So I realise this is not the most original decision to make at the start of a year, but nevertheless, here it is: I am making a concerted effort to lose some weight.
Specifically, I want to lose 30 pounds by my 31st birthday in June. I thought I’d take a minute to write down my reasons for doing this and why I think after various failed attempts, this is really the right time to do this.
First, I really am very, very overweight. I’m not, I think, very fat – I don’t feel like an obese person, for example. I walk, and cycle, and function. I’ve never had trouble getting through a doorway, or into an aeroplane seat.
That’s a good thing, and I’m lucky. But it also helps me delude myself about the seriousness of my weight situation. When Marc Ambinder, the American journalist, finally decided to go in for gastric surgery last year, he weighed 234 pounds. He had been wearing an air mask at night for four years to counter obesity-induced sleep apnoea. He looked, frankly, disgusting.
I weigh 254 pounds.
I’m probably a bit taller than Ambinder, but nevertheless, that gives me a BMI of 35.6, putting me in the category of ‘Class II obesity.’ I could feasibly qualify for free gastric surgery on the NHS, as my weight is a threat to my health. I know I have high blood pressure; it seems entirely feasible that I have diabetes, though I’ve no evidence to suggest I have.
Besides Ambinder’s story, which I read in timely fashion a few days ago, the last few weeks and months have presented me with a thousand little natural shocks about the reality of my weight. My brother, who it turned out has also been thinking about both he and me going on some sort of fitness drive, suggested we both weigh in and his house last week. He’s overweight, and I’d always assumed he was around the same weight as me. It turns out he’s over three stone lighter.
Then there’s the terrifying fact that in the last year, I’ve begun to experience occasional symptoms of sleep apnoea. This, you probably know, is when the throat closes during sleep, forcing sufferers to wake up hundreds of time during the night in order to breathe. It’s like an advanced version of snoring, but deeply debilitating – and correlated, of course, with obesity.
I don’t think I’m suffering ‘properly’ from it – I don’t even snore particularly, as far as I know, thankfully – but I have, on several occasions in the last few months, woken up with a start in the night, unable, for a split second, to breathe. So the potential is clearly there. On a trip a few months ago with the choir I’m a member of, I shared a room with a heavily obese forty-something man who normally wears a ventilation mask to sleep at night. He hadn’t brought it, and his breathing while sleeping sounded like a backfiring truck. He made it clear, not in any spiteful way, that I’d know what it was like in a few years.
At the risk of sounding like some cheesy movie character: there is no fucking way that is happening to me.
Accentuating the positive
These are some of the negative, largely fear-driven reasons to try to lose weight now. But there are more positive reasons, too.
One strange quirk of all this is that I don’t think I’ve ever been less ashamed of my weight, in terms of my appearance, than I am now. For the most part, I think this is for an extremely silly reason, which is my decision a couple of months ago to have LASIK surgery. My feelings about being overweight have always been very complex – it was one of the factors, though not the main one, which made me feel something of an outcast at school and, along with my wearing glasses, has always made me feel a bit of an outsider. (Cliché upon cliché, I know; but the truth is, obesity is a condition affecting millions of people, and recognising the common threads of the experience of obesity is an important part of understanding its causes.) But though I felt a bit ashamed of my bespectacled, chubby appearance, I didn’t want to lose weight for that reason. As silly as it may sound, to lose weight in order to ‘fit in’ and feel attractive seemed, on some level, like betraying my fellow fat nerds.
For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I didn’t feel these qualms about leaving the ranks of the bespectacled through the eye surgery. I think it’s because no-one seriously sees glasses-wearers – at least, slim glasses-wearers – as social outcasts any more. (The fact that the operation involved slapping down £5000 and lying still for twenty minutes, rather than months of work, might have had something to do with it.)
But now that I’m glasses-free, the strange thing is I don’t feel nearly as much social discomfort about my weight. In my insecure head, I no longer seem, to the people I meet, like a nerd – so being fat doesn’t make me a fat nerd, just a fat guy. In the pantheon of cultural identities, think how much broader ‘fat guy’ is than ‘fat nerd’. John Belushi, Winston Churchill; darts players, city traders, boozy builders; the world is full of fat men with loving wives and happy lives without shame.
Separated from my social anxieties about my nerdiness – which seem to have been remedied an amazing amount by the simple act of going without glasses – my obesity becomes not something which makes me an outcast, but something I share with millions of people. It’s a problem to be solved, a problem of busy lives and sedentary jobs and cheap processed food, not one of my inadequacy as a human being, or deep, gnawing loneliness, or any of the other things I’ve previously told myself as explanations for my condition.
To put this another way, I used to look at slim people – not my friends, but generic, unknown slim people – and, at some level in the back of my head, see them as an alien race. They the school bully, me the bullied. They representing estate agents and Tesco and James Blunt and all that’s wrong in the world, and fat, speccy me representing Belle & Sebastian, endearing awkwardness and brains. This was plainly bollocks; but it was deep-seated bollocks, and it made it impossible for me to think of my weight as a matter of health and happiness, rather than identity.
Woah. This is getting a bit heavy, isn’t it? Fortunately, there also plenty of less dramatic, more mundane reasons to start now. I have time – as a freelancer, I can make time for a run in the morning which I never seemed able to when I had an office job to get to. What’s more, I have time to think about my health, to plan and cook proper meals, and to keep track of it all. At the same time, no longer doing my old job, which I frequently hated and almost always found boring, means one of the main triggers of binge-eating – I would go to the nearest shop once a day and buy incredible amounts of crap out of sheer miserable boredom – is gone. Although I have a lot of work to do in the next year or so to get my career where it needs to be, my day-to-day life right now is, essentially, a pleasant one. That obviously makes adding an extra level of activity – not just exercise, but eating well, which takes time – into my daily routine.
I’ve also found more reasons why it would feel better to be slim. I’ve been going out and dancing more, as the result of various changes in my social life. I find I really enjoy it, but find it exhausting. A couple of weeks ago I woke up after a party that involved a large amount of ‘twisting.’ I could barely walk; my legs had turned to jelly. It’d be nice to be able to dance and feel good about people seeing me do it, and not feel like I’ve run a marathon afterwards. What’s more, I now have three young nephews and neices, with another likely to come in the next couple of years. They’re toddlers now, and they’re beginning to run around and play football. I don’t want to be a bad influence on them, and I’m beginning to realise that if I want to be a good, fun uncle to them – not to mention a good father to any kids I eventually have – I need to get my ass up off the sofa and run around with them, not reluctantly, but enthusiastically.
Finally, I’m 30. That means my perspective has inevitably shifted towards the long-term. Rather than vaguely imagining a wonderful life for my 40-year-old self, with a great job, loving husband and a flat overlooking Central Park, I’m in the process now of trying to build it (and managing it down to something realistic). This inevitably means thinking in a serious way about my health; recognising that I’m now more than half the age my father was when obesity and drinking killed him; recognising that health-wise, my gene pool basically stinks, and if I want to reach 70, let alone 100, I need to err on the side of health wherever reasonably possible. And it means I can look back on 30 years of snacking, of sofa-living, of emotional eating, and say with experience and confidence it doesn’t make me happy.