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I remember being heavy and trying to navigate the world, all the while feeling others flinch away from me. At the time I always thought it was about me, about disgust at my size and what I looked like. I never considered that it might be something else.
That’s why I was struck when reading a particular section of the book “Every Day” by David Levithan. In the book, A, the protagonist, wakes every day in a different body. One day it’s as Finn, who weighs about three hundred pounds. When using Finn’s body, A noted: “And there are the looks I get – such undisguised disgust…. But there’s also something more primal, something… defensive in their disgust. I am what they fear becoming.” (p. 271)
For some reason I had never thought of it that way before, but it immediately struck me as true. Our society places so much emphasis on appearance, and such stigma around obesity, that it makes sense (in a sad way) that people would fear becoming that way. It doesn’t help that most people share A’s belief about why people grow obese.
“Finn Taylor has retreated from most of the world; his size comes from negligence and laziness, a carelessness that would be pathological if it had any meticulousness to it. While I’m sure if I access deep enough I will find some well of humanity, all I can see on the surface is the emotional equivalent of a burp.” (p. 270)
Admittedly A had inside access to Finn’s memories and thoughts, but this seems to reflect a more general assumption. If you believe this is the way fat people are, then it makes perfect sense to be afraid of becoming like them. Why would you want to be that person, the one who is lazy and isolated and doesn’t seem to care about anything or be connected to anyone?
And yet, this is far from the whole truth. While some people may fall into this category, I have to wonder how much of an influence weight is; I know that some thin people are equally isolated and disengaged. At the same time, many people who are heavy are very sensitive and would like to be more connected to the rest of humanity – if only they felt they would be accepted.
This reminds me of one of the sections of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program, in which we talk about how thoughts and beliefs influence feelings, which lead to certain actions, which generate results that reinforce our thoughts and beliefs.
In this case, people may believe that those who are obese are lazy and pathetic excuses of humanity, which leads to feelings of disgust and fear of becoming that way. And so they treat the obese with prejudice and aversion, feel disgust when looking at them, and may fear becoming that way. The result is that the people who are overweight may retreat even more, and this self-imposed isolation could reinforce the belief that they’re lazy and disconnected. It might also strengthen their sense that the only comfort they will find is in food.
But what if we changed that? What if, instead of fear, the general population truly believed that the obese were people, just like them, no more lazy or undeserving than any other? Might this then lead to feelings of empathy, which would lead to treating the obese with care and compassion, and thus result in greater connection? And if that happened, might those who are heavy feel that they can find solace in something other than food, and thus might not remain as heavy?
While I can’t say for sure, it’s an interesting thought experiment, and one that I wish we could see played out in the real world. Even if it didn’t lead to anyone being lighter, it would likely lead to people being happier, and to me, that alone is worth the attempt.