February 16, 2010

Getting Skinny on Fat Tuesday

“It’s funny ‘cause he’s fat!”
—Mr. Chow in “The Hangover”

With Mardi Gras—Fat Tuesday—upon us again, I found it rather ironic that Kevin Smith—director of such classic movies as Clerks—was in the news this past weekend after being deemed too fat to fly by Southwest Airlines. Smith Tweeted the entire experience, including several epic sarcastic rants against Southwest. My favorite Tweet occurred after Smith was allowed to fly on another Southwest flight:

“Hey @SouthwestAir! I've landed in Burbank. Don't worry: wall of the plane was opened & I was airlifted out while Richard Simmons supervised.”
—@thatkevinsmith (Feb. 14, 2010)

Now, airlines on occasion may have a valid reason to restrict service to passengers whose size unduly imposes on the safety or comfort of other passengers. But it seems like Southwest Airlines was out of line in this particular situation.

In many ways, as society has grown more tolerant and accepting, and overt discrimination based on gender, race, disability, and even sexual orientation has subsided, discrimination against the overweight and obese (or “fat people” to be blunt) is one of the few remaining socially acceptable prejudices.* Tasteless, even cruel, “fat jokes” are fair game for a quick laugh on TV or in the movies, while a joke based on gender or religion requires careful crafting to avoid offending viewers. Now, I’m not saying every fat joke is inappropriate; heck, as a gay man, I think there are plenty of gay jokes that are hilarious. Chris Rock has made a fortune with racially based humor. Notable comics like John Candy, Chris Farley, and Louie Anderson made entire careers out of playing up the lovable fat guy schtick.

When it comes to the overweight members of our society, however, I think there remains a stigma that overweight people are fat by choice. People see an overweight person and implicitly assume that that person could be a normal weight if only they ate healthier and worked out more. So, it’s easy to rationalize teasing them, mocking them, or even discriminating against them since, on some level, we assume it’s their own fault they are fat. Let me tell you, though, it’s not so simple.

I hit the genetic lottery in the weight department (though I definitely missed the Powerball in the looks department, but I digress). At 6’4”, I’ve always been a fairly thin to average build, weighing in at 185-195 pounds through most of my adult life. Now, I do work out regularly, but I can’t say that I’m a particularly healthy eater, with at least half of my meals being fast food or pizza. By contrast, my younger brother “Kurt” has always been into athletics as much as I have, regularly plays basketball, bikes, and snowboards, and has even run a marathon. He’s married, and he and his wife cook good, nutritious meals at home. Yet he carries an extra 70-80 pounds more than me. I know he could probably drop 30-40 pounds, but it is as unrealistic to expect him to be under 200 pounds as it is to expect me to marry a woman. He just is a bigger guy, and always will be.

Then there’s my older brother, “Steve”. Steve battled his weight most of his life, and it made him unhappy, though he rarely talked about it. At some point, he fell into a self-reinforcing cycle of staying home and not working out because he was embarrassed by his weight, and while alone at home, would eat more, leading to more weight gain and less chance for exercise (not to mention his weight itself inhibited working out due to the physical pain and discomfort). As his weight increased, Steve had trouble with tasks many of us take for granted—sitting down and standing up, getting into cars, finding a chair or booth at a restaurant that could accommodate him, picking up things off the floor, or even walking up a short flight of stairs or down a long hall. Then, three years ago, just before Christmas, Steve went to his doctor for what he thought was chronic bronchitis. The doctor was concerned about possible pneumonia, so he admitted Steve to the hospital for observation and testing. While in the hospital and awaiting test results, Steve unexpectedly died from a heart condition known as cor pulmonale. He was only 38 at the time. His weight was well north of 400 pounds.

Steve’s death has really reinforced for me the need to do what I can to maintain a healthy weight. The past few months, the winter weather has kept me from running my usual amount, and I’ve packed on 10 or so extra pounds, creeping over the 200 pound mark for the first time in years. Now, at age 40, I’m probably never going to be back to my prime “fighting weight” of 185 like I was in my 20s to mid-30s. But I need to make an effort to do what I can to control my weight. So, even though I do not give up anything for Lent (other than church), Fat Tuesday makes a good point to start a healthy weight loss program. Starting tomorrow, I will get back to running five to seven miles a day at least five days a week, even if I have to join a gym to do so. I will also cut out alcohol until I get back to 195 pounds; that is the easiest way to cut empty calories (not to mention on days when I work out, I seem to drink a lot less alcohol). Hopefully I will be back under 200 pounds before IMOP in early March.

I’m fortunate that I have the genetic base to stay in a healthy weight zone if I make the effort. But for many overweight people, such as my brother, there are not a lot of plays for the genetic hand they were dealt. I'm not saying that overweight people should be excused from giving their best effort to be as healthy as they can.  Neither am I saying that people should never tell a fat joke, or that airlines or other businesses shouldn’t take weight into account for legitimate purposes, but they should try to do so with some measure of sensitivity and compassion. To perhaps create a cliché, fat people are people, too.

* Post-9/11, I would probably add bias against Muslims and/or people of Middle Eastern descent to the list of “socially acceptable prejudices” in mainstream America.


  1. "I definitely missed the Powerball in the looks department."

    This is what makes it so hard to understand poker dealers always mistaking us for father and son.

  2. I'm terribly sorry to hear about your brother.

    Best of luck in the lose the weight / stay healthier goal!

    I hope to see a sleeker Grange95 when IMOP rolls around :-)

  3. @Rakewell: I think dealers mistakenly compare you playing the deuce-four with me playing ... well, any two cards under 7.

    @BWoP: "I hope to see a sleeker Grange95"?!?!

    Are you calling me fat? Excuse me while I cry on my crubs. :-(

  4. Gotta say I disagree with your general thesis. Yes some people are just big. But for every Ndamukong Suh out there(especially in the US) there are 50 people who are overweight or obese because they are too sedentary and/or have terrible diets.

    I also have the fat gene. Of all my blood relatives I have one that wouldn't be classifed as overweight or obese (don't know where that cousin came from). All of us are fatties "by choice." For me it is September-January where I have a few beers/wings and watch football Thursday-Monday night. Then I spend January through August working on losing the impressive beer gut, just to do it all over again in September. This is my choice.

    Quick example of one reason why the US has an obesity epidemic: Planet Fitness. This is a supposed "fitness" club that has a brilliantly successful business model of bringing in members by giving them free pizza and then actively reinforcing that they don't need to work out very hard. You can't make this stuff up.

    Kevin Smith was pissed because he wasn't "too fat" by SW Airline's own standards, he could fit between the armrests. I think even he would admit that what fat he has he has "by choice."

  5. @Jugweed: I don't disgree at all that, for many overweight people, there is a strong element of lifestyle choices related to diet and exercise that contribute to their weight problem. But data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control show substantially higher obesity rates among black and hispanic individuals, and also show a striking geographic correlation to the poorest counties in the nation. So, genetics certainly plays a role in obesity. So do economic factors--it's easier to eat healthier and exercise more if you have more money. So do social/cultural factors related to standard dietary habits in a particular region or group.

    It's one thing if someone has a healthy lifestyle well into their 20s, then simply "lets themself go" and chooses to give up or place less emphasis on exercise and a healthy diet. Those folks have the genetic and socioeconomic background that permits "choice" or "willpower" to be a significant factor in their weight. But for many obese folks, they often come from a background where they may never have been a healthy weight, and their genetics and socioeconomic background make it quite difficult for them to merely "choose" to lose weight. For a lot of these folks, their lifestyle habits are set in childhood or adolesence, and their circumstances make it difficult to break out of that lifestyle. It's certainly a little more difficult than merely waking up and saying, "Ya know, today I'll go with a small salad, and hit the gym for an hour on the eilliptical."

    Now, even overweight or obese folks who have the deck stacked against them certainly have the ability to choose to live as healthy a lifestyle as is possible for them, even if they can't be as thin as their doctor might like. I suspect many do not make the best choices in this regard. Guess what? Many average-weight people make the same bad lifestyle choices, but they don't pay the same price because of their different background. For me, I think it's a little hypocritical on my part if I indulge in cheesecake, a Coldstone Creamery sundae, a couple dozen chicken wings, or an all-the-meats pizza, then look over at an overweight person enjoying the same food and sneer at them for their eating habits.

  6. You don't have any crubs to cry on because you don't have a whistle!

    (Remember, I like Teno and Barneys.)

  7. The degree to which a trait is fair game to make jokes or tease somebody about is directly linked to the amount of control the person has over the trait (the amount of "fault" that can be attributed to the individual for having the trait, if you will). For example, race or mental/physical handicaps = no control for the individual = not cool to crack jokes about and rightfully offensive. On the other hand, a dude wearing an Ed Hardy t-shirt with glitter on it = easy to take off = fair game for jokes. Mulletts = easy to cut your hair, ect.

    We can agree to disagree on the amount of fault that should be assinged to the individual for being obese. My opinion is every adult human has complete control over what he or she puts into his or her body. Therefore fat jokes are fair game. Sure genetics and socioeconomic factors make it more difficult for some to stay on the side of just overweight and not laughably obese (I'm one of those people), but not everything in life is supposed to be easy.

  8. Um, I kinda love your blog...how do you do it?! I want a fancy blog like this too. *Holds breath while waiting for Grange to be all, hey, give me your password, I'll fix up your blog all fancy.*

    -Dawn "turning blue" Summers

  9. @"Anonymous" posing as "Dawn Summers":

    I'm a web design newbie. You should ask F-Train for his help. Those almost-gays are awesome with interior web design.

  10. Interesting thread. I fall somewhere between Grange and Jugweed. I am more inclined to buy into the socio economic argument than the genetic argument. Yes, some may have more strikes against them from a genetic standpoint, but that should not be an excused used by as many obese people as it is.

    It's ironic to me that the very thing that makes our country great (capitalism) is the same thing that makes us the fattest nation on Earth. Fast food chains, "crap" food manufacturers (think twinkies, children's cereals, candy, etc) and the soft drink industry understand that the easiest sale of their great tasting poison are to those who can only afford it as their total means of sustanence. Conversely, those who can afford to eat a decent "sit down" meal are often served monstrous portions to be rewarded for forking over $15-$20 for an entre.

    One of things I was most amazed at a few years ago during my first trip to Europe was that you RARELY saw obese people there. The other thing was that their portion sizes were smaller. It is a social thing in those countries (moreso than in the States) that being overweight has a very negative social connotation that everyone works to avoid (except seemingly the ones who vacation in the Carribbean, usually in speedos, but I digress...)

    It also becomes a question of parenting and education. Mrs. Claus is a dietician who volunteers daily at our kids' school. It is nothing short of amazing what people pack for their kids to eat at lunch. Not surprisingly, those kids are not exactly healthy, and many are already overweight in elementary school. So, it's true in a twisted way, that these kids are overweight because of their parents - but it has less to do with genetics than it does with awful parental decisions.

    As a last point, Mrs. Claus would absolutely agree with Grange's assertion that mental make up plays a great deal into our nation's weight problem. When people ask her what they can do to lose weight, it's not uncommon to hear her say - you should talk to someone about your personal issues first, then worry about overhauling your diet later.

    Interesting thread.

  11. @Santa Claus Your points about advertising to kids and the role of parenting are important. If kids hit their teens already overweight with poor dietary habits ingrained, imagine how much more difficult it will be to ever overcome that weight problem.

    Your point about portion size is also important. At a lot of restaurants, we've become ingrained to quantity as a measure of value. For example, Cheesecake Factory entrees are usually enough for two if not three meals. Yet I would prefer half the food for a couple of bucks less.