By Neil Steinberg
One of the most vexing aspects of being fat– besides physical discomfort, medical woes, and looking bad– is that others feel compelled to inform you that you are fat, as if you didn't already know.
"Hey, fatso!'' they would taunt, years ago, in the schoolyard. "Hey, big guy,'' they still say today, in the office. Not 20 minutes ago I was shaking the hand of a lady visiting my newspaper to give a presentation to the editorial board. She smiled, said it was nice to meet me, then continued, "In person you're ...'' She stopped, looked stricken, and we gazed at each other in silence for a moment.
"... so much fatter than in my picture?'' I ventured, and she blushed and stared grinning at the table, but did not argue.
Actually, that kind of thing is rare for me. Being a rather testy person– unusual, I know, since we're supposed to be so jolly– I try to contain my reaction to having my plumpitude alluded to. Otherwise, every "Hey, big guy'' would be met with a terse "What is it, rat-face?'' or "How can I help you, pencil-neck?'' or some other slur.
That could lead to trouble. Because I know whoever was addressing me would be surprised and hurt to hear an insult like that, and not at all connect it with the freshly thrown gauntlet of "big guy.'' They don't realize they're being rude. Just the opposite: I'm sure they imagine they're being familiar, chummy, joshing with El Gordo. They don't see– as I so clearly do– the deeper psychological impulse taking place, the compulsion many thin people feel to burst that aura of satisfied obliviousness surrounding fat people.
You know what I mean. I'm sure you've felt it. You see this truly enormous lardbucket digging into the kind of grotesque glop that porksters gobble– a big marshmallow pie, say– and burn to run over and slap it out of his hands and shout, "What are you doing? Do you know how awful you look? Go check yourself into a hospital!''
Fat people present some kind of elemental, taunting mystery. You see some gigantic, obese woman walking down the street with, for instance, a bright ribbon in her hair. And you can't get that ribbon out of your mind– so courageous and pitiful. A shaking of the fist at fate, a stone flung into the ocean. So futile, like putting a ribbon on a watermelon.
Not that I'd point that out. To do so would be cruel. The fat have a genius for self-deception. They have to, just to face the day. And why not, since the bottom line is that most fat people are powerless to do anything about it. That's why they're fat. Nothing works. They can't be shamed or scared into being thin.
I thought everybody knew this, but the U.S. government apparently doesn't, at least not judging from the study released by the Centers for Disease Control, a bureaucratic version of "Hey, fatso,'' directed at the porcine youth of America.
The CDC tells us– hold the presses– that kids are fat. Three times as many now as in 1970 (a year, if I recall, when my nickname at Camp Wise was "caboose'' because, during our frantic hikes and quickstep cross-country jaunts, I was invariably puffing and sweating and bringing up the rear of the pack).
The CDC has been doing this for years, scolding us fatties about obesity. Not only does the CDC document that kids are swelling like balloons, but it finds the little butterballs susceptible to a grim schedule of horrific adult ailments.
Thanks, guys. Aren't you supposed to be curing AIDS or something?
It isn't that we fat people aren't grateful– always good to know what sort of miserable afflictions might be coming our way. It's just that I don't know if there's a point to warning kids about the medical risks of fatness. My father used to do that. He would wag his finger in my face and gravely predict diabetes, curvature of the spine, flat feet, or whatever else he could imagine. He was trying to scare me, and he did, but he didn't scare me into getting thin. How could that have worked? If physical discomfort, complete failure at sports, and the constant ridicule of classmates were not inspiration enough, what's the uptick of a percentage point or two in the risk of developing gall bladder disease someday supposed to do? Not much.
Frankly, I think focusing on the medical concerns of obesity is just another sign of prejudice. Being thin has its risks, too. When was the last time you heard about an overweight boy getting his neck snapped at a hockey game or suffering a heart attack while playing basketball? Never, that's when.
I'm sure, just like the co-worker tossing off "Hey, big guy,'' the CDC means no harm. They think they're helping the fat youth of America. But they're not. Fat kids don't need the government scolding them, snatching away their snacks, and telling them to get the heck outside and run around the house. Fat kids need the government to tell them that, yes, they look rather slender in that outfit– it really is very slimming. Fat people need to be told everything will be OK. I know I do.
This essay originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.