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The International Writers Magazine
: Weight Issues

Robert Levin

...people with perpetual obesity issues are playing a game with themselves.


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 character.
"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 of inflicting.

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 essence—it'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 of equanimity.

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 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 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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