“Fatty, Fatty, two-by-four Couldn’t get through the bathroom door So he did it on the floor Licked it up and does some more Fatty, Fatty, two-by-four….”
Although I was an easy kid to make fun of, a natural target of that expert variety of cruel ridicule children master at a very early age, I did not understand it at the time. When, many years later, I came to realize the ridicule for what it was — a normal consequence of false but popular social values that have taken a far greater toll than my mere self-esteem — it was too late to make much of a difference.
On the day that I stood on a snow-covered Alaska roadway, awaiting the school bus that would pluck me from the frigid morning air and carry me to my third-grade class at Mount Hayes Elementary School, I certainly had not come to any understanding of the wolf-pack mentality of our culture, which teaches us to belittle anything different and encourages us to adopt a parochial view of the world, emphasizing the necessity of group membership for social survival. What I had come to understand at the tender age of eight was that I did not fit in to the social scheme of things because I was fat.
As the other children taunted me that morning about my weight and its loathsome consequences, their faces wrought up in expressions of obdurate glee as they chanted that filthy little rhyme, all I could muster by way of response was the cowering, guilty, and embarrassed withdrawal that would become the hallmark of my childhood. I kept to myself. I sat away from others on the bus. I sought the sanctuary of solitude every time I was thrust against my will into social situations.
There was no question about it. I was indeed a fat little boy, a condition that, it seemed, people went out of their way to remind me of, constantly. How could I defend myself against the obvious accuracy of their assessment, painful as it was? Although not so fat as to have difficulty getting through the bathroom door, I did have problems getting into my blue jeans and flannel shirt. I moved more slowly and with less natural grace than my slender counterparts. I was unquestionably different, and I knew what they meant by that chant.
I internalized those values, adopting the prevailing view of fat people as pariahs, and accepted my status as a member of a lower caste, as an undesirable. By the time I was ten, I had learned to hate myself, and I would, it turned out, hate myself for years to come. I spent a large part of my life participating in my own denigration, fulfilling the low expectations I had been taught to have of myself.
You do not hate yourself without consequences. For me, the fundamental dynamic spawned by my self-hatred was an ironic and sometimes overpowering sense of guilt. The irony, which escaped me for many years, was that my behavior was motivated not by my own judgment of right and wrong, but by my aching need to be accepted by others, to belong to a society that, no matter how I behaved, shunned me. I erred by living up to the peculiar expectations others had of me. I stuffed things into my mouth in the school lunchroom in order to bask, however briefly, in the laughter of my peers. I settled bets for others by eating more pancakes than anyone else at church breakfasts, by perpetuating the myth of fat person as pig. But those moments of acceptance, based solely on their entertainment value, were, of course, fleeting. Worse, they were paid for with the already devalued currency of my self-respect. I was an obsequious, fat little jester playing to a court of fickle children whose laughter could change in a moment to derisive jeers.
Such excesses eventually took their toll, for even a child is capable of self-assessment in those circumstances, and I knew there was something wrong with me. I became a little boy who could not forgive himself for being so unacceptable. I turned to the church of my childhood for solace. If the priest could forgive sins, maybe he could forgive me for being myself, and I became a devout young Catholic, believing in everything from the Virgin Birth to the infallibility of the pope. I dutifully recited creeds in a language I did not even faintly understand; the liturgical calendar became a more important factor in my life than TV Guide. I would get up at 5:00 a.m. on school days to pedal the three miles to St. Patrick’s and serve the 6:30 a.m. mass. I went to confession every week and took communion every day. I abstained from meat on Fridays and, despite my love of food, fasted during Lent. I was a much better Catholic than other kids my age, a much better Catholic than it was reasonable to expect of anyone growing up. There was talk of the priesthood. But my captivation for religion had nothing at all to do with a calling from on high. It was based instead on a desperate need to demonstrate to myself my own goodness as a human being.
I was on an emotional search, not a spiritual one, but I didn’t realize it. I was not given to expressions of joy over the mysteries of personal redemption; instead I was mired in a review of what seemed an endless list of sins I did not quite understand, preoccupied with my own sense of infinite culpability. I was in a state of spiritual hypochondria. I fought with what I believed were Gluttony and Sloth, but they always won. I was operating from a bottomless pit of guilt. I could have spent the entire day in the confessional, and it would have made no difference. My acts of self-abnegation did not take off pounds. My piety did not burn up calories. If anything, my religiosity contributed to my girth. While other kids were out on the ball field, I withdrew to contemplate my sins in a dimly lit chapel that smelled of incense and candles. Unlike those whose religious beliefs add spiritual peace to their lives, I found that mine did nothing to assist me in accepting myself or winning the acceptance of others. And as far as my peers were concerned, my condition had worsened. Not only was I fat, I was fat and religious. Not a winning combination with which to enter adolescence.
I don’t remember exactly the day and year, but I do remember the setting. I was sitting on the sofa in the living room of my parents’ Fayetteville, North Carolina, home, listening to the radio. It was mid afternoon on a weekend, and a newscast was on. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking to a huge throng in Washington, D.C., about his dream that people would one day be judged not by the color of their skin, but by their character. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time. The consensus in the South was that King was nothing but a troublemaker, maybe even a Communist. His was not a sympathetic audience in Fayetteville, where the public schools remained segregated, where the train depot and the bus station still had separate waiting rooms for blacks and whites, where blacks and whites had different water fountains at department stores, where some restaurants and motels still excluded blacks. My parents, by no means hateful people, adopted the view that integration, though a good idea, was occurring too quickly. But I knew then from my own experience in life what it meant to be shunned, and I observed that the most mean-spirited racists at school were the slender, well-dressed, self-satisfied, middle-class white boys whose faith in the status quo was complete.
For me, Dr. King’s speech was the epiphany that changed my life. It would be a ragged, protracted affair, but by the time it was over, I had developed a clear sense of my own identity and self-worth. I was never a Freedom Rider, nor did I join in any sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. I was still too young. But I cheered from the sidelines, and I applied the lessons of the civil-rights movement to my own life. It was a tremendous relief for me to learn that society could be so wrong about things, that the herd instinct could lead an entire nation into the most morally indefensible of positions. More important, Dr. King reached my rage and engaged it to a positive and politically desirable end. Although his battle was on a scale far more significant than mine, his message of human dignity touched and enlivened me. I did not have to submit to indignity any more than a black man did.
Any social policy that devalued a human being, regardless of his position in life, was wrong. That idea remains fundamental to my thinking today. The early and repeated rejection I suffered as a fat child, though painful, sensitized me, made me better able to respond compassionately and sympathetically to the underdog, the outcast, the mistreated, the rebel, the freak. And it has made me wary of the status quo and those who defend it when it clearly continues to exclude others from full and meaningful participation. I have been forced all my life to think about what it means to be a pig, to take more than one’s fair share of things. I find it ironic that this culture of ours, which vainly celebrates its own moral superiority, at the same time encourages each of us to acquire as much as we can and bases its economic system on mass consumption. What temerity these Volvo-driving, wine-sipping consumers have, these buyers of twenty pairs of shoes, these followers of fashion, these slaves to conspicuous consumption, when they call me a pig because I prefer carbohydrate to protein, fat to lean.
Once I grasped the concept that obesity was not a moral failing, my life began to change dramatically. I learned how to adapt, how to etch out little niches for myself. For years, I had dreaded physical-education classes, dreaded putting my tubby, round body on display, dreaded the inevitability of failure in physical competition with others. It was a simple matter of physics. If I was going to be assessed by how fast I could dodge a ball, I was going to end up somewhere at the end of the line. But I grew tired of the humiliation of being picked last when the class was divided into teams or, worse, of causing arguments between team captains, who insisted they had been forced to have me on their side the last time.
I wanted to participate, so I began learning rules. Rules for football. Rules for basketball. Rules for volleyball. I became the expert and — I’m not sure how — was able to translate that into being the sports expert of the playground. Soon other kids appealed to me to resolve disagreements about pass interference or the infield fly rule. I never had to huff and puff my way through another basketball or football game. I officiated.
The business of etching out niches for myself became the predominant pattern of my adolescence, a time in my life in which membership in the group became easier for me because I was able to fashion membership largely on my own terms. I had to create roles for myself that others could not fill. I became for a while an expert parliamentarian, learning how to work one’s political will not by force of numbers, but by outsmarting the opposition with its own rules. I certainly would never have agreed to anything so arbitrary as Roberts ’ Rules of Order, if it were up to me. But if that’s what they wanted to use, I would learn Roberts better than anyone. Such a contentious approach to social intercourse was all that ever worked for me, but it made social life exhausting. The single greatest failing of my life continues to be my inability to trust other people. People put me on my guard. People are changeable. They can hurt you. The only time I truly relax is when I am alone.
I have no conscious memory of not being fat. As far as I know, the physician who delivered me at the army hospital in South Carolina may have remarked on my weight at birth, “What a fat little baby boy!” I was the middle sibling of a seven-child family, and, with the exception of the two youngest, all of us had weight problems. I am sure it had a lot to do with the role of food in our home. Both of my parents had recollections — and told us stories about — the hardships they endured during the Great Depression, including the occasional absence of sufficient food. It was a matter of pride to them to be able to feed such a large family and to feed it well. We were encouraged to eat. Eating was good. And, because of my mother’s excellent skills as a cook, eating was also pleasurable.
Each meal had a different family tradition attached to it. In the mornings, Mom would ask each child old enough to be capable of making a decision what he wanted to eat that morning. She cooked breakfast to order for the entire family. Lunch depended a great deal on age and place in life. As youngsters, we often packed lunches and took them to school. The food at school was so bad — and so minimal — that my parents considered it better for us to tote bags full of sandwiches and snacks along with soup-filled Thermos bottles to school with us, including a snack to eat during the first recess. If we were old enough and if the school were close enough, we went home for lunch, which was always hearty, always warm, and always waiting on the table for us when we arrived. There was also an assortment of snacks awaiting us when we got home from school, and in my family, a snack covered anything from a piece of pie to a cheeseburger. Whatever you wanted, you could have. And as much of it as you wanted.
Dinner was the daily meal that Mom and Dad insisted everyone eat together. Exceptions were rare and required a very good reason. Mom always made it worth our while to be there; she always cooked a main dish with at least four vegetables and a variety of homemade bread, usually biscuits prepared from scratch. Well-sweetened iced tea was de rigueur at every evening meal. She made a lot of everything, and it was typical for each of us to eat several helpings, especially of a food we particularly favored. I liked mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, and extra biscuits. If any one of us displayed even the slightest lack of interest in food, our parents immediately assumed we were ill. After dinner, which, ironically, never included a dessert, it was usually just an hour or two before popcorn was popping or brownies were cooking or a cake was being cut. A nighttime snack almost always included with it milk or a soft drink. I always went to bed with a full stomach. I remember my surprise the first time I was ever invited over to someone else’s house to eat. We sat down at the table, and each person received just one portion of everything, and no bread was served because a starch was being served as a vegetable. I couldn’t believe it. The meal seemed so sparse, even the interchange at the table seemed lifeless. Eating was no event in this house. I had become accustomed to eating very well and very often. It was a habit I would never abandon.
Food was important in the McPhail family in at least two other significant ways: as a reward and as a comforter. If I did particularly well in school, I was rewarded with food. If it was my birthday, I was rewarded with food. If I did a good job mowing the lawn, I was rewarded with food. If I was upset because my turtle died, I was comforted with food. If I was depressed by another childhood indignity in a long string of indignities suffered at the hands of my peers, my spirits were raised by food. My emotional attachments to food — and more particularly, to eating — go way back. My idea of a great social event is a potluck dinner. If I do well in a professional undertaking, I take myself out to eat. And to this very day, I still find myself opening the refrigerator door in search of solace.
I have not always, technically, been fat. When I was discharged from the air force in 1971, although at 175 pounds by no means a lightweight, I weighed less than at any other point in my adult life. I noticed that I was being accepted more by others, being invited to more places, going on more dates, having more fun socially than ever before. I thought at the time that it must have had something to do with being a veteran or by having somehow improved my social graces by learning how to abuse alcohol while in the service. In retrospect, that was not it at all. Actually, I was an attractive young man in his early twenties. The loss of weight I underwent in the air force — about fifty pounds — had simply made me more palatable. People were being nicer to me because I wasn’t fat anymore.
I was never able to enjoy fully that brief period in my life because I did not make the weight-loss connection until years later. I had always thought of myself as fat. It was a part of my world view, part of my identity. I lived in and related to the world as a fat man. Not being fat was not being. Regardless of the actual size of my body, I have always viewed the world through the eyes of a fat man.
If you have been slim all of your life — or have never been seriously overweight — you may not understand that there is a real difference in our experience of the world. First of all, the weight itself removes all lightness from your step. 1 don’t dislike running because I am lazy. I dislike running because it is a very difficult thing for me to do. While you worry about how many ounces your tennis shoes weigh, I have to contend with a hundred or so extra pounds attached to my body. The only vigorous physical activity I really enjoy is swimming, and I’m sure that must have something to do with weight displacement by water. Swimming is easier than running, easier in many cases than walking.
Extra weight also affects one’s sense of balance. Fat people generally are not very graceful. We are maneuvering a lot of equipment around and often, because of the bulge in our middle, can’t see everything in the path of our feet. Try walking down a flight of stairs without being able to see your feet, and you’ll get the idea. Think about how much more careful you must be when moving a large object through a small space. The world is full of small spaces for a fat man.
There is also a lot of daily discomfort associated with being overweight that someone who is not overweight will probably never experience. The parts of my body most often affected are my feet and my lower back. I have been told by women I know who went through a pregnancy that they finally understood the daily experience of obesity in the eighth and ninth months of their pregnancies, when they felt awkward, found it difficult to negotiate streetside curbs, and suffered backaches after a few hours in bed. One of the tricks I have learned as a fat man to alleviate back pain is to take several pillows to bed — one or two for your head and at least one for each side. As you toss and turn through the night, the extra pillows help support your weight and take the strain off your back muscles.
Life is filled with practically innumerable little indignities for a fat man, especially when public accommodations are built with the average Joe in mind. One of my favorites is the trend toward fixed furniture, especially in restaurants. I make it a point to seek out restaurants that have tables with movable chairs around them. Otherwise, I find myself wedged into my seat, my abdomen pressed hard against the edge of the table. Aside from being a very uncomfortable position in which to eat, it also makes the part of my belly above the line of the table an easy target for anything that drips from fork or spoon. I am not a slob. Those stains you see on my shirt are not the consequence of sloppy eating habits, but of poor furniture design.
Public transportation is always a challenge, too, especially if the bus, train, or airplane is crowded. I am not by disposition a touchy-feely type of guy, but I have been forced into some of the most intimate physical encounters of my life with strangers while traveling. I am a strong advocate of driving, but only if you own a big enough car. I have broken the driver’s seats of a Datsun and a Volare just by sitting in them.
Another inconvenience of obesity is the purchase of clothing, a relatively unchallenging and easy undertaking for a person of average build. When I get advertising inserts offering remarkable bargains on clothes, they are of no use to me. When I stroll through the clothing sections of most department stores, it is only to buy clothes for a friend or as a gift. They never have sizes big enough to fit me. Even when I do find clothes big enough to fit, most of them make me look ridiculous — like a fat man pretending to be thin. And that is something I will not do. I want clothes that fit the contours of my body — big clothes designed not to hide, but to cover my body. Usually I either order out of a special catalogue offered by some clothiers or head to one of the big-man, tail-man stores scattered here and there. There is no problem finding clothes to fit in the big-man, tail-man stores, but the clothes are much more expensive than elsewhere, especially when you examine closely their quality. There are exceptions to this rule. K-Mart sometimes has trousers big enough to fit me. But who wants to go around dressed in denim work pants all the time?
Although I have more or less come to terms with the fact of my own obesity, other people still seem to have a lot of trouble with it. One day I ordered a particularly substantial lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Oceanside. I don’t remember exactly what it was I had ordered, but I do remember the waitress’s reaction. “You eat too much,” she said.
Why in the world should she care? Or why do so many others care — the ones who shout out at me as I walk down the street, “Hey, fatso!” or “Get a move on, lard ass!”? It happens more often than you might imagine, sometimes two or three times a week. Or do you make such catcalls yourself? Perhaps, instead, you just think to yourself, “What a fat slob” when you see a fat man. Why does it matter to you? Am I an aesthetic intrusion into your beautiful world?
People continually point out to me that I am fat, as if I didn’t know, and they act as if it were something of which I should be ashamed. I am not ashamed.
I had a prospective employer in Los Angeles County tell me I looked like a walking heart attack. I didn’t get the job. I had a college friend once tell me that his chums advised him it wasn’t “cool” to hang out with fat people. What is it about fat people that engenders so much animosity? I’ll tell you what it is: It is the herd mentality at work, the same mentality that produces racism, sexism, and intolerance of any stripe. And just like the victims of those virulent forms of prejudice, fat people are subjected to ridicule for something that is as immaterial to their value as human beings as is the color of their eyes. We are stereotyped like other minorities. We are told we are lazy. We are told we are slobs. We are told we lack will power. We are told that if we don’t surrender our identities in the sauna or at a fat farm, we are unworthy as human beings. Many, many overweight people succumb to this social pressure. They spend thousands of dollars on special diets and cosmetic surgery, attempting to remake themselves in society’s mold. They cannot see their intrinsic value as human beings because they have been driven to surrender by a mob of bigots. And often, despite the heavy investment, they regain the weight.
I did. About ten years ago, I went on a strict low-carbohydrate diet in an attempt to shrink to fit society. I ate some of the most unhealthy food imaginable to lose weight — all meats and hard cheeses. No bread. No vegetables. No starches. I lost fifty-six pounds in three months, and I was miserable. I was miserable because life had become unenjoyable. Each day was a struggle, another day of denial. I drank water and black coffee. My life was still centered on food, but in an unpleasant way. What social life I did have was abandoned for fear of drinking a beer or eating a pretzel and undoing all my hard work. I didn’t feel improved. I felt put upon, and I was becoming an insufferable curmudgeon. At the beginning of the fourth month, one morning on the way to work, I stopped at a doughnut shop and became myself again. I have not been on a serious diet since.
I know there are compelling health reasons to keep one’s weight within certain limits, and I wish, strictly for those reasons, I could bring my weight down some. But we all take risks in life. Some of us fly private aircraft. Some of us ski down mountainsides on thin pieces of fiberglass. Some of us commute every day on the freeways. Life is full of risks, and the choices we make with respect to those risks are ours. I have chosen to retain my attachment to food because of the important role it has played in my life and because of its role in making me a happy person. I accept the risks that entails. I don’t need any paternal guidance to assist me now, though it may have been helpful thirty years ago. Like you, I, too, seek pleasure and avoid pain. I find a great deal of pleasure in food, a pleasure tied up in a complex emotional, psychological, and political package whose unraveling would be my undoing. I like my life the way it is.
When the waitress offers me a sugar substitute with my coffee in the morning, I want to strangle her for her impudence. So many of you slim people have such bad manners. You seek to interfere in my life in ways I would never dream of interfering in yours. You point me out to your children as a bad example. You still teach them to belittle others, including the oversized. You display a sometimes remarkable absence of sensitivity when, for example, you ridicule other fat people in my presence or assume that I, like you, find fat women unattractive because of their size. I hope you are successful in your quest to find a group of people who dress alike and follow them around. As for me, I have just one simple message for you: Stick it in your ear.