When I tell people I have a book coming out at the end of the summer, they naturally ask, “What’s it called?” I have learned to brace myself before answering.
“Magnificent Obesity,” I say with a fleeting grin in anticipation of what has become the most common reaction: embarrassment. Their eyes dart away from mine, they look startled, doubtful and yes, embarrassed. I quell my own embarrassment, maintain eye contact and buoy my grin. I am looking for conversation; they answer with evasive action or a hasty retreat.
It’s as though I have discovered a new obscene word: obesity.
The most discomfited are women who appear to have no weight issues. (I say appear, because it’s a rare American woman or girl who is not bedeviled to some extent by negative body image.) One such segment of trim, well groomed women in my tai chi class hemmed and hawed over the title and collectively concluded, “Well, it’s not something I would read, but I can see where others might – be interested.”
On another occasion, a family friend wept. “Oh no. Oh no. A memoir? No, that’s not you. You’re not that.” (She couldn’t even say the word.) I was a big brain with a big soul but not that. The next day she called me to suggest an alternative title: I Was a Tank Inside a Tent Dress. Which I thought was interesting, but not relevant to what I had written.
I later heard from her sister that this woman is struggling mightily with the shock of middle-aged spread.
The most awkward reaction thus far has come from a man, a fellow volunteer at a local soup kitchen. “What’s it called?” he asked as we stood side by side tearing and chopping a mountainous donation of kale.
I braced myself. “Magnificent Obesity.”
He looked flustered. Then he tried to look cool. “So.” He scanned me from head to toe. “I assume it’s based on personal experience?”
The friend who suggested I Was a Tank Inside a Tent Dress warned that the title would limit my audience. It’s that word. Lately I find myself asking men: is this a book you would give as a gift to your wife? Most say no, it would get them into trouble. They don’t want the wife looking pensive or peeved and asking, “Are you telling me I have a weight problem?” My book might be the equivalent of the query: do these pants make me look fat?
But the title is important to the outcome, although not for reasons you might think, so it stays. For me, the real issue has to do with promoting the book, not because of the title, but because of what I look like.
I am morbidly obese at the moment. I am not happy about it and, having already lost fifty pounds, I am working on a hundred more. Since I can’t turn myself into Miss Fabulous over night, I will be soliciting recognition As Is. I must deal with attending interviews, readings, book fests and other occasions where my physical appearance and subject matter might cause embarrassment because it is So. Not. Pretty. Or professional or put-together.
The other day I started thinking about going the other way. My “talk” would begin like this:
“Hello everybody. My name is Martha and I’m a pig. I’m a hog. I am obese. I’m an epidemic, a failure, a scandal. A national disgrace. My government has declared war on me. On the very popular sit com, The Big Bang Theory, you can hear men frequently assume that fat girls suffer from low self-esteem, which makes them easy prey, and in one episode you can hear Howard Wolowitz compare watching his mother’s water aerobics class to visiting the manatee tank at the zoo, which is actually sort of funny. And yet not. Not at all.
“Is obesity a disorder? Or a disease? The American Medical Association recently selected disease, in hopes of facilitating medical interventions. But now we are hearing about doctors who shy away from bringing up weight management with their obese patients because they’re afraid of insulting them.
“I would imagine their patients are already sufficiently offended by the weight bias that has been well documented among healthcare providers, (judges and juries, airlines, public health campaigns, prospective employers, fashionistas, Fit Facebook Moms, Hollywood and mass media). We are also hearing doctors complain that fat people themselves shrink from talking about their weight because it is too distressing for them.”
So there it is. That’s as far as I’ve gotten in my introduction to the book. It’s probably not appropriate. The book itself has a one-paragraph introduction stating that it is not a weight loss memoir or fat acceptance manifesto but a deeply personal reflection on the constellation of factors that may contribute to obesity, the challenges faced in reversing it and the searing emotional impact of fat shame and stigma.
At this point, all I can say is this: Don’t be afraid to buy this book. Talk about it. Say the word. Give it a new context or larger field of inquiry and debate. Let’s get beyond the cost of overweight and obesity to our health care system; let’s get beyond the health risks and longevity risks that may or may not be, the prophecies of death by diabetes and stroke, the judgment of gall stones, acid reflux and erectile dysfunction. Let’s get beyond our narrative of obesity as a national disgrace, epidemic or apocalypse. Because anybody with eyes, tact, heart and soul knows that obesity is people.
I am not a sedentary lifestyle or a leading public health problem. I am not merely a victim of genetics, fast-food chains or a rapacious, Machiavellian food industry. I am not comedy relief or the last acceptable prejudice; I am not solely a product of income, gender or race. I am people.
There are many reasons why you might not be inclined to read Magnificent Obesity. Just please, don’t let that word in the title be one of them.
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