Note: Obese people with authentic medical issues are exempted from the following discussion.
Awhile back I wrote a short humor piece in which I poked fun at a grossly overweight woman.
The piece was called “Peggie (or Sex With a Very Large Woman)”* and it elicited a fair share of irate mail from women who identified with the title character.
“I hate you,” went one typical response. “How could you write such hurtful trash? Do you have any idea what it’s like to struggle all your life with an obesity problem? Do you know what it is to be forced to endure incessant jokes and insults, to torture yourself with one failed diet after another—to think, sometimes, that you might actually have the problem solved only to lapse and have to begin again? Do you know what it is to live with a constant sense of guilt and shame? How could you be so insensitive?”
Okay. I’ll admit to an indulgence of my juvenile side (and, as several other readers felt the need to point out, to producing less than ageless prose as well), but I have to say that I remain unmoved by the pain I’m accused of inflicting.
Why? Because the “obesity problem” to which my correspondents refer is actually their solution to a deeper and more urgent problem. What’s more, it’s a solution that, to judge by their obvious absorption in it, is working very well for them.
Now in order to grasp what I’m driving at it is first necessary to acknowledge something about guilt and shame. To feel guilt and shame is built into our essence—it’s a natural consequence of being mortal. Guilt derives from the sense that we must we have done something terribly wrong to warrant the fate we’ve been assigned. Shame is rooted in our inability to alter our fate, to change the given. We’re incompetent where it really counts.
It’s also necessary to remind ourselves that our natural feelings of guilt and shame, accompanied as they are by the trepidation our mortal condition causes us, make for an intolerable burden that must be relieved if we are to function in the world with even a modest degree of equanimity.
And finally it’s necessary to recognize that, in one way or another, virtually everything we do is designed to mollify our existential dread and anxiety.
Bearing such realities in mind, I’m saying that people with perpetual obesity issues are playing a game with themselves.
Look. One of the countless ways with which we accomplish the reduction of our natural guilt and shame—as well as our death apprehensions—is to find and become obsessed with, other things to feel guilty and ashamed about. I’m speaking of things that (to assure them an authentic gravity) are culturally certified as real and legitimate faults or deficiencies and which, at the same time, are potentially redeemable, that are within our capacity to overcome or transcend. What we do is make them what is essentially wrong with us. Indeed, we make them, in our minds, the very reason for the death sentence we’ve been handed. Implicitly, these fabricated problems also embody a way to secure our salvation. If they are what is fundamentally wrong with us, by defeating them we will be absolved of what is fundamentally wrong with us. If we still must die we will survive our death in heaven.
But here’s the thing. If we succeed in beating the problem we’ve concocted for ourselves we’re returned to where we began. Once the flush of victory wanes we discover that our basic dilemma is still there, that we’re left to nakedly confront the void once again.
So what do we do?
Well if (and exploiting, of course, an innate predilection) we’ve made weight our problem, and if, with dieting and exercise, we’ve managed to overcome this problem, what we do is find an excuse to quit exercising, to go off our diet. Then what we do is renew our struggle and when the process has run its course again we repeat it.
Unless we find another game to play, we play this one into infinity.
Yes, each time we gain weight again the suffering and humiliation we experience is devastating. But the size of our anguish serves to validate the size and legitimacy of our manufactured problem. In order to make the problem feel real and significant enough to work its purpose we need to experience real torment. At bottom, however, for all of the misery it causes us, our weight problem functions as the palliative for a larger misery. The more we flagellate ourselves with it the more we succeed in suppressing our deeper horrors and the more we achieve a measure of peace where it matters most to us.
Say all that to say that for making their weight troubles even more painful, I think fat people should regard “Peggie” as a gift.
*”Peggie (or Sex With a Very Large Woman)” is included in the collection, When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot.