Fat is Not a Disease

January is named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god. It makes sense for January 1st to be a time for making resolutions about self-improvement. Many of us make a yearly pledge to lose that second face. Or at least that second chin. People in America spend more time worrying about their weight than a high school wrestler. And no wonder. Everywhere one looks, there are diets, diet suggestions, exercise equipment, gym memberships, pills, powders, ointments, and headlines decrying the obesity epidemic. Media are full of exhortations to get your fat butt off of the couch and lose weight. Except, ironically, if you’re a woman; then it’s desirable to have a fat butt to twerk on YouTube. People are sucking fat out of one part of their bodies and injecting it into another. The human body is becoming a Mr. Potato Head. Everybody is making fun of fat people at a time when enough silicon is being used by plastic surgeons to weatherproof the White House.

And therein lies the problem. How much weight is too much? And what is the proper weight distribution? Losing some weight would be healthy for me, as an example. Especially if I want to avoid Type 2 diabetes. But do I need to get to my fighting weight … what I was when I was a soldier? I am lucky in that as a man, I have much less pressure on me concerning weight and body issues. Every woman who has been a part of my life has had weight and body issues, starting with my mother.

For most of her life, my mother weighed in excess of 200 lbs. At 5’2″, she was a bowling ball. A red-headed one. An irresistible force. And she was always on a diet, always exercising to Jack Lalane or Richard Simmons. My mom loved Richard Simmons. She drank diet soda, used saccharine, and kept the fridge loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables. I ate a lot of rabbit food growing up. There was seldom any candy in the house, and I had to have permission to eat cookies, chips, and other food. But I could grab an apple, carrot, or even a hunk of lettuce any time I wanted.

Early in their marriage, my father told my mother that he would buy her a diamond ring if she got below 120 lbs. She eventually did. Six months before she died. Turns out that cancer is the most effective diet plan ever. They should patent it. I’m sure there’s a market, even with the downside. As I looked at my 89 pound mother lying in her casket, I could only think of one thing: I want my fat mama back. I want to hear her squeal of delight as I came into her view, muumuu flying and sandals flapping against the floor as she tried to run. There was no hiding my mother’s love.

I have watched a lot of people die from cancer. One thing I have noticed is that fat people usually last longer than skinny people. I am not passing judgment here; it’s just an observation. Our bodies are sculpted by evolution to store a certain amount of energy reserves. And those reserves can push cancer back for awhile. But in modern life, who can figure out what amount of stored energy is healthy as opposed to being a potential heart attack? We can’t rely on the media for answers. People’s perception of what is a healthy weight, body type, or look is totally driven by culture. And often, it is the wealthy and powerful who set the standards. Exhibit A is that in Africa, AIDS was first called “the skinny disease.” In much of Africa, thin people were avoided like the plague. Discerning people wanted sexual partners with a healthy surplus of flesh.

This preference for fluffy over fit has a long history for our species. Some of the earliest art pieces ever found are statues of women with big boobs and big butts. Peruse any art museum and you will find that all models of beauty prior to the twentieth century were plus sized. Only the rich could avoid physical labor as well as afford the extra food. Now, with cheap abundant calories on every street corner, it takes money and lots free time to eat healthy and exercise. As for those stubborn lats, gluts, and abs that won’t cooperate. there is plastic surgery to assist people in meeting the new beauty standards.

In America, we went from hefty (Jenny Lind) to skinny (flappers) back to hefty (Mae West) to voluptuous (Marilyn Monroe) to thin (Grace Jones) all in one century. And now bosoms and bottoms are back in style. There’s even a popular song comparing Cadillac rear ends favorably with female posteriors. All of this media messaging makes it hard to get off of the cultural merry-go-round about what constitutes a healthy weight. Science is not much help here, either. Too many variables.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that if you want to make weight reduction part of your New Year’s resolution, you might as well keep things in perspective. A healthy weight for now isn’t what it once was or what it will be. I think trying to feel better physically is a healthier goal than trying to lose a specific amount of weight. I know there are medical people and a certain nutritionist I am acquainted with who will probably argue with me. To those people, I have only one thing to say: “I want my fat mama.”