Note: Learn more about the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program here or at www.amihungry.com.
FYI – this is longer than my usual blog entry since it’s a bit of a book review along with my own reflections and thoughts triggered by the book.
I recently finished reading Makers by Cory Doctorow, a fascinating book offering a speculative look at where our technologies might lead us. At first glance, it’s not the sort of book I would expect to write about here, but one of its speculations is about finding a cure for obesity. As a result, it also offered a look at the social side of being overweight, including how it impacts relationships. Reading it, I could relate in so many ways.
One of the main characters in the book is Lester, a big man in every sense of the word, weighing around 400 pounds. We first see him through the eyes of a woman named Suzanne, who finds herself unexpectedly drawn to him. “He was smiling, and brave, and at that moment, Suzanne thought that she could get a crush on this guy, this big, smart, talented, funny, lovable guy. Then reality snapped back and she saw him as he was, sexless, lumpy, almost grotesque. The overlay of his – what? – his inner beauty on that exterior, it disoriented her.” (p. 31) And so when he asked her on a date, she thought, “He was huge…. So fat, he was, essentially, sexless.” (p. 40) The answer was obviously no, and it would have been even if there hadn’t been a professional conflict due to the fact that she was reporting on the work he was doing.
This was something I could strongly identify with from the other side. When I was overweight, I had hang-ups about even the idea of dating. I was quite convinced that most people saw me as Suzanne did Lester – gross and untouchable – and no matter how my inner beauty might shine, it would never be enough to block out the realities of my physical body. I didn’t think of myself as sexless, per se, but I also couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to even hug me, let alone anything more intimate.
I wrote about this in a fictional prose piece called “The Road to Freedom”: “I can’t even stand to look in a mirror, I’m so disgusting…. I’m surprised I don’t make anyone ill. Where did I go wrong? I was so adorable as a child. What did I do to deserve this transformation from beauty to beast?... When I [was a kid and] imagined myself grown up, I thought I’d… be married, have kids. That’s a laugh. Who would want to marry me? I’m repulsive to myself, so it must be worse for others. No, I won’t even consider it.”
I was therefore extremely interested to read about a treatment Lester underwent called fatkins. It involved: electromuscular stimulation and chemical therapy for skin tightening; appetite-suppressing hormones; stem cells as a substitute for steroids to build muscle; and genomic therapy with hummingbird genes to boost the metabolism. A new Lester emerged, one with washboard abs who could – in fact, had to – eat ten thousand calories per day. (Not without cost, it turned out, although that wasn’t something they discovered until much later.)
Suzanne was blown away. She was also very attracted to him, now, on every level. But Lester didn’t want to spend the night with her because, as he told her, “’You didn’t want me before.’” (p. 106)
Here, too, I felt echoes of myself. After losing weight, my issues morphed into worrying about what my date would think of me when he finally realized that I had not always been this petite person, and that, unlike Lester, my body still bore evidence of that time. And the big question, of course – what would my date have thought of me had he met me before? But then, is that really a fair question, since I’m not the same person I was before?
This, too, was something that Lester ran into. As he explained to a friend, “’Since fatkins, I’ve felt like – I don’t know – a real person. When I was big, I was invisible and totally asexual…. When I felt something for a woman, it was… like I was a beast and she was a beauty and we could enjoy some kind of chaste, spiritual love.’” (I was interested to see that he, too, considered himself a “beast”.)
He continued, “’Fatkins made me… whole. A whole person, with a life below my belt, as well as above my neck…. [And] I guess I really resent [Suzanne] for not wanting me when I was big, though I totally get why she wouldn’t have…. Why would she want me now? I’m the same person, after all.’”
To which his friend replied, ‘”Except that you’re whole now.’” (p. 207)
Ah, there’s the rub. Would someone be attracted to me now because I’m not fat, or because I’m someone who’s finally comfortable with who I am? How do you answer those questions?
Lester spent quite a lot of time avoiding those issues at all by sleeping primarily with other fatkins. In fact, it seemed that all the fatkins became super-sexed after the treatment, which might have been a side-effect of some of the changes they underwent. In reality, I know that some people who lose a lot of weight do go into overdrive in that perspective, but not everyone, and it might have been nice to have that a bit more balanced in the book.
Despite all that, eventually Lester and Suzanne ended up together, and I was also a bit disappointed by this aspect of the book. Nowhere did we see what made Lester change his mind about being with her, or how he got around feeling like he was still fat with her, even though he wasn’t and would never be fat again. In general, though, I found it a refreshingly frank look at the social realities of being overweight, and for that I applaud it.
In considering my own journey, I’ve actually found that the facilitator training for Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program has helped move me to a better place. These days when I meet someone and talk about what I do, I share some my hopes for offering that course, which makes it natural to slip in my own past up-front so I can gauge their reaction. It’s allowed me to feel, now, like I’ve owned it, and am no longer hiding a very significant part of my life behind this person that I’ve become.
But then I started thinking about being on the other side and asking a new question. How would I feel about dating someone overweight?
This came up for me even before reading about Lester and Suzanne. It started some time ago when a neighbor asked me, “I saw a really big guy go to your house the other day. Was that your dad? I know he’s heavy. I mean, you wouldn’t date….”
She trailed off before actually completing the sentence, perhaps finally cluing into who she was talking to. It didn’t make me any less offended. And though it was my dad she had seen, I suddenly wondered if some of my anger was because I was afraid she was right. Would I really be so hypocritical as to judge another person on their weight?
A while after that I went on a date with a man who wasn’t quite as big as Lester, but still big. It surprised me when we met because I’d only seen profile pictures before (we met online). I got nervous as I examined my reaction. Was there more to it? But I was pleased to discover it really was only surprise. No disgust, no aversion, no feeling that I could never be attracted to him. In fact, I enjoyed our time together enough that I didn’t even really notice it again until he tried to squeeze himself into my car (a 1997 Saturn sedan is not designed for tall and/or large people).
That relationship didn’t end up going anywhere, but the reasons had nothing to do with his or my weight. While I was disappointed that it didn’t work out, I felt a strange sense of freedom. Whatever my issues have been in relation to weight and dating, I knew then that they were truly gone. And about that, I couldn’t be happier.