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The fat kid

I’ve been fat all my life. No matter how much I’ve weighed, I’ve always looked in the mirror and seen someone who’s overweight.

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This is what I see when I look in the mirror.

A couple of months ago, I woke up and said to myself, I’ve been wanting to lose a solid twenty pounds for over a decade. I weighed 228 pounds. When I started Ph.D. studies, I was 200 pounds. I remember feeling skinny then. My pants hung on me with plenty of room. My t-shirts fit loosely around my chest. I had more energy, but then again, I was 41 and not 53.

Twenty pounds. I’m going to do it, I said, then started to make excuses. In order to carry out my plan, I had a lifetime of cultural baggage the crawl out from underneath. I was going to have to deal with the way I ate when I felt bad. Then, I’d have to think about the way I stuffed myself when I felt good or accomplished something. I ate when it rained and when the sun shone. I used visiting company, parties, and dinner events as excuses to eat too much. I almost never ate when I was hungry–I was never hungry. I ate because it felt good to eat.

After going through these peregrinations (and only within minutes), I realized that if I wanted to lose twenty pounds, the my past had little to do with it. That day, I changed the way I ate. Food would have to become sustenance rather than drug. I kept at my daily exercise—a bike ride and a long walk (2- to 4-mile) with the dogs.

I watched the first ten pounds melt right off. The next five took a while. The five after that took even longer. But about two months ago, I reached my goal of 210 pounds. My wife became concerned. You’re getting all skinny, she said. You’re going to wither right away.

I loved hearing it. Someone noticed. I lost the twenty I set out to lose. I wanted more. I made a new goal of 190. But the scale got stuck at 208. It hovers around 210 now, a pound here or a pound there. Today was another in the break-even column. Today, I used food as medicine. I felt good when I woke up. I had cake for breakfast, then a fat chile relleno with beans and more cake for lunch. I ate cake again when I got up from a nap. (It’s a fucking awesome cake.)

My experience with weight gain or loss has a long history. Schoolkids can be to each other and I know it first-hand. All through grade school and then high school, other kids called me names. I was the fat kid, the last to be chosen for a team and the one that was left standing against the wall at the school dances. When I graduated high school, I weighed 240 pounds. At five-eight, I was a rotund, out-of-shape kid who had a poor attitude toward himself and no self-confidence.

In addition, throughout my youth, my parents were fanatical about weight loss. They procured all sorts of potions and aids. They tried the latest diets and some of their own making. They cut out eating bread, desserts, and cheese for periods of time. They went on fat-free diets and lowered their salt intake. My mom enrolled in exercise programs and watched exercise shows on television. She even tried belly dancing, which was said at the time to have certain advantages in weight loss and body modification.

They always weighed the same no matter what they did.

Through their persistent efforts at sculpting their physiques and the lingerie ads in the Sunday paper, I gained what can only be called an unhealthy idea of what a human being should look like. In other words, if my parents were screwed up, then I was screwed up too.

I had spent my high school years obsessed about weight but couldn’t lose any, despite all my efforts at diet and wearing clothes that were much too small. I’d exercise but lose the impetus to continue after just a few short running steps around the block. Fortunately, I did have a treehouse and had to hike to it. Even so, I was frequently tired and out of breath after a little exertion. I dreamed of being a slim, good-looking guy. But then I looked in the mirror. Thoughts about weight and eating depressed me.

When I graduated high school, I got a job at a gas station. The summer of 1981 was hot. Someone died from the heat and became a news story. The paper filled up with articles about the elderly and poor dying in their apartments. Construction workers collapsed and died at work. Cops found homeless people dead of the heat under bridges.

I worked from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. six days a week. Breathing gas and physical labor in the heat are about the best diet aids one can find.

After about a month of running the drive and filling gas tanks, I noticed that I had lost some weight. I felt better and could put in a day’s work without falling flat on the couch when I got home, as I did when I first started. I put my mind to it and began eating less. Instead of cookies, cheese, and bread, I ate one baloney sandwich at lunch and drank an egg nog and had a salad every evening. By the end of the summer, I had lost sixty pounds.

I started college that fall at 180 pounds, and it was easy to keep it that way. I continued working at the gas station part-time for the next year. I stayed out late and rose early. Many of the calories I took in everyday came from various alcoholic beverages. Normally, that might give a guy a beer gut. But breathing gas and drinking my food kept the weight off.

Regardless how much weight I lost, however, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a fat guy. I don’t suppose I would have been happy with my physique until I had the bulging ribs and knotty joints of the truly starved.

Through the years, I’ve fought fat. I’ve weighed as much as 235. But I carried it differently than when I was 18. Since those years, I’d gained strength, built muscle, and grown a couple of inches. Nothing about 235 is thin, and I think I looked like I weighed that much. But it never matters. Two-thirty-five or 180, I feel fat.

About a decade ago, I saw some pictures of me in the 1980s. I never realized that while I wasn’t skinny, I wasn’t obese. In fact, I looked rather trim. That surprised me because I remember distinctly looking at myself in the mirror during those years and seeing someone overweight. Those pictures threw me into deep confusion. If I was thin when I thought I was fat, did I need to put myself through all the self-deprecation and loathing I have my whole life? If it doesn’t matter how much I weigh when I always feel fat, could it be that the opposite could be true? That I could be fat or skinny and not feel fat?

And what is the right weight for me? Doctors have told me I could lose f few pounds but none ever told me that I was unhealthy. I stay active. My heart rate sits at a steady 58. My blood pressure stays around 120/60. My cholesterol is 145. As far as anyone knows, everything is working fine. It’s just that I want to be skinny. Just once in my life. I don’t even have to be thin, just feel that way.

I’m back on my weight kick. I want to get to 190—another twenty pounds. But when I get there, I won’t be happy unless I get over a lifetime of shitty feelings about myself. Maybe it’s something I need to bring up to my therapist.

Or, maybe, I ought to get out of the weigh-reduction business altogether. All my efforts have never really mattered. I might be able to get to 190. But there’s no guarantee I won’t gain it all back and find myself wondering again why it is I’m so fat.

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