In all seriousness

November 10, 2009

I saw an article in the paper recently about the “Fat Gap” – a phenomenon in which an overweight person who is pretty much surrounded only by other overweight people, develops a skewed perception of his or her true size.

In a recent survey of more than 2,200 people, less than 1 in 10 people believe their extra pounds are enough to classify them as “obese,” when in reality, 1 in 4 of the same people actually were clinically obese.

I was very surprised to read this. I had this very experience many years ago, but I had always figured it was just me. I was living in Houston, where there is scarcely more to do than restaurant-hop during the 100-degree, 99%-humidity summers. And, the food!! Incredibly cheesy TexMex, pungent barbecue, tacos de lengua, well-seasoned slabs of steak, and all the local microbrews you could drink. It seemed like heaven at the time!

But we all fool ourselves. Everyone in Houston was fat.

I was, too, but I didn’t realize it…I justified being “average” since when I looked around me, I saw that I was still among the skinniest in my group of friends, of the women in my family, of my co-workers… Surely I couldn’t have been that fat!

Nonetheless, current guidelines indicate that not only was I overwight, but I was pushing the border of clinically obese. At 5’3” and 168 pounds (at my heaviest), my BMI came in at a solid 29.8. For the record, a BMI of 30.0 or higher is officially classified as “obese.”

In my case, I realized my “true” size after seeing a candid photo of myself someone had shot. It wasn’t even a memorable or particular horrific picture, I just suddenly saw myself and said “Wow. When did I get so big?”

With the support of F and WeightWatchers and a lot of hard work, I dropped down to 126 pounds and maintained for a long time at a healthy size 6. After that, I got sloppy—we had a year’s worth of houseguests and multiple social invitations, we became food and drink snobs, and just overindulged in general. Last February, F and I decided we’d had it with being heavier than we needed to be, and we began to take better care of ourselves in earnest.

Overall, we’ve done pretty well. His efforts include almost daily bouts on the treadmill and on a weight bench. I’ve been slower to adopt such vigorous daily exercise but have made great strides in this direction, especially lately.
In any case, I am improving consistently, but my weight remains a constant struggle.

I guess the point of all that was that, in retrospect, I would have rather someone shook me by the shoulders and said, “What are you doing? You are too heavy and you are going to have a ton of health problems and difficulties if you don’t start losing weight now! It just gets harder as you get older!” No one did this, and in the moment, I’m not honestly sure how I would have taken it.

Currently, someone I know and love—I’ll call her Ms.J—has put on about 35+ pounds or so. She is brilliant and beautiful, and has had a rude shock meeting her fourth decade on the planet as a 30-something, that mythical age when everything on our body suddenly begins to fall apart.

This young woman is aware she has gained weight. Her significant other is also aware, and has reportedly given her a really hard time about it, even restricting her purchase of new clothes at times to ensure that she doesn’t “feel too comfortable” in her new size and just throw in the towel to become a terminal fat person. Regardless of whether or not this is fair or nice, here is my dilemma:

My dear Ms. J has gained at least 3 dress sizes, and at 5’2” or so, weighs about 155 pounds, a firm “overweight” on the BMI scale. And this is not far at all from my current personal height and weight status, in spite of my ongoing efforts to the contrary, so believe me when I say I am not judging her for her lapse or her sedentary lifestyle or the size she has grown into. I AM concerned, however, that she constantly “justifies” her size, saying, “Yeah, I think I look better…I was really wayyy too thin before, it’s better for me to have a bit more weight on, I look much better…”

The truth of the matter is that she *doesn’t* look any better. In fact, she looks much worse. She looks older. She looks more tired. She looks, as F so delicately put it, “como un camionero.” I found a forum or two in which this phenomenon was mentioned (here, for example), but not much else.

I’ll probably be crucified by the F.A.s out there for publishing the above sentence, but it’s unfortunately true. Nonetheless, her looks are not at all my principal concern. My dear Ms. J. had a spinal fusion of some kind a few years ago. Before her surgery, she maintained a “normal” weight, and had major nerve impingement issues as a result of her condition. Now, she is 30 pounds heavier than she was at the time of the surgery, and is having relapse-type symptoms. Major problems.

She has been back to see her team of doctors, and they have advised her to lose the extra weight to keep the strain off her lower back. They have also told her that this is a grand part of the reason she is having more issues with more of her disks bulging, and that they will not consider surgery for her again until she reaches a point where her quality of life has diminished so profoundly that she becomes virtually suicidal. Ms. J insists, “I look sooo much better now, I was like a skeleton before…”

My dilemma: Should I lovingly point out to her that she is, indeed, too heavy? That her determination of how suddenly hot she is based on the addition of the added weight is a farce? Or should I just let her continue to barrel down the road to future back surgery and other major health problems, enjoying fast food fried chicken and too much gravy? Could she actually believe that she is smokin’ the way she is? Or is it just a cover-up that conveniently lets her off the hook for the “hard work” that accompanies weight loss and taking control of one’s eating habits?

What is the best decision to make? Let her dig her own proverbial grave to reduced quality of life, or step up and talk with her about her choices and her possibilities?

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2 Responses to “In all seriousness”

  1. Zoe D Says:

    Hmmm, the weirdest thing about this is that she’s saying that she looks better.

    I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, and I have yet to meet anyone who can bring it up without sounding like a jerk, so unless it’s necessary, I wouldn’t mention it directly. 🙂

    My best advice would be to just be healthy around her (I’m assuming you guys live in the same area now). If you want to go for a walk or do some exercise (whatever she can manage with her conditions) then invite her to come along. If you go out to lunch, choose places with healthy options. I know how hard that is. I have a friend who won’t eat anything that isn’t deep-fried or stuffed with bacon.

    If she complains about her back, maybe you could lightly suggest some exercise or something?

    If she were morbidly obese or approaching morbid obesity, then by all means say something. But at 155 lbs, I don’t think it’s worth it and will most likely be annoying. Also, keep in mind that the BMI is a really poor tool for determining someone’s ideal weight. I am very muscular and have a very large frame. I had my body fat percentage tested in a doctors office with electrodes. Get this…I’m 5’1″ and even if I were 0% body fat, I would be bordering on an “overweight” BMI. My bones, organs, and muscles would leave me at 120 lbs. And that is crazy. That’s just my experience though. She probably already knows how to eat healthy and exercise, but maybe she’s depressed or unmotivated?

    • shawncita Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Zoe! You raise excellent points, and I appreciate the careful thought you put into your response. I employ many of these strategies (suggest healthy place for lunch, invite her for a walk) with minimal degrees of success…I hadn’t seriously considered the depression angle, although it has crossed my mind a time or two…I’ll keep a watchful eye!


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