I remember the first time I saw Walter Hudson on the television. The day that the paramedics had to cut down a wall in his house because his body was stuck in the doorway. The year was 1987. I was 11 and I was borderline overweight. I was one cookie away from shopping in the “husky” section at Sears. Interesting because my parents were all about fresh food, nutritious snacks, fresh brewed unsweetened iced tea and no fast food. But, I used to sneak and buy snacks on my walk home from school, then hide them in the very back of my closet. I’d buy the types of things I saw my friends eat because my mother wouldn’t buy them – Funyuns, Hostess Lemon Pies, Moon Pies, Now and Laters, Peach Nehi soda, etc. I was developing an unhealthy relationship with food and I didn’t even know it.
I imaged that Mr. Hudson started out of average height and weight as a child. He lived a mere 1.4 miles from my childhood home in Hempstead, NY. Hempstead is a suburb on Long Island. It’s a decent size town, but not so big that some kids at school couldn’t figure out where Mr. Hudson’s house was based on the news footage the night before. After school, a group from my class decided to walk down his street in hopes of seeing “the whale.” I didn’t join them.
It would be 4 years before I thought of Mr. Hudson again. He died in 1991 at the age of 46. The police had to cut down another wall, hoist his body into a borrowed whale/shark sling from the New York Aquarium and drive him away using a construction crane. The very fears that kept Mr. Hudson confined to his home even when he was well enough to leave the house were realized on Christmas Day. He went from being someone’s son, brother, cousin, nephew, friend and neighbor to being less than worthy of a dignified death. His death and subsequent removal from his home made him everything he didn’t want to be – a spectacle, a sensational media feeding frenzy, a side show act at the carnival.
Obesity is a disease. Pause. Breathe. Now, read that again and really absorb it. Obesity is a disease. It’s a dirty little disease that people don’t like to acknowledge as a disease. Doctor’s are still debating whether it should be classified as a disease or not, but NIH and the CDC have concurred that it should be one. Its’ “sufferers” get even less compassion hurled on them than alcoholics. Yes, folks, alcoholism is a disease too. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be specifically referring to obesity, which is when you are 100 lbs or more above the suggested medical weight range for your height. Common sense says that it’s the fault of the fatty. Just stop eating. Stop eating bad food. Stop eating fast food. Just exercise. Make better choices. Use self control. Don’t you have any willpower? Stop making excuses. Stop being so lazy!
If you’re obese, you’ve heard them. If you’re not, you’ve probably said them. You don’t have to admit it to me, just be real with yourself. I can say with about 99.9% certainty that those who are obese, morbidly obese and super morbidly obese, are not in their current situation simply because they are greedy, lazy pigs. The physical symbol that the world sees (their large body) is the manifestation of many other things including, but not limited to stress, childhood trauma, abuse, depression, vascular problems, lymphoedema and metabolic problems.
Now please don’t take my previous statement to be a “pass” for excessive and improper eating habits, mixed with complete inactivity. All of us know many lazy people, of average size or a larger size. Usually there is catalyst, either a specific event or pattern of behavior/life circumstances that affect some people and they turn to food in an unnatural and unhealthy way. And unfortunately, once you are on a certain course, it’s much easier to stay that course than to make the change that you may desperately want to make. Unlike alcoholics and drug addicts, food is essential for daily life. However, if your relationship with food is anything more than eating to survive, you may be in trouble. We MUST eat to survive. You MUST consume food everyday. So, if your relationship to food is unnatural, if you’ve never learned or acknowledged nutritional values and how to eat healthily, then you could be in trouble.
Lately, much talk has been made of the super morbidly obese. I suppose that the increased focus on bariatric surgery has brought this segment of the population into the national spotlight. Television show’s like “Inside Brookhaven” and “Big Medicine” have given a voice and a face to super morbid obesity. However, the problem that I have with these shows is that the coverage is a bit more sensational than it is helpful. Often times, the stories that are chosen to air represent “that person”. The 400 lb teenager who is shown consuming 2 pizzas a day and is unapologetic about it. The woman who had bariatric surgery 3 years ago, but has gained a majority of her weight back and is being consulted for a 2nd surgery. Their stories are incomplete and they are more inflammatory than they are educational. In the 30 or 60 minutes that it takes to tell their story, it is near impossible to touch on the real reasons behind their situation. But, that makes for good TV, so the shows continue.
Recently, there was a young woman in England who had bariatric surgery (at the expense of the government) and after losing about 150 pounds, her monthly benefits were cut by about 1/3 because she no longer received an additional disability check. She expressed to a local paper that she was having trouble eating healthy and was unable to afford it. She also expressed that she didn’t always feel like eating an apple and that it wouldn’t satisfy her mentally. Well, all the web people call her horrible damn and made some of the meanest comments that I’ve ever seen. Yet, few are seeing or understanding the big picture. This young lady has a problem. Mentally, she associates food with comfort and happiness. Why? How did she get to the point that FOOD became more than just sustenance for the body? There are clearly larger issues at play. Does she over eat and is she making the wrong choices? Absolutely. But, what are the catalysts behind those choices?
Before that woman, there were a bazillion emails about Manuel Uribe, a Mexican man who weighed over 1000 lbs and was featured on a TLC Show documenting his struggle with super morbid obesity. The comments and judgments expressed about Uribe were so distasteful and despicable that I actually stopped reading on of my favorite bloggers for about 2 months. Cruel and insensitive remarks regarding his sexual prowess, ideas of naming a new animal for him and those are some of the MILD comments. I realize that sympathy is hard for most, however, are empathy and compassion too much to ask for?
Discrimination comes in many forms and I believe that discrimination of the obese is widely accepted and not often discussed. Every time a morbidly obese person leaves the comfort of their home, they open themselves up to ridicule and judgment. Some of the “comedy” and venom that is spewed toward them would be completely unacceptable to other groups of discriminated people. But, the difference is in the assumption that all obese people “choose” to live their lives in a greedy and lazy manner. Compassion and empathy for their struggle is hard to come by.
I’m not an advocate or bell ringer for the plight of the obese in America. However, it’s a topic that affects me deeply and personally. I’m not seeking to start a revolution or convince anyone to think or feel a certain way, however, I have one simple request. In the future when you see an obese person, please try to not automatically judge what you see. Don’t insert your story on why that person is that size/weight. Believe me, that person is very aware of their physical condition. I’m currently overweight, but having once been morbidly obese, I understand the complex emotions that the weight brings. The mental “weight” is much heavier than the physical pounds could ever be. I welcome your thoughts, comments and questions because open dialogue builds understanding.