For as long as I can remember, for as long as I have existed on this earth—with the possible exception of infancy—I have struggled with my weight. Sometimes it’s been a miniature struggle, a war waged against cafeteria food or bodega breakfast sandwiches, and sometimes it’s been a knock-down-drag-out Battle Royale, a prolonged conflict of interest between me and meals, me and gyms, me and clothes, me and the third dimension.
Throughout my life, I have always felt that there’s a misconception about fat people—and I will, for the purposes of this post, be including myself among fat people—which is that they are most directly unhappy with being fat. While there’s certainly truth in that, you’d be impressed (you thin people) with the mental gymnastics one can engage in to convince oneself that one is not in fact fat, that one is merely temporarily chubby, irreparably big-boned, retaining water, or the victim of a sizing fraud conspiracy perpetuated by the Gap. No, the reality is that fat people are second-most directly unhappy with being fat, and first-most unhappy with being emotionally over-invested in something so innocuous and apparently selectively predatory as food.
Let me take you into my brain for a moment (don’t worry, it’s spacious). Say we’re at dinner, an Italian place. As we catch up on one another’s lives, I’m looking you in the eyes and smiling, but my mind is a million miles away. My mind—since this morning, most likely—is whirring on a hamster wheel of culinary anxiety, which goes a little something like this:
Bread bread bread bread. I shouldn’t eat the bread. I won’t eat the bread. They didn’t even put out olive oil, so it’s probably not worth eating anyway, all dry and ..thick and…covered in cheese bits. Okay, maybe one slice of bread. That’s fine, just one …but what if I don’t have dessert? Okay, two slices of bread …two and a half. It’s fine, I’ll just get grilled chicken for dinner….or at least something that has the ingredient “grilled chicken.” I wonder if they have gnocchi? Fuck, they have gnocchi. I won’t get it. It’s not like I’ve never had gnocchi before. …but this is ricotta gnocchi. It’s probably amazing. It would be stupid to go out to dinner and not order the thing most likely to be amazing, right? So stupid. But no, I shouldn’t. I’ll get the chicken. Rosemary chicken, that sounds nice. Delicious AND healthy. Okay, it’s settled. Chicken.
And then the waiter comes and I blurt out “I’ll have the gnocchi,” and spend the rest of the night kicking myself down a rabbit hole of second helpings and two, no three, scoops of gelato.
More than any other aspect of being overweight—more than bathing-suit shopping, online dating or watching someone mentally size up the open space next to you on a subway seat—this internal monologue is the worst. It pervades otherwise happy social situations—birthday parties, work events, holiday dinners and again, dates—and undermines whatever sense of self-control you might have mustered for the preceding meal. It creates a running stream of anxiety, a thrice-daily obligation to make the one decision you’re most terrible at making, and worst of all (worst of the worst) it’s the part of being overweight that many people—people who don’t get heart palpitations at the sight of a cookie plate—don’t really entirely understand.
Which isn’t to say that thin people don’t covet delicious parmesan-flaked restaurant bread, or that they shouldn’t be commended for the series of healthy choices that they so clearly make on the regular. I just can’t help but believe that if everyone were devoting as much energy, anxiety and mental exertion to the routine question of “what should I eat?,” more than 35% of us would be obese. Way more.
In any case, given my background in pudge, I was delighted to discover that Frank Bruni—a New York Times columnist whose work I have long admired—had written a memoir about this very subject. Like me, Bruni grew up eating more than his share (though he was at least indulging in home cooking, versus the sugary snacks and soda to which I was always drawn). Like me, he continued his battle with food into adulthood. Like me, he had had a period of unusual fitness—I once, a now-distant seven years ago, managed to lose a lot of weight—and a period of unusual fatness. And like me, he clearly has a case of Fat Brain (a clinical term I just made up).
Born Round is a memoir in the sense that Bruni documents his life: He covers his early schooling, his college years and his career. He talks a lot about his relationship with his family, and coming out as gay, and growing as a reporter. But these things are in many ways just a backdrop to Bruni’s other trajectory: from chubby to slim to chubby to fat to average to slim again. Because when you struggle with your weight the way Bruni does, the way so many people do, there is no portion of your life whose contents are not qualified by exactly how fat you were at the time, by which jeans you fit into, by how obvious your love handles were in photographs.
The reasons I loved Born Round are personal. When you have Fat Brain, it is inexplicably rewarding to find someone else who does too, someone who stresses about restaurant meals days in advance and is powerless over creatively prepared macaroni and cheese. Someone who gets social anxiety about being covertly described as “the fat one,” but still accidentally munches through entire packages of Milanos. Someone who is convinced that their life would be so much more eventful and rewarding and happy if they could just be thin. Shit, if they could just be less fat.
Fat Brain is why Weight Watchers meetings work. Because for Fat Brain, there’s something comforting about being in a room full of other people who get agita over office birthday parties (the cake) and go into full-blown panic mode come Girl Scout cookie season. There’s something about a Weight Watchers meeting that makes a Fat Brain realize “Shit, maybe I’m not crazy. Or if I am, at least there’s a club.”
Fat Brain is also, health advocates of the world, why you annoy us. We know that candy is bad and vegetables are good, and we know that Doritos are at least 40% chemical cheese dust. We like cheese dust. We lick cheese dust off our fingers while we read New York Times articles about how food companies are pushing increasingly addictive products on willfully ignorant and often low-income consumers. And even though we know it’s wrong, all of it — food deserts, targeted marketing, the proliferation of ingredients with the letter “x” — we also know that we play a role, a significant role, in the expansion of our own physical mass. To crack open the Pandora’s Box of obesity blame would require facing that reality head-on, and that’s not something we’re comfortable doing at the behest of anyone who doesn’t have Fat Brain. There’s a reason AA meetings are led by alcoholics.
An occasionally chubby gay man with perpetual anxiety and a weakness for cold sesame noodles, Frank Bruni is my spirit animal. Born Round isn’t the most compelling memoir, but it’s a completely accurate portrayal of Fat Brain, and the exhausting emotional toll of never going more than an hour without thinking about your weight. If you’re a fellow fatty (or former fatty) this book feels like a smile-slash-sigh-of-relief.
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