august 2002
Photo: Charlotte Jenks Lewis/Studio D
Fat people are supposed to fight fat. Natalie Kusz has been fighting since she was 9. Here, shockingly, she explains why she's breaking all the rules, thumbing her nose at the beauty culture...and giving up.
Not much is delightful—I'm the first to admit it—about being fat: The joints ache and the lungs wheeze in mere anticipation of a staircase; any temperature above zero calls for extreme nudity and intravenous ice water; clothes-shopping preparations include a motivational speaker and prescription narcotics; and the act of picking up, say, a dropped quarter is something to be accomplished with only the toes, lest bending the prominent midriff result in toppling, concussion, and death.

Moreover, a fat person is a pariah, subject to the kinds of vitriol once reserved for 17th-century witches. My sister, who is a supersize chick like myself, has had food hurled at her from passing cars (with accompanying size-related slurs) in two of these United States when she was out for healthy strolls; both she and I, idling our cars at traffic lights, have had drivers alongside us shout helpfully, "Get out and walk, fat-ass!" (and then what, they'll throw cheeseburgers?); and grocery cashiers have repeatedly—I kid you not—held up our purchases and speculated, "I guess you didn't notice the low-calorie version," or something similar. These are not infrequent incidents; some sort of confrontation, subtle or overt, occurs every time I leave my house, unless I am accompanied by a thin person (whose presence seems to discourage unseemliness, I assume, because Smalls don't like other Smalls to see them behaving badly).

So, no, there is not much of an upside to being fat.

Can someone explain, then, why the general populace believes that if enough people alert the fat lady (oh so sympathetically) to the downside of her heftiness, she will come to her senses, see the error of her ways, and make haste to phone Jenny Craig? On how many occasions must I, sitting in a friend's living room—believing myself protected, for once, from assault—have that friend lean toward me, lay a narrow hand on my arm, and murmur, "I hope this doesn't hurt your feelings, but I love you and I'm concerned about your weight."

Imagine, if you will what a fat lady feels at this moment. The fact that she is in this living room at all, that she calls this person friend, means this person has aced specific tests, has indicated over time that he or she is disinclined to criticize and is more benevolent than the world at large; for the fat lady, like all circus freaks, has much to fear among regular folk, and is cautious about relaxing among them. Imagine how, having relaxed, she feels to find out she was wrong, that all along she was misreading the signs, that her body was, in fact, being judged. Like the woman with an unfaithful lover, she must review every past visit, every reckless and liberated moment, wondering which of them was true and which false.

Let me be perfectly clear: The friend's supportive admonition may be meant less caustically, but it does not feel less caustic than the aforementioned "Get out and walk, fat-ass" incident. True, the friend, like the family doctor, isn't talking about my ugliness, but rather about how likely I am to die young. Even so: How preferable to be shunned than exhorted; for upon hearing "Fat-ass!" I can flee the scene and anticipate never again meeting the heckler this side of Hades, while a friend's kindly advice is the start, not the end, of tortures—a thousand future opportunities to pretend to overlook my benefactor's earnest and affectionate disapproval, clenching my abs and tucking in my chins, imagining myself petite and palatable and elsewhere.

"Is it likely that in 38 years of living I have never once noticed my own corpulence?"
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"
So inner strength is not a key deficiency in this—nor necessarily in any—fat lady's makeup. Some will say the real question is about choice, and this makes some sense. If (a) I do have willpower, and (b) I am fat, then (c) I must have aimed the laser beam of my will at something other than my own adipose tissue. Consider this logically, however: Given the excruciating circumstances I have already mentioned, what fat person in her right mind would not decide to be smaller? Have you once met a fat person who has never dieted? In my experience (and I have known hundreds of sizable folk), the larger the person, the more individual weight-reduction schemes she has followed—the low-fat plan, the low-carb, the all-lettuce, the grapefruit, the cider vinegar, the amphetamine, the liquid protein, the vitamin "milk shake," the exercise-till-you-drop, and so on. It is not that we are fat because we've never intended otherwise; we've intended otherwise over and over again and have grown, over time, ever larger. The reasons for our perpetual avoirdupois vary from genetics to discouragement to socioeconomics—but I acknowledge that in the end, for some of us, it is a matter of altered choices, a dawning conviction that enough, as they say, is enough.

In my case, though, this conviction came during graduate school, when I was fulfilling coursework, teaching as many classes as some full professors, writing a thesis, and abusing the goodwill of my dear siblings, who stepped in constantly to look after my young daughter. As I recall, I rarely slept and was ill a good deal of the time with ear infections, colds, flu, and the general malaise that accompanies exhaustion. Expressing parental guilt one day to a friend, I said, "I see my little girl only 30 minutes a day." The friend said, "That's more quality time than a lot of kids get," and I responded, "I'm not talking quality time. I literally see her 30 minutes a day, driving to and from day care." Meanwhile, I was working out with Jane Fonda, skipping breakfast and sometimes dinner, and once in an aeon (on payday) splurging on an egg-salad sandwich in the student union. I weighed 250 pounds.

I had been put on my first diet at 9 years old, after I'd spent two six-week periods in a hospital bed while some grafts healed, and I expanded (not surprising, given my Slavic ancestry) from an undernourished thinness into a moderate plumpness. My younger sister had been chubby since birth, so both of us were fed an egg at breakfast, bread and bologna at lunch, and something minuscule at dinner. At play, at rest, and in church, hunger was a scratchy, raw sensation, obscuring most other perceptions. I recall my mother saying that if I could stick to a reducing plan for three months—an eternity, I thought!—I would lose "all my weight" and be back to normal. I also recall I lost almost nothing, and eventually our money ran out anyway and we were all back to bulk-purchased noodles and wild mushrooms from the woods.

Between then and adulthood I pursued dozens of diets, both informally and under medical supervision. Regardless of the regimen, the pattern and results were the same: a brief, sudden weight drop, followed by an inching down of the scale indicator, followed by a plateau. Food is constantly on any dieter's mind, but in plateau times it becomes an obsession. A cousin of mine, who'd dieted down to 102 pounds and wanted to be an even 100, literally leapt backward one day at the sight of a carrot. Waving it off with her hands, she said, "I can't eat anything. Yesterday I had just one glass of orange juice, and today I'm 103."

"The diet production was over"
One hundred pounds is far below what many people strive for (frankly, I'd be happy at 200), but the game is similar at any weight. At some point, the body simply stops shedding pounds, and the most reliable way to pass the plateau is to eat less than is required to sustain life. Don't get me wrong: This method does work. The problem is that once you're on a starvation diet, you must remain on it indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of your life. The task of maintaining a diminished body requires constant vigilance, and such vigilance is exhausting, overwhelming, and, to my mind, unrewarding. For the very wealthy, some relief is available—cooks can be hired, and personal trainers; nannies can distract the kids while Mommy works out; personal secretaries can run errands, housekeepers maintain the home, laundry services wash, dry, and fold. A friend once called to read me an article revealing the daily fitness routine of a crash-dieting TV star—X number of sit-ups followed by Y number of leg lifts, then Z minutes on the stair climber, Q miles of jogging, and so on. For enlightenment's sake, we decided to estimate the time involved in such a regimen. By our calculations, the television star spent seven hours daily simply exercising, which inspired my friend to remark, "I'd go that route, too, if I had a staff running the rest of my life."

But most of us have many fewer timesaving buffers, and poor people none at all. For me, during school, my family helped provide precious "extra" minutes in the day for studies and odd jobs and Jane Fonda. About that time, it occurred to me that I was succeeding in the world with only part of my brain engaged. While a 10th of it was devoted to school, a 10th devoted to my daughter, and perhaps another 10th to family crises, the other 70 percent was constantly focused on food—the calorie count of a grape, the filling bulk of popcorn, the clever use of water as a placebo. How much further, I thought, can I go in the world if I use that 70 percent more wisely?

And so I began it. Henceforth, I declared (privately, so as not to invite disgrace), I would banish all concerns regarding pounds or inches. Like a debtor devising a budget, I found myself sorting, evaluating, checking off—only the currency at hand was not dollars but units of thought. Whereas formerly I'd responded to hunger pangs by (a) fantasizing about food, (b) struggling not to fantasize about food, or (c) glancing wildly around for an inspiring thin woman, now I would simply chew, swallow, and pursue in full consciousness some unrelated project that would make me proud tomorrow. The diet production was over, the fat lady had sung, this operagoer was moving up the aisle, headed for the bright and substantial real world.

"This body was now a temple, not an icon; the housing, not the jewel"
At first my only confidante was the friend who, years later, would read me the celebrity fitness article, and she made a pronouncement that became my motto: "They don't put your weight on your tombstone." (Well, my own family might, as a joke, but still.) When they're summing up your life, she said, they tell what you've achieved, not that you've stayed the same weight since infancy.

I would like to say that after abandoning the weight-loss life, I became, ironically, more fit than ever, but such is not the case. Liberated abruptly from famine, every one of my cells said "Party!" and stocked up against the day when I might again cut off supplies. A petite woman with whom I stayed for a week marveled, "You eat no more than I do," and she was right, but this body was making up for lost calories; gradually the pounds added up, and I became a cautionary tale for young hedonists.

But I experienced much joy. This body was now a temple, not an icon; the housing, not the jewel. I was still poor, still weary, still the oldest of four motherless siblings, still struggling to raise a child. But when my father, 100 miles away, became ill or broke a leg, I had a full mind to devote to retrieving him; when my daughter was afraid, I was fully present to hear her; when a school project approached, my whole brain set itself to the task. I felt smarter, more competent, less a failure, for I was succeeding at big things rather than failing, day by day, at a small one.

Few people approve of my choice. Doctors admonish me at every visit, until I mention the fat ladies I know who, afraid of being shamed, never brave a medical office until they are too sick to be helped much at all. Grudgingly, my physicians withdraw their assault, sometimes all at once and sometimes with a last token lecture about health risks. The ones who don't withdraw, I never see again.

It's not that the naysayers don't have a point. I will die young. I will, perhaps, suffer diseases like diabetes, arteriosclerosis, and joint deterioration. But I will have written books. I will have parented well. I will have taken care of an ailing father and survived his death, as well as the death—young, herself—of my mother. My headstone will not read SHE NEVER LET HERSELF GO, but neither will it say SHE WAS AS BIG AS A BARGE. It will, I hope, say something like SHE KNEW TRUTH AND SUBSTANCE AND ABIDED IN THEM. It's the best I can ask, anyway, because I'll not again—understand this—do otherwise.

Natalie Kusz is the author of a memoir, Road Song (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and teaches at Eastern Washington University. This piece is excerpted from The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage; edited by Cathi Hanauer; published by William Morrow.

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