On being somewhat less of a man…

Something I wrote last month on Facebook. Photos, May 2011 and last weekend, for comparison purposes.

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I’ve been hesitant to share some of my real victories this year, because I have a number of friends who are fat activists, and it feels somewhat like a betrayal, in a strange way, to brag about the fact that I am now the healthiest I’ve been in my adult life. But the changes I made this year were not about becoming thin, or attaching my self-worth to a number on the scale, or the label on my clothes. That’s never been what I’m about, for as long as I remember having an opinion on the matter. I was mocked and ostracized throughout my childhood, by peers, friends and family alike, so nothing I’m doing now is being done to satisfy anyone else’s idea of what I should look like. I’m fat till the day I die, even if I shrink down to pure muscle and bone; it really is a state of mind, and fatness is inextricably a part of my life. And while I do love it when my friends tell me I look great, those compliments come with a bitter aftertaste, because every “you look great” that I get based on outward appearance actually FEELS a little bit like “you have more value as a person now, because you are no longer so disgusting to look at.” I still take the compliments in the spirit in which they’re intended, because most people still just don’t get it, as unfathomable as I used to find that.

That being said, the two years before this one were one of the worst periods of my life. A year ago I was in a deep depression, and basically trying to kill myself with food. I was not in the worst shape I’ve ever been in (that would be my late 20s, also a less-than-stellar period of my development), but things were not looking good, and I saw it as a foregone conclusion that I either change, or die young. Dying young is not a rational choice, when the choice is yours to make. Life is a gift, preceded and followed by nothing, and I wasted a good chunk of the first half of mine on bad ideas and self-loathing, for the most part. I remember that fact to motivate myself, because not only is this not a rehearsal, the show’s half done.

This spring, I lost my taste for self-loathing. I started looking at meat, and grease, and sugar, and other substances that have dogged me through the last thirty years or so, and just lost interest. I didn’t make a conscious choice to go vegan (and I’ll still grab a cookie or piece of cheese now and then, just to keep things flawed), but that’s where I ended up finding myself, mostly thanks to having a bunch of awesome friends (and a new girlfriend) who had gotten there first and made the transition more easy than anyone can imagine it being.

So this year has been a process of learning to trust myself not to let myself down, rediscovering things I love and discovering that I love them more than I even realized, and attaining a huge degree of clarity in terms of what I want, what I need, what I intend to do, and what I intend to accept. I’ve been lost in abstraction much of my life, always uncertain of the right course, no confidence in my own judgement and perceptions and talents. I’ve frequently gotten so caught up in seeing all sides of an issue that I found I was unable to take a firm position on anything without first issuing a hundred qualifiers, feeling frustrated as hell when people with incredibly bad ethics or logic made a far better case than I could, because they gave a simplified and problematic version of their position which *sounded* good. I watched others step forward and take life in their hands, in spite of seeing with a fair amount of confidence that they had no idea what they were doing, but they were doing it anyway. I hated them for years, resenting what I saw as their inauthenticity, and completely missing the joy with which they were doing their thing, however “wrongly” they may have been doing it. This, too, seems to be shrinking away from me.

And through it all this year, I shrank and shrank, putting no effort into it, just eating what I wanted and doing what I wanted. Today, I bought and put on the first size XL shirt that I’ve worn since my early 20s. This feels unexplainably good. Not because people no longer look at me with derision in their eyes, when they look at all, but because of what it represents: I can sit crosslegged on the ground. I can run across the street if the light turns yellow. I can pick up heavy things, walk them to the other side of the house, and put them down, without damaging the object, the house or myself, and without having to pause to put it down. It’s not about how I look, or how others see me. It’s about how my life is now, how I move, how my clothes fit. How when I go to a restaurant, I no longer have to walk up to the booth and say “hmmm…” and debate whether I should actually try to sit down, or just say “nope, we need a table” and save myself the potential humiliation of trying to squeeze myself in and not succeeding.

Fatness, in a society that normalizes skinny people and relentlessly shames you for it, takes over your entire life. It’s walking around now, and seeing the way people smile at me all the time, the extreme difference in the attitudes I get now vs. a year ago, that highlights that fact so starkly to me now. Not that people haven’t always liked me, once they get to know me – I’m a really nice guy. You learn to be nice when you’re fat, because NOBODY gives you the benefit of the doubt. Not even other fat people – our self-loathing translates to mutual loathing all too often. In elementary school, one of the worst bullies was the class’s other fat kid. Real Cartman type little shit. See? I still hate him. He had it just as bad as me, and I still hate him. Sometimes you don’t let go of shit that happens when you’re 8, I guess. And the hate is so endemic to our culture that when you’re its object, it gets so you don’t even notice it, until you are “lucky” enough to notice its absence.

I was sitting outside a high school a couple weeks ago, and watched a fat kid wipe out on the icy sidewalk. Time stood still. I knew what was gonna happen, and watched it unfold in slow motion. For starters, when you’re fat, it hurts more when you fall. So right off the bat, keep in mind that he’s feeling physical pain as this unfolds.

He first pushed himself up from flat on his back to kind of half sitting up, awkwardly holding himself there, cause his hands didn’t have good purchase on the ice (just like I did).

He quickly looked around, to see if anyone saw, if anyone was looking. Would he need to go through this with people watching, maybe snickering? The one thing a fat high school kid doesn’t expect is for someone to just come and help. He didn’t see me.

He then had to sort of fall back onto his elbows and then roll over to – thank the fat gods! – the chain link fence. This was a small blessing – he could pull himself up on the fence, and not have to try to stand up on a sheet of ice with nothing to brace himself against. That gets hard when you have a high centre of gravity, and it hurts like fuck – really, really hurts like FUCK – to put your own weight on your knees. Cursing starts to come very naturally around the age this kid is at.

Getting himself upright was not graceful. More like clawing his way out of a pit, with the fence his precarious handhold by which he had to lift most of his weight, because his foot had no friction to brace with. He got himself up, and sort of had to rock back into place. Just like I did.

Then he sort of brushed himself off, checked his leg, and started walking, slowly, the rest of the way into the school. His face was a mixture of seething anger and relief. From across the street and a couple of houses down, I could see his breathing. Keeping it steady, not too hard, so nobody knows you even had to strain yourself, nobody knows your back hurts so bad you want to scream… I watched him walk in, slowly, short steps, but not too short – if you step too short it looks funny, it attracts attention, but if you step too long you’ll go down again, and there’s no chainlink fence here…

You start looking forward to the day you can afford your own car, so you no longer have to navigate Winnipeg sidewalks in December. “Just go for a walk!” was one of the helpful pieces of advice I sometimes used to get from well-meaning people, some friends, some coworkers, some were just total strangers who felt entitled to give me health advice. Well, going for a walk, when you’re fat and especially when you’re fat and it’s winter, is not the simple affair you may think it is. It doesn’t take more than one or two incidents like the one above before you decide that walking is stupid and driving is definitely where it’s at.

In the moment, as I watched this all unfold in slow, slow, relativistically slow motion (I say relativistically because the experience somehow made me as young as that kid again, for a few minutes), my immediate urge was to hold perfectly still, not let him catch any hint that someone witnessed it. Like being a witness would necessarily make me one of THEM in his eyes. I didn’t instinctively trust that he would see me as a brother, for some reason. Because we’re all alone, no matter how many fat friends we may have. So I let him do it all alone.

I should have run out and helped him up. I should not have let him be alone. I, of all people, should have known how much it would have meant to have someone notice, and not use it as a source of their own amusement and nothing more. To use it as an opportunity to feel like someone, a stranger, saw him as something more than object of derision. That was a failure on my part.

So a relatively new friend of mine asked me awhile back if I was a fat activist. I said no, because I had never considered it something I might get involved with. For the last twenty years, I wasn’t even interested in any kind of activism, so my instinctive answer, brought by decades of inertia, cynicism and defeat, was no.

But now, my answer is yes. Because while I did not do any of the positive things I’ve done this year in order to attain that social acceptance, it appears that my own actions, which I pursued in the interest of extending my life as long as I possibly can and for no other reason, have bestowed that upon me, to some degree. This being the case, it needs to serve some purpose other than to feed my ego and turn me into a Beautiful Person. Cause the way most people use the word, a Beautiful person is the last thing I’d ever want to be.

Nope, I’m staying fat. I don’t look the part quite as much as I used to, and that appears to be a continuing trend, for the time being, and I’m feeling strong and positive and musical and connected, at last, to what really matters to me. That feels good. And the skinnier I get, the fatter I’m gonna stay. If people are more inclined to listen to me because of how I look, I’m going to do whatever I can think of to occupy the mind of that kid that I saw and was and am when I speak to them. Because he needs to know he’s not alone, as I allowed him to go on believing, as I used to believe. He needs to know that someone else sees that he’s beautiful. I can’t go back and do that now, but next time.

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