Living Large: Introduction from the Book

MY NAME IS MIKE BERMAN. I'm 66 years old, five feet nine inches tall, and I weigh 247 pounds. Today, that is. Over the course of my adult life, I've weighed as much as 332 and as little as 217. I've spent years commuting between 230 and 280; I've crossed the 300-pound threshold four or five times. I would reckon, conservatively, that when all my ups and downs are figured in, I have gained and lost well over a thousand pounds—more than three times my total weight, even at my heaviest.

In short, I am a fat man. But I am also a happy man. Yes, those two things can go together—though it took me a lot of years, a lot of pain, and a lot of psychotherapy to realize that.

Along the way I realized something else as well: that my best chance for peace of mind and also for controlling my weight lay in accepting my situation. I don't mean giving up on the hope of being thinner; I have always tried to lose more weight, and I always will. I mean being honest and realistic about what I'm up against. I've accepted the hard but liberating notion that I have a disease. My fatness is not a function of "will-power" or "discipline" or "laziness" or "weakness." It's the result of physical and psychological factors that are outside of my control. Like diabetes or flatfeet, my fatness is a chronic malady that can't be cured but can be managed.

Let me make it clear that having a disease is no excuse to shirk responsibility. I have a problem, but I am not helpless. I don't see myself as a victim. I refuse to be passive or self-pitying when it comes to my well-being. Every life has its difficulties, and being fat is one of mine. That's just how it is. Still, I have a choice—a choice made far tougher and more complicated by my disease, but a choice nonetheless—as to whether or not I eat that piece of chocolate, whether or not I keep my appointment with the treadmill.

But responsibility is one thing; guilt is something else. Responsibility is positive, a duty we owe to ourselves, a matter of self-respect. Guilt is destructive. Guilt breeds desperation—and desperation makes it even harder to make good decisions.

In recent years—after more than six decades of living as a fat person—I have finally learned to stop feeling guilty and desperate about my weight. Again, this doesn't mean I am thrilled to be fat or that I've stopped working at becoming thinner. But I have largely moved beyond the torment. The pressure is off. I don't have to lose weight; I'm okay the way I am.

Needless to say, this acceptance has made me a much happier and less frustrated person. But it has had another, completely unexpected bonus as well. I have found that since I don't have to lose weight, I can lose weight—and keep it off more successfully than ever before. These days I hardly ever binge, and if I do overindulge, it's likely to be with healthy foods. I seem finally to have tamed the wild fluctuations of weight that have plagued me all my life. I am in control of my fatness, rather than being controlled by it—and I am proud of this. To me, at least, it feels like a victory.

This book is the story of the gradual, often agonizing, and un-steady progress by which I have learned to manage my weight effectively and to live a full and satisfying life in spite of having the fat disease. I am not writing as an "expert"; I am not a doctor, a scientist, or a therapist, and I have no ambition to set up shop as a diet guru. I claim no credentials other than the life that I have lived.

As a fat boy I was assaulted with taunts and name-calling. As an adolescent I endured the loneliness of living at the social margin, and as a young man I learned the anguish of the blind date, that awful moment when the woman you are meeting quite literally sizes you up and decides, before you've said a word, that you are not the man of her dreams. Even in my professional life, I have felt the need to work harder, prepare more thoroughly—to be better—in order to neutralize the antifat bias of others.

I've been on probably 20 different diets—Weight Watchers, Stillman, Pritikin, Scarsdale, Atkins, South Beach, you name it—in several cases more than once. On three occasions I've entered residential weight-loss programs. I've been hospitalized to go on fasts that permitted only water, vitamins, and minerals; starved for 10 days, I have had the bizarre experience of hallucinating giant cheeseburgers.

In past decades I have had a closetful of clothes with waist sizes ranging from 44 to 58; I hated to throw any of them away, because I never knew when I might be that size again. All in all, I know what it is to live life as a fat person.

I know, as well, how difficult it is to get straightforward, trustworthy advice about the realities of managing fatness. Oh, there's plenty of information out there. Too much information, most of it written by people who are not fat themselves, who don't know how life feels inside the body of a fat person, and who are trying to make money from our desperate desire to be thin. Much of the "information" from these sources turns out to consist of false promises, phony hope, half-truths, and dubious claims that are then disclaimed by the tiny print at the bottom of the label. An ever-expanding weight-loss industry tries to sell us this diet or that pill or some brand-new miracle supplement. But isn't it obvious that if the pills and diets really worked, if the quick fixes delivered what they promised, the weight-loss business would be shrinking, not growing?

If you are reading these pages, chances are that you, like me, are afflicted with the fat disease—or you care about a fat person who is important in your life as spouse, partner, friend, or colleague. I believe this book will help you, that my story will ring true for you. People are more alike than different, and my hunch is that many fat people have felt what I have felt—have experienced the shame, frustration, and disappointments I have known—and can learn to more effectively manage both their weight and their feelings, as I have.

If, like mine, your relationship with food is a charged one—if you look to food not only for nourishment and pleasure but for solace and reward; if you sneak food or lie to yourself or others about your eating; if your weight tends to yo-yo, whether the range is 20 pounds or a hundred; if you've felt mystified and defeated by your inability to keep off weight that you've worked so hard to lose—then chances are your situation, like mine, is a chronic one. You have a condition without a once-and-final cure.

That may seem like a pessimistic statement, but in fact it's just the opposite. Chronic diseases are the ones that don't destroy you! They can be understood, and tamed, and kept under control. But the work of management must be ongoing and must come from within. There are answers, but you won't find them in some trendy diet book. There are techniques that work, but they go way beyond the latest fitness regimen or diet supplement or pill. You can be thinner—but if you want to stay thinner, a single dramatic episode of weight loss probably won't take you where you want to go; you need a long-term strategy that addresses not just what you eat but who you are.

I have labored for many years to evolve a strategy that works for me. I hope this book will provide help and comfort and reassurance as you move toward a strategy of acceptance and management that will work for you.

I STARTED MAKING jottings for this volume way back in 1997. When I was ready to write a proposal, I showed some pages to a trusted friend familiar with the realities of publishing. Although he was intrigued by the material, he urged me not to go public with my story, for fear that it would compromise my dignity. His opinion, motivated by kindness and caring, gave me pause. But on reflection I found that I could not agree.

It is not undignified to be fat. It is not undignified to tell the truth—to admit one's failings and acknowledge one's pain. It's the things we don't talk about that haunt us.

That being so, I have been struck—and bothered—that, for all the torrent of talk and writing about obesity in our society, relatively little discussion has been carried forward by fat people themselves, especially fat men. Why? Is there some perverse taboo dictating that thin people can talk about fat, can preach and scold, but fat people must keep quiet? I can only assume that most fat men have been silent because of embarrassment, shyness, or shame; or maybe weight is just one of those things that men don't talk about. I would be gratified if I could help to change that.

Other friends of mine, people who know me very well, had reactions to this manuscript that really flabbergasted me. Even my wife, Carol, seemed genuinely surprised at how much distress my story conveyed. What people said, in essence, was, "Mike, we hardly recognize the person in this book. This is sad. This is tormented. This is not you!"

Well, it is me ... or one side of me, at least. Like many fat people, I have lived a kind of double life. Viewed from the outside, I am reasonably cheerful, sociable, effective; viewed from within, I have been prey to anguish and frustrations that I generally kept hidden even from my friends. In this book I hope to bring those dark places out into the daylight, both as a catharsis for myself and, I hope, a validation for others who have felt those bleak emotions and been hesitant to share them.

But I don't want to overplay the dark side of my story because the truth is that, fat or no fat, I am basically a happy person. I don't mean happy with the false gaiety of the "jolly fat man," and I certainly don't mean happy all the time. The things that bother most people—rudeness, job stress, traffic jams—bother me too. But all in all I have been blessed with a wonderful life. I've been married to a terrific and accomplished woman for more than 40 years. I've met with success in a career I find extremely gratifying. I have a circle of great friends whom I cherish. I have discovered—somewhat to my own surprise—that fatness does not rule out confidence or romance, nor is it an excuse for holding back from the richness and variety of experience.

Over the decades, I have worked my way toward a simple but, I believe, important understanding that is at the heart of everything I have to say:

It is not the goal of life to be thin. It is the goal of life to be happy.

But again, those two goals are not in conflict. They both become more attainable as you stop beating yourself up for being fat and accept your fatness as a condition to be managed, a challenge to be faced.

Not that acceptance comes easily or magically does away with the difficulties of being seriously overweight. I struggle every single day to control my eating. I'm still a fat person; I'm still preoccupied with being fat. And this would be so even if, by some miracle, I awoke tomorrow morning and weighed 170. It's not about the numbers; it's about who I am.

I still count calories—in fact, I enter my caloric intake in a notebook every day, along with the number of minutes I exercise. I'm resigned to the fact that my preoccupation—some might say compulsiveness—will never go away. Just as a recovering alcoholic is still an alcoholic, a fat person with some hard-won insight is still a fat person.

What I've gained by accepting my fatness, however, is this: When I get on the scale, I understand that I'm weighing only my body—not my self-worth, not the value of my life. I've learned that the scale is only a mechanical device, not an altar for the sacrifice of my self-respect or my contentment.

Would I rather be a thin person? You know, until quite recently I would have regarded that question as a real no-brainer. Of course I'd rather be thinner! Wouldn't everybody?

Now I see the question as being far more complicated. Look, being fat is not for wimps. It makes life harder, in ways both trivial and serious. My heart has extra work to do with every beat. I'm not as mobile as I'd like to be. My knees and ankles often hurt. I'm uncomfortable in airplane seats and at the theater. I sometimes see unease and disapproval in the eyes of strangers.

At the same time, being fat has made me who I am. Having a shape that our society labels unattractive has forced me to emphasize other resources—concentration, competence, humor. Having a fat person's sensitivity to slights and biases has, I believe, made me more aware of the feelings of others and equipped me, I hope, to be a caring friend and a responsive husband. The everyday stresses, both physical and social, of living life as a fat person have given me a kind of strength that comes only from quiet struggle.

Being fat, then, like nearly everything else in life, is what you make of it.