The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Is Obesity a Character Defect?

Not in my book. No more than poverty or chastity. I’m sorry this has come up…or maybe I’m glad, so that we can look directly at this particular cultural beast.
My attitudes toward obesity come not from having been obese, but from decades of research and observation, and being in a sub-culture (science fiction fandom) where obesity is far more pervasive than the general population. I’ve had many, many friends with this condition, and watched a number of them die. I collaborated for years in remaining silent as I watched their habit patterns, and observed and asked questions when they lost weight.
Yes, I think that there is emotional damage in there—BASED UPON CONSISTENT COMMENTS FROM THEM. This was not my original theory, or opinion. I used to believe that it was “just physical”, just a “slow metabolism” or whatever.
Then one day…
I had a friend. Call him Chuck. Known him since college. He was always extremely heavy, and blamed it on his “slow metabolism.” He tried diets and exercise programs. Nothing worked. I was always confused, because if I believed what Chuck said, then his body pretty much disobeyed the laws of physics. Then Chuck hit a financial emergency, and I ended up paying his bills for a while. Part of what I did was buy all of his food—through the Carnation diet plan. No different from what he’d supposedly been doing before, only now he couldn’t afford other food. And guess what? The weight started coming right off.
It was amazing. I was shocked. A couple of months passed. Chuck got a job. The weight started coming back on.
And I realized that he’d been lying to me. He ate privately, and didn’t speak about it out of shame. And that was the last time I trusted what people said rather than my own observations.
100% of what I think about this subject comes from observing and conversing with people who have lost 50-150+ pounds and kept it off.
In terms of “character defects” well, what does that mean? That a person lies? Cheats? Steals? Abandons their families? I could easily see someone voluntarily and with open eyes deciding that they like a little fat padding and aren’t interested in limiting their diet. Or someone deciding that they aren’t interested in making much money—freedom or spiritual poverty is superior. Or deciding to live alone, in a life of intellectual contemplation.
But guess what? Such people don’t complain about lack of money, or companionship, or what “dogs” men are, or whatever. I have a very simple measurement for the health and stability of a given lifestyle or individual. It is:
Do your actions match your values?
If so, you are likely to be a healthy human being. In the case of obesity, I have a very specific measurement. I think that you should
1) Have enough energy to work hard all week and play on the weekend.
2) Feel comfortable and healthy and pain-free in your body.

And perhaps most importantly:
3)When you strip and look at yourself in the mirror, would you want to have sex with you? (Modified for gender, of course, if you’re hetero. You know exactly what I’m talking about!)

If so, you are in alignment with your own values, and no one has the slightest right to criticize you or imply you should live according to their values. If not, you may be lying to yourself to protect your emotions. Your intellect wants to believe it is in charge, and your subconscious will do amazing things to protect your ego. Be very, very careful here.
Do such lies constitute character defects? They most certainly can. More importantly, they can undermine your life. There are two vital aspects of personal existence and progress:
1) Do you know the truth?
2) Can you keep your word?

If you know the truth, and can keep your word—especially to yourself, you can leverage your time, energy, and intelligence to accomplish amazing things. But an inaccurate “reality map” will nullify a genius I.Q. And if you can’t keep your word to yourself, you will falter during your Dark Nights, never pushing through to your true potential.
In my own life, I’ve dealt with emotional damage in the following major areas:
1)no father in my home.
2) Intellectual isolation in youth.
3) At the effect of devastating cultural stereotypes that influenced my choices and opportunities in almost every arena of my life.
4) Intensive bullying that anchored fear in my body at a level that literally decades of therapy and meditation have been unable to heal completely—although it is now manageable.

None of these constitute “character flaws” although some BEHAVIORS arising from these certainly have, at times. I have seriously, seriously screwed up at times that hurt others, and been extremely dishonest—mostly to myself. It’s a pit I’ve been climbing out of for a very long time.
I guess that “Intermittent Fasting” is usually considered eating every other day, although there are variations that have you eat during a three-hour window, or from 6 to 6, etc. The original animal experimentation went 24 hours at a time, but does that cover multiple sleep cycles for a gerbil? I don’t know. I know the preliminary research suggests that the basic cycle, as well as its modifications, all have positive value. Even “Waving” the calories works. The door is open to other variations as well, but when in doubt, concentrate on Every Other Day. That one works for certain.
Interval Training is like wind sprints: near maximal exertion for 30-60 seconds, followed by a much gentler exertion for 60-120 seconds. Run and then walk. Jump rope and then stretch. Kettlebell swings followed by shadow-boxing, etc.
The “Peak-Valley” spacing of exertion literally re-sets your metabolism. In that way, you’re getting multiple positive effects:
1) By boosting your metabolism, you are burning more calories 24/7
2) You are burning a goodly number of calories during the exercise itself.
3) You are building muscle (look at sprinters as opposed to distance runners), which also burns calories while you sleep.
Of course, “Maximal exertion” is relative. If weight is a serious issue, consult with your doctor to discover what your peak heart beat rate might be, and use a wrist/chest monitor to stay safe.
The trick is to get the physics working in your direction. No body, regardless of genetic predisposition or emotional damage, can break the laws of physics. If your caloric intake is lower than your daily caloric output, you will lose weight. Pretty much “period.” But the number of intelligent people I know who have either convinced themselves, or try to convince others that this isn’t true just blows my mind.
We have a right to our privacy as human beings. No one wants to have others looking at them as the Walking Wounded. But inevitably, we judge each other by our actions and appearance. EVERYBODY DOES IT. Certain manifestations of damage are culturally frowned upon: alcoholism, child-beating, drug addiction, some types of crime, compulsive gambling.
Other manifestations are more understood and empathized with: broken marriages, incompetent finances, and obesity seems to fall into this category.
We all have damage. Not all of us wear it in public. That is an unfortunate thing, and it must hurt to have people judge you and assume you eat massive amounts. I KNOW that’s not always true. But what I DO know when I look at someone who is very overweight, is that they haven’t balanced their metabolic checkbook. Why? I don’t know. But I do know I consider that a predisposition toward obesity is a lot like being born in poverty. Yes, that’s unfortunate. Yes, it is easier for middle-class or wealthy children to make money.
But you know what? At the end of the day, no one cares about what obstacles you dealt with. If you were born poor, society says “get over it.” Come from a broken home? That explains your first divorce. But by the second marriage, you had better the hell have gotten some counseling, or spoken to people with healthy marriages, to figure out what you were doing wrong. Parents and grandparents obese? You have genetic and social problems, friend. And what the world watches for is whether you can fight your way out of that.
It’s not fair. We all do it. Men judge women for beauty, women judge men for power. Human beings judge each other for every evidence of capacity imaginable. Everyone filters their associations and bases friendships on their own values and beliefs. Everyone. No one has no perceptual filters, or you’d be as likely to eat dirt as sushi.
If you are happy in your life, GREAT! But if you feel pain about the way the world treats you, or the way you feel in the morning, or your inability to help or support your family, or your lack of love…then you must do something to change. Change is possible, and help is available.
This web site concentrates on the things we can do as individuals to bring greater pleasure into our lives, and create health love and safety for our families.
In no way is it intended to judge, or categorize people based on external aspects.
But I do ask you to do two things:
Tell the truth. Keep your word.
Have those two things, and you have the world.

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