I Weigh Over 500 Lbs: 5 Surprising Realities Of My Life
Society has long mocked fat people -- as if we don't all intrinsically understand that burritos are delicious and exercise is stupid. Truly, it's only there but for the grace of god and genetics, go we. To find out what it's actually like to live with morbid obesity, we talked to Rachel. At over 500 pounds, she's medically classified as (no joke) "super super obese," like she's some kind of bizarre superhero. We also talked to Dr. Arya Sharma and Dr. Stephanie Cassin, whose work has focused on the physical and psychological realities of severe obesity. They told us ...
You Don't Have to Eat That Much To Become Severely Obese
The empathy-challenged of the world seem to think they've got it all figured out when it comes to staying thin: "Just put down the bucket of chicken, fatty!" But it's not that easy, and we don't mean that in a "chicken tastes good, shut up" kind of way. It starts with genetics: Scientists have found over 140 different locations along the human genome that contribute to fat location and retention, so you can be screwed in at least that many ways right off the bat.
This little bastard has ruined more diets than pizza delivery.
That's only the beginning of your body's campaign of biological terrorism. Once that cozy layer of insulation succeeds in wrapping you up, your body will fight like hell to keep it there. According to Dr. Sharma, "It doesn't matter how you put on the weight; once you do, your physiology resets the way it works to defend the weight. And it pretty much does so permanently." He likens the process to setting a thermostat in a room. Once it's set for, say, 300 pounds, that's where your body will stay. Dieting is like opening a window -- you might catch a slight breeze, but the heater is gonna crank it up to compensate. This would be why, statistically, the success rate of every diet rounds down to zero.
It doesn't help that lots of diets range from stupid to life-threatening.
But you have to get there in the first place, and getting there involves Hoovering up every sandwich that has the misfortune of crossing your path, right? That's why the fat guy in the movie always has an obscenely enormous, greasy cheeseburger hanging out of his disgusting maw. But Rachel is scandalized by the diets of the fictional fat, too. "I remember this one lady [on TV], she ate like a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs for breakfast, and I was like, 'Holy mother, how does she eat that much?'" she says.
"While my diet isn't great, I don't eat anywhere near that much," Rachel continues. "Maybe 3,000, 4,000 [calories] tops." That might seem like a lot, but keep in mind that you can get that many calories in one restaurant meal if you're not careful. That's how it gets you: Not in entire cases from the deli counter, but a little bit too much every day. "Many people probably assume that by the time they get to 500 pounds, they must have a diagnosable eating disorder," Dr. Cassin says, "but it turns out that many are overeating a lot at every meal, grazing." Let's do the math: One pound of fat is 3,500 calories, or 500 calories a day. That's a few cans of Coke, or two cookies from Subway. That's all it takes to gain a pound a week, or more than 50 lbs. a year. Combine that with a sedentary lifestyle of sitting in front of a computer all day (which none of us do, right?), and after a few years, you've got yourself a problem.
There. There's what severe obesity in two years looks like.
Rachel admits that she sometimes eats too much: "If I go to Wendy's I'll get the double cheeseburger, large fries, and large Frosty," but as she points out, "that's not outside the norm of what a lot of people get." Don't try to tell us you haven't had a similar meal in the not-too-distant past. The difference is that your existing fat and your genetics aren't also punching you in the face every time you open your mouth. "People ask me 'How did you get that fat?' and it's like, it doesn't happen all at once," Rachel says. "It creeps up on you slowly, and then one day, you start having trouble walking."
But no matter how bitchin' you might turbo-charge that Rascal scooter, not being able to get around on your own is still kind of a bummer.
There Are A Lot Of Weird Psychological Mechanisms At Play
There's a reason the post-breakup woman in every movie is found clutching a pint of ice cream along with a wad of snotty tissues -- food will always love you, and you can come to rely on it as much as any vice. "For me, sugar has been like alcohol is for other people," Rachel says. "It really goes right to my pleasure center. Interestingly enough, I'm in the process of establishing a good pain management system, because I have a lot of pain issues, and when I'm on pain medication, I don't crave sugar as much. It's like it hits that dopamine center."
But make sure the doctor is giving you real pills, not sugar ones, or you're still stuck with the same mess to begin with.
When you've already got addiction issues -- as the two-pack-a-day-smoking, video-game-junkie Rachel clearly does -- it's one more obstacle to smash your metaphorical genitals into. Rachel started out as a relatively thin kid, but a traumatic experience in sixth grade led her to seek emotional relief from sweet lady pizza. "I would be upset, and then I would eat a pie or order a large pizza and eat that by myself," she says, although she adds that "I don't really do that anymore."
Rachel's case is an interesting one. Since her trauma involved sexual abuse, she struggles with a phenomenon doctors call "defensive weight." That's when survivors of sexual trauma subconsciously put on weight in an attempt to make themselves unattractive to potential abusers or to give themselves a kind of symbolic suit of armor. "You feel safe," Rachel says. "There have been times that I've lost weight, like maybe 50 lbs., and it gives you anxiety. I look at the scale and it makes you feel ... unprotected, I guess?"
For all the options eager to tell you how to lose weight, the why of how it got there tends to get lost in the shuffle.
There's one type of psychological warfare Rachel's weight can't protect her from, though: shaming, which a lot of people seem to think convinces others to un-fat themselves. Unfortunately, actively gouging a person's self-esteem generally drives them to self-medicate rather than jog. Attending Overeaters Anonymous meetings has pushed Rachel further into shame-based binge cycles. "My sponsor was Catholic, so I don't know if that was part of the problem, but she was like, 'You're not turning over to your higher power enough,'" she says. Weirdly, that's not the only time the Holy Trinity's been pushed at her as a fat-fighting measure. "This woman came up to me in a waiting room, and not only was she pushing weight loss, but she was also pushing Jesus, like God's diet plan. She said "You should only eat when Jesus tells you to, and then you'll never be overweight." Which is flat-out ignorant -- Jesus was clearly pro-carb.
You're Somebody's Shameful Fetish
Rachel admits that, "For a long time, I felt like my body had been de-gendered, but then I found out there was a huge SSBBW community." For the two of you who aren't well-versed in your Internet sex acronyms, that stands for "super-size big beautiful woman," a subset of the "big beautiful woman" community for larger ladies and the people who love them.
And lo, Rachel did find a virtual land of milk and eager dickings. "I think a big myth is that women like me aren't sexually active or attractive to anyone, but there are a lot of guys who like really big women," she says. "I have a profile on Adult Friend Finder, and I get bombarded with messages." It's not merely like attracting like, either: "Ninety-nine percent of the guys I've slept with are normal weight. I haven't had sex with many big guys, just because of the geometry of it."
All types are someone's hot.
Happily ever after, right? Not exactly. You see, most of the guys sending those messages aren't asking for dinner and a movie. Since society makes so many of them feel ashamed of their preference, "There are a lot of guys who like big women but they do it on the down-low," Rachel says. "They won't take you out to eat or to the movies, but they're more than happy to fuck you. It's almost like another sexuality; you have to be in the closet about it." It's almost the same problem conventionally attractive people have: You can't get anyone to look past the outside and love you for you. Getting sex is easy -- getting love is hard. "I end up feeling like a fetish more than a human being," Rachel laments. It turns out that women of all sizes get to be objectified. Lucky them.
There Are Almost Insurmountable Barriers to Getting Healthy
After losing her job and becoming poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, it's finally become financially feasible for Rachel to get the weight-loss surgery her doctors have been telling her to get for years. Whether or not it will be physically feasible, though, is another matter entirely. "My surgeon wants me to get more mobile for surgery, and he wanted me to do this physical therapy," she says. But even places that exist specifically to help people like Rachel can't handle her: "At hospitals, they have a valet service, where they'll park your car and then wheel you where you need to go. There was a gym attached to the hospital here, and I was asking for that kind of assistance -- that they could pick me up and wheel me to the pool so I could exercise, and then wheel me back. First they said it was okay, but I would have to pay for 15 minutes of personal training, which was fine. But then they called back and said I couldn't go at all. They said I was too fat to go to [the hospital's] gym."
The only thing that got dropped off was a load of bullshit.
And surgery really is the only way to improve her health -- clearly, spinning and South Beach went out the window a long time ago. But it's not a perfect solution. Aside from the discomfort of, you know, having someone slice you open and then trying not to shit your pants for the rest of your life, you might end up nearly back where you started. You can lose up to 80 percent of excess body weight in the first two years, depending on the method, but after 10 years, the average percent body weight lost for gastric bypass patients plummets to 25 percent. For someone who's 500 lbs., that brings them down to a lithe 400. Hot damn, break out the bikinis!
It's Really Tempting To Shut Down And Hide
Rachel has issues with mobility, but when she does get out and about, "[I feel like] I'm a monster, like I'm not even a human being. Some of it is the media portrayal -- like Fat Bastard from Austin Powers. Typically in the media, people like that are usually unsanitary, definitely not intelligent, and then on the news they show all those fat people but they cut off their heads, so it's like they're not even people, they're just these fat bodies."
"That's how you end up not getting out of bed," she says. "At one point in my life, I didn't understand it, like, 'When is that day? When did they stop trying?' And now I see it. You're in a lot of pain and you're depressed and you think, 'Well, I'll get up tomorrow.' And then you're just trapped. There's a condition where you lose your muscle tone, and then it's hard to do anything physically, and that's how it happens." In a way, it's almost for the best that none of those SSBBW guys sliding into her inbox could bring themselves to commit: "I think the only thing that stopped it from happening to me is that I'm single. If I had a spouse or somebody to wait on me, it absolutely would have happened."
Rachel feels she has to remain alone in this world, because otherwise, on her dark days she might give up on life completely and paralyze herself. But hey, by all means, start slinging them fat jokes, internet.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things Your Doctor Really Wants to Say to You (But Won't) and 5 Terrifying Things Nobody Tells You About Health Care.
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