Title John G. Rodwan Jr.'s essay: "Weight Loss: A Love Story," which appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Blood and Thunder, is listed among the Notable Essays of 2009 in the 2010 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Christopher Hitchens.
Weight Loss: A Love Story
“Don’t worry about that; I’ll tell you when to stop,” the doctor replied when, after being told to lose weight, I asked how much.
Of course, I’d known I could have stood to shed a few pounds, twenty-five or so, I figured, based on nothing much. I had a vague idea that such a number seemed neither like a great deal of extra weight to be carrying around nor like an intimidatingly large amount to drop. I chose to overlook, then, how my physician’s remark implied that I had a long road before me. Some minor adjustments, I thought, would take care of things. Besides, without a firm statement of what I ought to weigh, I didn’t feel a great deal of pressure. After all, while saying he’d let me know when I arrived at the proper weight may have suggested it was a ways off, the doctor had also expressed surprised at what the scale read. “Where do you keep it,” he’d joked.
Because of its suggestion of weakness and failure, fatness leads to jokes, which can offer penetratingly serious insights. When I was a thin teenager, a friend’s father liked to rib corpulent acquaintances by saying: “I see you been losing weight” – long pause – “over your belt.” Beyond insulting a person’s appearance, the crack implied an inability to rein in gluttonous impulses. The punch line withdraws the implied compliment over size of the joke’s set up. In One Fat Englishman, Kingsley Amis inverts a cliché about fatness when he writes: “Outside every fat man there was an even fatter man trying to close in.” The line points to passivity, as if getting bigger were something that just happened to people rather than something caused by their behavior.
Jokes can also deflect focus from seriousness. If my doctor could talk about my weight with light-hearted banter, it couldn’t be that big of deal. Right?
That’s how I treated it, like it wasn’t a problem. After that check-up, I swore I wouldn’t have potato chips at lunch time, or at least I’d munch on them less frequently. If I didn’t take my light-style yogurt to the office in the morning, I’d buy one on the way instead of substituting a bagel with cream cheese. For a while I’d been thinking about getting a bicycle. My wife, Nancy, got me one as a birthday gift and I got into the habit of riding it on weekends, if the weather was clear. Gradually I increased the number of laps I made around Prospect Park, which Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also planned Central Park, designed to include a 3.3-mile circular road that attracted Brooklyn bike riders. Over time I even lost my dread of the hill that menaced me so greatly early on in my cycling days. A man on a unicycle passing me on that incline motivated me to work a little harder. Moving slower than the packs of riders in colorful tight-fitting costume on sleek Italian racing bikes was one thing, but that was too much to accept.
I did manage to lose a few pounds. Nowhere near twenty-five, but I told myself I was making progress. When you’re six feet and three inches tall and weigh 250 pounds, you can lose five or ten pounds without anyone, including yourself, registering any change in appearance. Still, even if I could not see or feel a difference, it helped to know I had moved in the right direction.
Because I’d never suffered any serious health problems, I’d had not given much thought to my physical condition. My awareness that I was overweight never felt like it required serious attention or immediate action. Then news came about my wife’s health that caused me to rethink my lackadaisical attitude about my own. Unlike mine, her body constantly reminded her of its existence, though weight was never a problem. She may have added a couple pounds over the first ten or so years of our marriage, but she remained slender. For someone so far from obese to receive a diagnosis of diabetes felt cruelly ironic, even perverse.
Having earlier been told she had hypoglycemia, Nancy was fully aware of food’s impact on her well-being. With the arrival of long-feared diabetes, however, came a need to be even more conscientious and systematic about consumption. Told she could manage her condition through her diet, she was determined to do so. She vowed to live a long, healthy life.
And so did I. How could I simultaneously support her efforts to preserve her health but disregard my own? Even if I did not have the disease, I could certainly take better care of myself. More importantly, I wanted to help her any way I could. One small thing I could do, I reckoned, was eat what she ate.
Her doctor had put her on what he called the “Black Panther Diet,” which primarily involved avoiding “white” food such as sugar, flour and potatoes. With diabetes, counting carbohydrates became necessary. The goal was to restrict intake to a certain level, one appropriate for a body not producing enough insulin to handle unregulated quantities of glucose in its blood.
I wanted to do more than only eat the same way as her. Physical activity can aid in controlling blood sugar levels. With diabetes comes increased risk for cardiovascular disease, which makes strengthening the heart and circulatory system vital. While I did not have high blood pressure, it did run in my family, and while my cholesterol was not too high, it was getting close. Obviously, we both could stand to benefit from greater concentration on fitness.
I committed myself to attaining the correct size and shape for my body, and that meant exercise – real exercise. Weekend rides in the park were not enough. An apparatus turning a bicycle into a stationary machine meant weather no longer affected the quality or frequency of my cycling. I added other activities – weights, sit-ups and push-ups, and so on – to what became an almost daily routine.
Practically against my will I developed an appreciation for what had seemed like a gratingly vapid slogan: Just do it. Though I never purchased shoes or apparel from the company that built ubiquitous advertising campaigns around the motto, I did come to understand the thinking behind it. I would not permit myself to say, “I don’t feel like exercising today.” I simply would – here I go – do it. Later on, I heard Ian MacKaye, the epitome of punk rock virtues, member of many bands and co-founder of fiercely independent Dischord Records, discuss how a Nike-sponsored event had appropriated for a flyer an image from the cover of an album by Minor Threat. The resolutely anti-corporate MacKaye disappointed some listeners when he described his decision not to pursue a potentially lengthy court fight. He had other ways he wanted to spend his time and energy. Some in the audience laughed further along in his talk on creating art on one’s own terms when he used the famous commandment himself. I didn’t; I understood precisely how that could happen. Unless we had after-work plans that would have made exercise impractical, I would workout everyday. Although Nancy’s doctor said that her body would function best if she kept it fit, it got to the point where I was working out more often than she was. I just did it.
It worked. For both of us. Boxing, a sport in which athletes must attend closely to their weight, had given me, strictly as a spectator, a perspective on size, one that I found changed as my body did. Previously I could not comprehend how tall fighters were able to campaign in divisions like middleweight (160 pounds), super middleweight (168) or even light heavyweight (175). When I was far from those weight classes I could not imagine being anything other than a heavyweight, for which there is no weight limit. When Nancy’s diagnosis came down, I weighed 240 pounds; the following year I had reduced that by 70. I toned up some, but I never developed the muscular-but-still-slim physique of an in-shape fighter. That had not been my aim. I did gain a greater appreciation of the work that goes into one as well an understanding of it being a realizable state. Nancy also lost a couple pounds, but more importantly felt much healthier and in greater control of the state of her body.
Changing weight class did not change only my size. Change followed change, and with me the alterations were not confined to my body.
I never wanted to put much time or energy into clothing: I hate shopping for it and I prefer not to think much about what I am going to put on each morning. It would not be honest to say I didn’t care at all about my appearance. Anyone claiming to be vanity-free is a liar, probably one quite proud of his or her carefully cultivated above-it-all self-image. We express our vanity in different ways. I have never understood overweight people who wore clothing that accentuated their least attractive features: tight waistbands squeezing rolls of fatty flesh, short shirts showing off mushy guts and other similarly ill-advised, bulge-making, flab-showing choices. I may not have been able to make myself look thin, but I did not dress as though I were and hope others played along with a delusion. Aware that I was soft in the middle, I did not want to draw attention to my stomach. I did not try to disguise it either. I never thought leaving my shirt untucked made me look slimmer, but comfort was a consideration as well. Loose fitting clothes do tend to suit fat folks best. In order to streamline the dressing process, all my black or dark blue trousers could be effortlessly paired with any of my solid, generally dark shirts.
When none of your clothes fit anymore, you lose the luxury of not thinking about your wardrobe. I reached the point when I had lost twenty-five pounds and realized I still had more loosing to do. I did not need to be told that I had not yet reached the stopping point. This forced me to accept, grudgingly, that I would need to buy new clothes, but ones to cover my shrinking self only during a transitional period. What I owned no longer fit, but I knew I was going to get smaller. Perhaps people for whom fashion dictates the wearing of certain things for a single “season” before moving on to the latest style are accustomed to regarding clothing as disposable, but I expected what I wore to be with me for years. (I never could convince Nancy that socks with holes did not need to be thrown away because shoes would cover them. I got used to hearing “Really, you’re keeping those?” as we folded laundry.) Buying new clothes was no longer a matter of replacing items that had reached, or gone slightly beyond, the point of being worn out. However, my habitual mode of dressing so as not to draw attention to myself necessitated getting apparel that actually fit to replace the too-large clothes drooping over me. As I moved along the road to the right weight, my clothes crossed from slightly baggy to hobo shabby. Wearing shirts that look like they belong to a bigger man with trousers that bunch together in places when your belt is cinched tight enough to hold them up just leads to impertinent questions.
What surprised me most as I developed healthier habits and grew increasingly fit was how many people would ask if I was sick. Presumably unaccustomed to people effectively ridding themselves of unwanted pounds, acquaintances seemed more prone to assume I had some sort of wasting disease. Many people, after remarking on my having lost weight, would proceed to ask whether I had done so on purpose. Having read so often that the majority of Americans were overweight, with a significant percentage qualifying as obese, I wondered where these people were who were losing weight by accident. Some inquisitors may have been trying to be kind and considerate. After all, I had started shrinking rapidly. Others may have resented the change. I became convinced that, just as there are alcoholics aggravated rather than pleased by the loss of a drinking buddy to sobriety, there are non-boxing heavyweights who are jealous of and annoyed by those who successfully depart the ranks of the overweight and obese. Whatever prompted queries regarding my condition, and whether alterations in it were deliberate, one thing a person putting a great deal of effort into improving his health does not want to hear is that he looks ill. I knew that swimming in oversize clothes did not help the situation.
So I broke down and bought clothing I knew would only cover me for weeks or months before replacements became necessary. I was glad when I arrived at a point where I could finally get dark trousers and solid, generally dark shirts that could be mixed and matched for years to come.
While my mode of dress did not completely change, I confess that I did start to pay a bit more attention to my appearance. I no longer left shirttails hanging out. I started wearing clothes that actually fit properly. If I still saw no reason to attract attention to my appearance, I did not need to deflect it entirely, either.
More important than matters sartorial, I think, was how I came to think about food. More specifically, I actually did start to think about food rather than just indiscriminately shoveling it in. Weighing less and, thus, eating less food meant becoming significantly more involved with what I ate than I had been before. Nancy continued to do most of the cooking. She had always enjoyed doing it, and restrictions on certain ingredients created new culinary challenges, to put the matter positively. I always helped with the shopping, but now my assistance extended beyond merely helping carry and put away groceries. I started to do more in the kitchen than just the dishes. I still followed her lead but I also learned more about ingredients and their combination as well as techniques for meal-making that I had not been aware of previously. I started trying to help come up with ideas for meals rather than leaving all the planning to her, and in doing so came to appreciate just how much deliberation the art of cooking really involves.
Part of my late-forming willingness to pay attention to food concerned not just preparation but also portions. Deciding not to be fat means refraining from care-free indulgence. It means restraining consumption to reasonable quantities. Knowing the carbohydrate content and other nutritional properties of a dish requires a sense of appropriate serving sizes. We became scrupulous label readers and carb calculators. We bought, and used, a kitchen scale.
I became convinced that the reason so many people fail when they go on weight-loss diets is because they do not bother to learn about what they eat. With no understanding of the nutritional properties of what they consume as they try this or that gimmick, they never develop an understanding of food. Reliance on special pre-packaged fare, as some diets demand, cannot substitute for knowing how to select food intelligently on one’s own. Strict avoidance of certain types of food or exclusive focus on others cannot replace recognizing what you need and what you don’t, what foods meet those needs and which don’t, and acting accordingly.
In addition to questions about my health, I often had to field variations on “What’s you’re secret?” There is no secret. Eat less, but also eat the right things. Move. I never allowed myself to answer the question so bluntly – I did not want to exchange my former slovenly sloth for insufferable smugness – but I always wanted to say: “There are no shortcuts.” There really aren’t any, after all, even if there’s no consoling, soothing way to convey this to those who most need to accept it. For years, I had been such a person – a person losing weight over his belt. Fat does not just happen, unless expanders look away from the state of their bodies. I started regarding my once larger physique as evidence of too little introspection. The fatter man could only have closed in on me because I ignored his approach – and his arrival.
In working on bodyweight, an obsessive type can simultaneously end up struggling against a tendency to swing the pendulum too far the other way. (Boxers struggling to make a specific class’s designated weight frequently develop eating disorders, for instance.) I am aware that frequent questions about my health meant some people thought I looked like I had lost too much weight or had done so too quickly. I recall a former professor of mine – a gaunt, reed-like, even sickly-looking man – who revealed that he once had been hugely overweight and that even though he knew intellectually that that was no longer the case, he still sometimes thought of himself that way. At times, I remind myself that I do not have to deny myself constantly, and probably should not. Eating to lose and eating to maintain are not the same. I can comprehend my old teacher’s mode of self-perception, but, fortunately, I do not share it.
When, not long after I achieved a healthy weight, I was told that I had an inguinal hernia in need of surgery and that while recovering I should refrain from exercise and any strenuous activity, I did not dwell on risks related to being cut open. I did not give much thought to the dangers of anesthesia. Instead, I feared how the six-week interruption in my workout regimen would affect my weight. (The doctor who first informed me I would probably have to have an operation was not the same one who told me start losing weight. By the time I had followed that joker’s advice I had switched primary care physicians.)
I didn’t enjoy that relatively immobile time, but it turned out to be reassuring. I did not regain lost pounds during my stretch of enforced inactivity. I did not revert to my erstwhile unthinking indulgence of appetites. Indeed, I adjusted my intake to suit my temporarily sedentary state. After the designated layoff, I returned to regular exercise. Not facing imminent danger of ballooning to my former size, I even allowed myself a regular day off from my workout routine.
Perhaps an expanded awareness of the extent of one’s control over his or her body, an increased (but hardly excessive) attention to appearance, and a greater interest in physical fitness and nutrition are all completely predictable consequences of substantial weight loss. Perhaps slimming down would not have been possible with out concomitant alterations in outlook and attitude. Perhaps I should have realized that changing one aspect of my existence would affect others.
But those were not the only changes.
Immediately before and after my surgery, I spent plenty of time in doctors’ waiting rooms. Anyone who says he or she does not mind doing that must be as dishonest as a person claiming to be without vanity. (“I wait, I wait, I wait,” MacKaye sings in a Fugazi song. “My time is like water down a drain.”) However, one scene from that otherwise wasted time remains with me. There was nothing unusual about the elderly couple I observed sitting across room from me. What could be more ordinary than seeing aged individuals at a medical clinic? When the pair departed, I noticed the women moving very slowly. Her husband helped her across the room and then went to bring the car around to a spot near the building’s entrance. My decision to improve my health in tandem with my wife’s intensified care for hers resulted in my coming to share some of her interests and becoming more involved in activities she enjoys. The kitchen stopped seeming like the site of chores. I became convinced that (just) doing it – and doing it together – helped make regular exercise a real habit. What could be more intimate than participating in the maintenance of each other’s health? What does caring for each other mean if not that? I am not eager for us to be exactly like that couple – I want plenty more active years ahead of us – but I know that forfeiting more time to waiting rooms is inevitable. When we reach that age when care shifts from improving or maintaining health to managing and easing its inevitable decline, being together to accompany and assist one another in unpleasant places, like that elderly man and woman I noticed were, can be dismissed as nothing special only if love can be as well. I never expected to find something to admire while sitting and waiting, waiting, waiting.