It seems to run in my family on my mother’s side that children begin life small and very thin. All of my cousins on that side of my family and all of my aunts–my mother’s sisters–were so thin as children and adolescents that people thought they were undernourished. It is also a trait of these same people, when they reach the age of about nineteen, to balloon into being as overweight as they were underweight. It was exactly the same for me, though not universal among my cousins. Some of them remained very thin.
Being underweight as a boy is a decidedly unhealthy state, not because of anything physiological, but because it’s the same as having “Target” inscribed on various parts of your body. I spent the majority of my minority avoiding being beaten. When it became a question of beating me or being beaten by someone else, even my friends took their turns at me.
When I was seventeen, my stepfather insisted that my mother take me to a doctor and have me checked for malnutrition. He declared that if I didn’t put on some weight, I would die. He thought I must have a tapeworm or some other parasite, because it was evident that I ate as much as he. I just couldn’t put on any weight no matter how much I ate.
I survived those difficult years and did not fulfill my stepfather’s prophecy. Instead, right on schedule, I followed my kinfolk down the road to obesity. The belly started to appear at nineteen and by the time I was twenty-one, I was officially fat. I hadn’t really changed my diet any since I was a teenager, and that was probably my downfall.
During the ensuing twenty-six years, I have steadily gained weight despite fairly good efforts to be more active and watch my diet. I tried over and over to begin successful exercise programs to keep my weight down, but my weight steadily increased, with a few periods of weight loss.
What I have learned about myself in these years is that I have to have a better definition of success in an exercise program. The most weight I lost, I lost without any program. I was carpooling to work with a friend and would walk the 1.3 miles to his house every morning. When that arrangement ended and I began driving again, the weight came back despite daily visits to the gym. My idea that a successful exercise program was about weight loss had to go.
I started to think of success in my exercise program as stress control, and more importantly, as something I just plain enjoyed doing. In other words, the exercise had to become the reward, not the work that led to the reward. When I adopted this point of view and internalized it, I began to exercise regularly without any self-compulsory inner talk. It was a joy to just go to the gym and work out.
Unfortunately, it has not led to any real weight loss. Oh, I’ve distributed the weight around, but have been basically the same size for many years. This has led to the second cognitive necessity–accepting myself as large. Would that the rest of the world would follow my lead in thinking about me.
The harsh realities are that people judge others by their weight. Part of what contributes to my weight is the vocation I have pursued for twenty years. I have a glorious career as a computer programmer, something that is done mostly in my head while the rest of my body waits.
Despite the relative irrelevance of my physical dimensions in that field, I have encountered more than once a bias that said that overweight equated to lower intelligence, less energy, lacking organizational skills, impaired self-control, and many other diminished capacities. It was always interesting to me, at those times, how I was usually a far sight more intelligent than my detractors, a more valuable commodity in the field of data processing than slim hips and washboard abdominals, but my weight was what was being judged.
I don’t doubt that being overweight is, to a degree, evidence that I will be less energetic, even mentally. I may even have a problem with self-control. Those who have discriminated against me because of my size may have been partially right. Where they fail in their logic is when they neglect to take into consideration their own weaknesses and how they have adapted to do their jobs despite things like lower intelligence than mine or even impulse control problems with things other than food. The truth that eludes them is that no one is perfectly suited to a certain job. We all adjust to accommodate the differences between our tasks and our attributes.
What the rest of the world would have me believe is that I must lose weight to realize my full value. I have realized that I am fully valuable already. I just get to use the rest of my life exercising that value by making of myself whatever I choose to be.