The unfathomable question, I repeat, is why. Not so much why friends, Romans, and countrymen draw me aside to whisper admonishments—I believe some of them truly are well-meaning—but why do they suppose this will be effectual? Is it likely that in 38 years of living I have never once noticed my own corpulence? Or that I have somehow missed those alarmist hourly news reports on obesity ("Americans are fatter than ever!"), weight-loss studies, and the mortal (and, some believe, moral) risks of overweight? Perhaps they think I am having so much fun living the fat life (what with all those swanky clothes, adoring fans, and male model escorts) that I've neglected subtle details such as creaky knees and a pendulous, unfashionable belly. Last possibility: that to weigh in (so to speak) on a fat person's self-style is compulsory, a form of intervention similar to that imposed on alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers—on anyone, in short, without the strength of will to make good choices on her own.
The term willpower always does, in fact, work its way into fat-related discourse, from media advertising ("Boost your willpower with ScrawnyQuik!") to exercise videos ("Just a little willpower, plus this easy-to-follow boot camp regimen, and you're on your way...") to everyday conversation; I swear I once overheard a tiny pregnant woman saying, "I'm trying to gain zero pounds, but I have no willpower." It had apparently not occurred to her that a weightless fetus would be unlikely to thrive or that a gestating body asks for more nourishment because it requires more.
But here's the thing about willpower and the fat lady: If we accept as definition "the strength of will to carry out one's decisions, wishes, or plans" (American Heritage Dictionary), then the average Round Ruby has willpower in spades. Statistically speaking, more fat Americans live below (many of them far below) the average income level than above it, and as a former welfare mom myself, I can tell you this: A parent working multiple low-paying jobs has few realistic choices, but when she does make a "decision, wish, or plan," she pursues it like a ferret. Her kids will eat, wear suitable clothes, and learn to read, even if it means Mom has to forgo sleep and self-care in order to cook, sew, or tutor. In the low-income neighborhood near my apartment, an immigrant kid might know elegance and magic only twice in her life—at her prom and at her wedding—so, by God, she gets married in style, because her parents, uncles, cousins, and far-flung kin have put away coins since her birth. Willpower? These people—including the fat ones—survive by it because it is the single bloody resource they have.
As for us fat ladies who don't—or who no longer—live in poverty, strength of will can be something we exhibit more than others. Simply to go forth in the world is, for us, an act of supreme courage. When the office workers go to lunch, we walk alongside them, pretending our 200 excess pounds weigh no more than a hiker's daypack. We enter cafés and restaurants hoping for sizable seating; and if it doesn't exist, we cope with the spectacle of wedging ourselves into booths. We order the salad, refuse the cheesecake, smile and nod as the others discuss—sometimes pointedly—their diets and exercise regimens and "disgusting, repulsive cellulite" (an actual quote from memory).
And we have, as does anyone else, lives punctuated by crisis and tragedy—which, as does anyone else, we surmount in whatever ways we can. In my case, I was attacked by sled dogs (I was raised in Alaska) at the age of 7, lost an eye and a cheekbone, and spent many years having surgery—much of it complicated and bleak. I was an unwed mother at 16, lost my own mom at 19, took in my terminally ill father at 29, and survived his death at 32. I have endured house fires and floods and the suicide attempts of loved ones, have carried my child to emergency rooms, have survived cancer and job loss and depression. These are not all, I acknowledge, uncommon events, but they were hard, and to manage them took—need I say it?—willpower times 10.
"I had been put on my first diet at 9 years old"
We Hear You!