A Growing Problem

I’m one of the few people I know who can say that at fifty years of age, I weigh the same as I did in High School – actually, a few pounds less. I can even wear most of the high school clothes that I still have left over from that time – the waist still fits, though the legs are short. Even my Boy Scout pants fit me, their hems swaying above my ankles. But this is nothing to brag about. I weighed the same as I weigh now as when I was sixteen . . . and fifteen, and fourteen. And there’s a big difference between weighing a hundred and seventy five pounds and being six foot tall – and weighing a hundred and seventy five pounds and being a four and a half foot tall, fourteen year old child.

So yeah, I know what it’s like to be “heavy”. Or to put it more into perspective, the politically incorrect word: “fat”. Being a realist and not too given to “political correctness”, I tend to call things as I see them. And so it was – I was fat.

I had always been big for my age. Even as a baby I dwarfed my puny, small boned big brother, giving him a psychological complex revolving around his failure to dominate me. Some folks said I was “big-boned”, but looking at photos from my childhood I see a sturdy child. True to my birthplace, I had almost Germanic features – broad shoulders, strong arms, a wide and friendly face, even though my American parents were from western descent. I wasn’t a “cute” kid, but I was a friendly kid, gregarious and outgoing. And I remember my body from the ‘hood as being lean and agile, with muscular lines with barely an ounce of fat. I suppose my diet in the ‘hood had something to do with that – we were poor-poor with my father overseas, hoarding most of the money, and food was sometimes hard to come by. But this was all to change within a few years of us arriving overseas.

Being shuttled around from base to base, I don’t recall making any friends – not real friends – for the first two and a half years of my existence over there. Two and a half years of no one but my family to talk to about my problems – and in my family you kept your problems to yourself – two and a half years of a growing isolation, coupled with the fact that my knees went bad – started leading me into a more and more sedentary lifestyle. And the German food was good!

We did a lot of walking – and by a “lot of walking”, I mean a lot! My parents were constantly going here or there, visiting this town or architectural attraction; the Stuttgart zoo, the castles and museums. We walked through parks and paths, through mountains and woods. We toured city after city, town after endless town – every village and hamlet, it seemed. This was called “enriching our culture” – and it did, in so many ways! I was given to poking my curious nose into every nook and cranny (a lifelong habit, by the way). I think I inherited that from my mom. A wall was an invitation to climb up and go over it; a gate or a fence was something to get around or through. And the German parks and castles were wonderful amusements, coupled with historic art and artifacts.

But despite this exercise, I began to have a growing problem. And no, I don’t mean a problem growing up (though I’m the first to admit I was socially and emotionally stunted . . . twisted in some ways by what had happened in the ‘hood) – but a problem with growing around. All that wonderful German food, coupled with a growing deep seated sense of misery which I couldn’t put a finger on, led me on to a love affair with food.

Like many problems, my growing problem can be traced to a number of factors, tenuous strings of cause and effect which added pounds to my once lithe frame. For one thing, my father was there, which meant all the family’s money stayed with the family – not thrown away on some Asian whores and my father’s selfish love of spending the money solely upon himself. That made for more food at home – a regular diet of “breakfast, lunch, and supper” – complete with meat at every meal (my father’s insistence). Couple that with the rich German food and the close proximity of the PX and “cafeteria” – places I could walk to and purchase a snack. Add on top of this my growing sense of “aloneness” and a gnawing fear of what I would find when we got back Stateside. Throw in my bad knees, being restricted to boring bases (when we weren’t traveling), and a growing love of reading – and you have a recipe for a fat kid. And I grew fat, then fatter, until by the time I was twelve and a half or so, I topped out at the weight I am now.

My parents became concerned, reminding me about my weight – and then poking fun at it. But it wasn’t fun for me. Despite what people say, fat people don’t feel warmer in the winter – as a matter of fact, we have more skin to get cold. Ditto the same when getting hot. And I hated the way the inside of my thighs rubbed together when walking, chaffing them sorely, sometimes until it got to the point where I could hardly walk at all. Couple that with an overlapping belly, folds where my chest should be – and I was a walking embarrassment, especially to myself. By the time I was thirteen or so I hated being fat – but didn’t have either the will power or the discipline, much less the knowledge of what to do about it. The only thing I knew to do was eat less – but I didn’t. My emotional isolation, a growing sense of depression, and love of food – especially German food – led me to pack on the pounds and keep them there.

My parents weren’t much help. I think they really didn’t know what to do. This was before the time of fad diets, weight watcher programs, and special meals. Not that they would of cooked them or done them for me anyway. They aren’t that kind of people. Instead they belittled me and made me rely on my own resources – pitiful knowledge – to take the pounds off. And nothing I did seemed to work. I had the “hand to mouth” syndrome – eating a little bit of this and that all day long, and eating big meals in-between. I had money from my “job”, as well as some little allowance, which allowed me to purchase candy from the German man who drove the “roach coach” on the base, as well as the ability to go into the PX or the cafeteria at any time and order up a banana split, hot fudge sundae, or big bag of chips and Cheetos. And so I did.

Now I still maintained a level of physical activity, joining “Volksmarches” – long organized hikes across the countryside, at the end of which they would give you a medal – riding my bike with the other kids, and exploring the woods. I still ran – but not as much (that bad knees thing again), swam like a fish (but only during the summers) – but for the most part I found myself at home (or in school) – sitting down or laying down, reading. Needless to say, this kind of lifestyle won’t do much for you when it comes to losing weight. And food became a solace, giving the mistaken impression of filling a need, but in reality further exacerbating my sense of isolation and physical difference while drifting through an ever changing landscape in a foreign land.

My parents weren’t very sympathetic towards my growing plight – one of the waistline due to an interior wasteland – pointing out at every opportunity that I was “fat” – and my brother and the other kids were even more harsh in their criticism. Not that they needed to be. Month by month I grew ever more despondent over my increasing mass – which in turn led me to seek solace once again in that old standby, food – which just further increased the problem – which gave rise to me eating in secret, buying things from the PX and scarfing them down before I got home. I recall sitting on the back stairs of some old barracks, a can of fried Cheetos in my hand – eating them, one by one, relishing the burst of cheese flavored grease as it slid down my throat – and being utterly miserable, knowing I was only making my problem worse. My parents went from reasoning to getting mad; they never put me on a diet, yet they insisted I lose weight, sometimes angrily, sometimes literally poking my bulging belly and making fun of my fat. Lacking that sort of self discipline, I didn’t – not until they finally resorted to the last thing during my final months overseas – blackmail.

We had gotten a dog – or rather, I had gotten a dog – for my thirteenth birthday. Now the Army will pay to ship you overseas and back, along with some of your possessions (they have a weight allowance, if you will excuse the pun) – but they won’t pay for pets (or so my parents said). That, my parents made clear when we had three months left to go, is up to the owners. And, they said, if I wanted my dog to come back home with us – Stateside – I would have to lose as much as the dog weighed. And that was thirty-five pounds. It was either that or abandon my dog there in Germany.

And so it went. Distraught – almost in a panic, lest I lose my dog, I immediately switched to drinking – and eating – nothing except Carnation Instant Breakfasts. For three months I lived off them, with the occasional parental excursion to a German restaurant for some of my favorite things (bratwurst mit Brötchen and a touch of German mustard, or homemade thin Spätzle with a jagerschnitzel and the creamy brown mushroom gravy that goes on top of it). And I managed to lose the requisite amount of weight – just in the nick of time – but when we got back to the United States, I immediately put the pounds back on. Such goes the history of many such diets, as we who have dieted know well. You take off the pounds and they come right back on. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I finally lost weight (due to a fairly common dietary measure, which I not so fondly call “the poverty diet”) – and then I kept it off through a change in lifestyle. (Think “grazer”.)

That’s one thing about going on a “diet”. When folks tell me they are “going on a diet” the first thing I say is that they are telling me they are going off a diet. And by “off a diet” I mean that they seem to intend on “going on a diet” – then after they’ve lost a certain amount of weight – going back to eating as they had before. This is almost a certain recipe for disaster (at least emotionally), as they inevitably regain the weight they had lost, and then some. “The only way you are going to lose weight and keep it off,” I tell them, “is to change your lifestyle.” And that means changing how – and what you eat – for life. A constant commitment to weight change – and then maintaining that weight, once you’ve reached your desired weight – is in order. No “diet” is going to keep the weight off, not once you put it on, not if you intend on “giving up” the diet once you’ve reached your desired weight. For that (as I’ve discovered) – it takes a lifetime commitment towards watching what you eat, how much, and when. Plus an adequate dose of exercise.

I won’t say I’m sympathetic towards “fat” people, but I’ve been fat before, and I know the problems it can cause, the social stigma. But as a friend of mine pointed out, maintaining a set weight is a “no-brainer”. If calories in exceeds calories expended you’re going to gain weight. Take in less calories than what you expend, and you’re going to lose weight (as I found during my “poverty diet”.) I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an overweight person complaining that they are overweight – all the while stuffing their mouth, and bemoaning the fact that “no matter what I do, I can’t lose weight (or keep it off)”. It’s what I call the bent-arm elbow symptom, or the “hand-to-mouth” syndrome. “Quit bending that elbow and you’ll lose weight,” I tell them. Not harshly, for I know how difficult it can be to control that impulse, the seductive solace of food to feed a desire that has nothing to do with hunger. Sometimes I’ve been tempted to hand them a couple of sticks and tell them to splint their arms straight so they can’t reach their mouths (an idea given by a story about heaven and hell) – but I’m not that cruel. I do understand the problems of being overweight – and the emotional problems that sometimes underlay that drive and desire to eat, to stuff one’s self full to the point of bursting, if only to diminish that gnawing feeling of hunger caused by loneliness and depression that may lay beneath an overweight exterior. Starvation of the soul often leads to overfilling of the belly – not to mention the love of food can be a major driver.

I can’t say I “love” food anymore – I’ve gotten past that. To me food is a utility item, something to keep me alive. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy good food – I just don’t indulge in it. I still “snack” off and on all day, rarely eating a meal (except supper – that my wife often cooks, so I feel obliged to partake in it.) But I keep my snacks varied, and just a little at a time. It’s what they call a “grazing diet”, though I’ve been on it so long that it doesn’t feel like a diet anymore. I adopted it at work, where we were given little time for lunches – and breakfasts aren’t my style – so I ended up moving more towards the “snacking” approach than the “meal” approach. It’s worked for me, though I’m sure it won’t work for everyone. Different strokes for different folks; some things work better than others.

But one thing I learned is to watch my weight. I don’t ever want to be “fat” again. It was a horror to me, and a social stigma to everyone else. I got poked at, scolded, ridiculed, put down, passed over in games, set aside. My own parents made fun of me, my brother taunted me. And for the longest time it seemed there was nothing I could do.

But I grew up and finally learned better – learned to control some of my habits and desires, changed my outlook towards food. And as a result, I got my “growing problem” under control.

And I thoroughly intend on keeping it that way.