International Writers Magazine: Comment
DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING
(OR WHY YOU'RE STILL FAT)
with perpetual obesity issues are playing a game with themselves.
PEOPLE WITH INTRACTABLE WEIGHT PROBLEMS THAT ARE CAUSED BY REAL ILLNESSES
OR GENUINE CONGENITAL ABNORMALITIES ARE EXEMPTED FROM THE FOLLOWING
Awhile back I wrote a short humor piece in which I poked fun at a grossly
overweight woman. The piece was called "Peggie" and it elicited
a fair share of irate mail from women who identified with the title
"I hate you," went a 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 believe, sometimes, that you might
actually have the problem solved only to lapse, for some ungodly reason,
and have to begin all over again? Do you know what it is to live with
a constant sense of guilt and shame? How could you be so cruel and insensitive?"
Okay. I'll admit to bad taste (and, as several other readers felt the
need to point out, to committing less than deathless prose as well),
but I have to say that I remain unmoved by the suffering I'm accused
Why? Because the "obesity problem" of which my correspondents
speak (and I'm including all of the emotional woes that attend it) 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 essenceit's a natural consequence of being mortal. Not only
must we have done some nasty stuff to be in so much trouble but, unable
to come up with a way to alter our situation, to change the given, we're
incompetent where it matters most.
It's also necessary to remind ourselves that our natural feelings of
guilt and shame, accompanied as they are by the sheer terror the fact
of being mortal causes us, make for an intolerable burden that must
be relieved if we are to function in the world with even a modest degree
Finally, it's necessary to recognize the last thing we want to recognize,
since to recognize it undermines what we're trying to achieve: virtually
everything we do is, in one way or another, designed to mollify our
existential dread and anxiety. It is, in fact, precisely this need that
makes the world go around.
Bearing such truths in mind, I'm saying that people with perpetual obesity
issues are playing a game with themselves.
Look. One of the myriad ways with which we accomplish the mitigation
of our natural guilt and shame (not to mention our terror) is by finding,
and becoming obsessed with, OTHER things to feel guilty and ashamed
about, 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 usindeed, 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 achieve 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 underlying dilemma is still there, that we're
left to nakedly confront our existential horrors once again.
So what do we do?
Well, if (and indulging, 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 pain and humiliation we experience
is devastating. But the degree of our anguish serves to validate the
size and authenticity 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 anodyne for
a larger misery. The more we flagellate ourselves with it the more we
succeed in suppressing our fundamental dread and anxiety and the more
we achieve a measure of peace on the level that matters most to us.
Say all that to say that, for its assistance in shoring up the "validity"
of their weight problem, I think fat people should regard "Peggie"
as a gift.
© Robert Levin
April 25th 2006
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