’d definitely never go higher than, I drew a new one a few pounds higher. And when I crossed that one, I drew another, and another, and another, until one day I was so scared to see whether I’d crossed that line…that I stopped looking all together. And that’s how I imagine that it happens for many people who weigh so much that they’re no longer able to leave their homes. I think they woke up one day and realized that the unthinkable had become the status quo…so they just stop looking. I can see how it could happen to them. I can see how it could have happened to me.

More importantly, I can see how it still could.

So there you have it, Big Party Morning Show on-air personalities. That's how it could happen. Any other questions?

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