14 February 2014

The Offense of Being Overweight in America

I had a little trouble with the title of this post. At first it was "The Crime of Being Overweight in America". I thought about that and realized that being a person with a larger than average height-weight ratio was worse than a crime in our society. So, I retitled it "The Mortal Sin of Being Overweight in America". That didn't seem quite right either. It goes deeper than that. The prejudice and enmity that overweight people in this country face on a daily basis is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that innumerable slights go unnoticed by both sides, even when it occurs right in front of their faces. Our society seems to take it as a personal affront that there exist people who tip the scales more than the diet industry says they should. Obesity is treated like a character flaw, offensive to the general consensus on the strict parameters of beauty.

I have been on both sides of the coin. I was slightly overweight as a child, and obese as a teen and young adult. Throughout my school career I endured the endless taunts and teasing, bullying we'd call it today, of my peers and even members of my immediate family. I was conditioned to believe that I was always "less than" because of my weight. If I got good grades, it didn't matter. Told I had a beautiful singing voice. It wasn't enough. No matter what I did or who I was with, I was just off-center of fitting in, of being worthy of a place in mainstream society.

In 2004, at age 32, I had gastric bypass surgery. A year and a half later I was 113 pounds lighter and seeing the world around me in a whole new light.  It was as if a door opened up into a place so much better and brighter than the one I had been trapped in when I was overweight. Clerks in shops seemed friendlier and more eager to help me. People on the street seemed more inclined to smile at me and make eye contact. Everywhere I went, it was like people had morphed overnight from cold, guarded, generally leery and distrustful to receptive, neighborly, and ready to welcome me into the mainstream with open arms. Remember the R.E.M. song, "Shiny Happy People" ? It was kind of like that. Liberating, uplifting, and just a teensy bit creepy.

Within 2 years, the weight had returned thanks to a combination of meds, a severe depression, and slipping back into bad eating habits. I'm currently about 90 - 100 pounds overweight and struggling to lose it all again. The main difference between now and before the surgery is that I'm much quicker to notice slights, prejudices, and thinly veiled discrimination. Once again I am treated like a blight on a society where "thin is in". By having seen what it's like, having experienced first hand the preferential treatment afforded to the height-weight proportionate, I am now quicker to recognize when I'm being treated like a second-class citizen.

I'll be completely honest. I seriously liked the how it felt to be part of  the average-sized world and not only for the way I was being treated, but for the way I felt, physically and mentally.  I admit that I couldn't help but get caught up in all the hoopla about being thin. Still, in the back of my mind I knew something was not right. I felt a little guilty enjoying the perks not available to me when I was heavy. I knew it stemmed from a foundation built solely on my physical appearance. I was the same person on the inside, just in a smaller package.  Only the wrapping had changed. I knew overweight people were still being treated like pariah all around me and it triggered my "champion of the underdog" mode. Though I'm currently trying to lose the weight again (for health reasons), I know that once I'm successful I will continue to be a defender of the overweight. No one should have to feel like they are second-best to someone else simply because of their size. Judge me and others like me by our character and our actions, not by the numbers on the scale and not because we are outside of what our society considers beautiful.