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"FAT: What No One Is Telling You" Challenges Fat Prejudice

Posted Apr 23 2009 12:34am

By Lynn Haraldson-Bering

This week I watched the PBS documentary “FAT: What No One Is Telling You.” It not only brought back a lot of memories, but it challenged me to better understand the complexity of obesity.

While Barbara works in the field of obesity, my only understanding of the issue is through my own personal experience as a formerly obese person, and through what I read and see in my daily life.

I identified with two of the women profiled, Rosie and Mary. While Rosie had gastric bypass, her reasons for losing weight were very similar to mine, and probably many of yours, too. Aside from the usual desire to walk without pain and to sit on the floor and get up again without it being a major endeavor, Rosie talked about wanting to be “normal,” to be in control, and to not be viewed as fat and therefore weak. She no longer wanted to be the butt of jokes.

Then there was Mary, who is a comedian and was often the butt of her own jokes. Her story, particularly her “ah ha” moment, was something I related to. She was in a park sitting in her car and crying. Her mother was dying of cancer, but at that moment she wasn’t crying over her mother like she usually did. She was crying, she said, because she wanted more from life. Then two guys pulled up and got out of their car. One of the guys said to the other, “Wonder what her problem is?” His friend said that she was probably crying because she was fat and nobody wanted her.

When I heard this, I was offended by their meanness and sad for Mary, but she called it her “epiphany.” She realized she WAS crying because she was fat. She asked herself how she could ever be happy if she couldn’t control what she put in her mouth. People, she said, stop at the physical when assessing each other and she wanted to change what people saw. I understood completely.

It was the other people in the documentary, including one of the producers, who challenged me to assess my “fat prejudice.” Not a comfortable challenge, to be sure, because I’m asking myself, after losing 170 pounds: How do I really see overweight and obese people?

Carla, who was thin as a child but gained weight when she began working in the corporate world, is trying to lose weight. She’d had a particularly stressful day and although she wasn’t hungry, bought ice cream on the way home from work. She said she knew going for a walk would make her feel better, but all she wanted to do was put on her pajamas and eat ice cream. Because that’s not my experience with food, and especially not something I struggled with while losing weight, my first gut reaction was, “Why? Why is she sabotaging all her good efforts?”

Ah…because the problem with obesity is that it is densely complex. My own experience is one of millions, and no two obese people are alike. Not physically in how their fat is distributed, not in their metabolic rates, not in their emotional health, not in their relationship with food and physical activity, and not in the reasons why and how they are obese, be it cultural, genetic, or psychological. There are as many ways to get obese, stay obese, and not be obese as there are people who are obese.

When producer Tom Spain was asked, “What was surprising to you during your journey through this?” he responded:

“The big surprise, and the big dilemma, is the complexity. One researcher told me early on: If you're going to deal with the subject, you have to honor the complexity...I've since learned this is a social phenomenon, an emotional phenomenon, a genetic phenomenon, it's a food supply phenomena. It's such a vast subject that's way beyond the reach of medicine or weight loss programs...it's just huge. That's something that was a surprise and a dilemma because the job of a filmmaker is to take an issue and make it clear and simple. And our message is that this is not clear and this is not simple.”

So how do I, as a person who’s been down the obesity path a few times and is now not obese, honor that complexity?

First impressions is a running theme in the “FAT” documentary. Many of the people interviewed said they wanted to lose weight so others would see them for who they really are. I remember that was one of my reasons for losing weight, too. But our bodies are not our personalities. God knows there are as many malicious skinny people out there as there are good-hearted overweight people. We can’t know someone’s nature simply by assessing their body size. But how do we teach the world to honor an entire person and not judge them based on body size?

When I visited my home state of Minnesota in 2007, I weighed 132 pounds. I went to a convenience store in a small town to buy ice. The woman behind the counter was morbidly obese. She didn’t greet me when I walked in, and when I asked her where the ice was, she merely pointed to the corner of the store. Another woman came out of the back room and joined the woman behind the counter. She, too, was morbidly obese. When I got to the counter, I smiled and said hello. Both of them just looked me up and down with scowls on their faces. I felt like Clint Eastwood when he rode into town in “High Plains Drifter.”

When I got to my car, I wondered if they were rude because I was thin or because I was a stranger or because they were just having a bad day. Thinking back, after watching “FAT,” I wondered if maybe I sent out an anti-fat vibe, the same one I picked up on time and again from non-obese people when I was morbidly obese, whether it was real or imagined. It’s not like I could say to them, “Hey, I used to be just like you!” I had to acknowledge that my first impression was that I saw two very obese women. How in my subconscious did I measure and judge them based solely on that observation? 

Watching “FAT,” I realize I’m one of the lucky ones. My mind was prepared to lose weight, and that “switch” we talk about, the one that kicks us into permanent weight-loss mode, stayed in the “on” position during my final journey down the scale. I was also lucky because my body responded to the “eat less, move more” approach. While maintaining my weight is not something I’d describe as easy, I know I won’t gain 170 pounds because I’m in a place – physically and emotionally – that works for me. I don’t know why and I don’t know how, and I suppose if I did I could make a million dollars because if every overweight and obese person thought like I do now and had the same physical makeup as me, everyone would be on their way to thin.

“FAT” doesn’t answer as many questions as it asks, and it left me with lingering doubts about my perceived notions about obese and overweight people. It’s a challenge I am anxious to pursue and perhaps, but not likely, remedy anytime soon. Even after years of being intimately familiar with obesity, I’m only now beginning to learn just how viciously complex a subject it is.

You can watch “FAT” online or check the site for dates in which it will air in your area.

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