Illustration by Jason Schneider
The air is charged with expectation and estrogen, hope and aspartame. Fluorescent lights illuminate a church basement buzzing with superficial sociality conducted in loose-fitting clothing. I, the only man among dozens of mostly plus-sized females, am not participating in the banter. I can’t. My brain is distracted by, locked on, fully occupied with…The Scale. Which looms. Dead ahead. Eight feet away. Very soon, after the four people in line in front of me have each had their own private turn on it, I’ll step forward, and a young woman behind a table will bid me to get on The Scale. I’ll slip off my shoes, swallow hard, and comply.
At that precise moment, before being informed of my current weight, before being handed my paperwork and materials, before the weekly meeting gets under way, before any money changes hands, I am, once again, in Weight Watchers. Once again, I am officially and in the eyes of a slender God, overweight. Recommitted to working toward a less massive me. Re-volunteering to deny myself one of the purest, surest pleasures of daily existence—indulgent, profligate consumption of America’s vast reserves of fatty, sugary comforts—all for slightly improved odds of beating my genetically programmed lifespan and tacking on a few extra years of continued gastronomic denial. Improbably, I’ll pay Weight Watchers 14 bucks a week for that privilege.
This is the sixth time in my adult life that I’ve joined a weight loss program (mostly Weight Watchers). Or possibly my seventh. Unless it’s my tenth. Whatever. I’ve done it often enough to lose count as well as be intimately aware of what to expect in the coming months: hunger, self-pity, and an altered brain chemistry that makes even the food in Olive Garden commercials look appetizing.
I’ve arrived at this church basement, this weekly Weight Watchers meeting, after a long internal debate titled: “Resolved: Why Bother?” And by that I mean, what’s the point in maintaining a non-rotund shape in an increasingly rotund world? Is there purpose in resisting one’s most fundamental tendencies? Does fitting into my current jeans matter if I can easily afford a new and bigger pair? Obviously, my attendance indicates the potentially leaner me defeated the currently bulkier me in this debate. Probably because the bulkier me was too lethargic to do his research.
And tonight, at The Scale, the news is not good. To reach my target weight I’ll need to lose 31 pounds. An unwelcome figure, to be sure, but it’s not unsurprising. As a rule, I don’t become motivated to slim down until my “fighting weight” of 180 climbs to 205 or 210. Meaning, yes, I’ve lost the same 25 to 35 pounds between 6 and 10 times. Regardless of that pattern, I’d argue I’m not a yo-yo dieter but rather a pendulum deadly sinner, with my enthusiasm oscillating between the transgressions of gluttony and vanity (or for sticklers, pride).
Where I reached my decision is burned into my brain: On the down escalator between the second and ground floors in the Pogue’s that used to be at Fifth and Race.
Other details: I made the decision at age 17. In one sweaty paw I held an envelope. Inside it were proofs for my senior picture, one of which would appear in my final high school yearbook. I’d seen the pictures for the first and only time just minutes before, when I picked them up from the photography studio that operated on one of the department store’s upper floors. From the instant those images traveled down my optic nerve to take shape in my occipital lobe, I’d been flushed, hot, unsettled, my mind full. Not racing, not crowded with thoughts, but full all the same, unable to process or dislodge a single thought:
I’m fat. I’m FAT. I’M FAT.
This simply couldn’t be. Moreover, it had never been. Oh, sure, I’d always been a big kid or, in the vernacular of the day, husky. But that was OK. Husky worked for me. It signified to others I might be able to hit for power or break tackles or shouldn’t be messed with. None of which was true, I hasten to add, but growing up isn’t about truth or objective reality, it’s about inclusion and not having any mockable physical attributes. Now, it would appear, my advantageous huskiness had been buried alive under multiple heaping helpings of the fatty, greasy, starchy foods1 I loved and that my mother loved to cook.
Taking the Pogue’s escalator down, down, it became urgent that I look again. Surely, I’d misjudged my mug, overreacted. The me that had looked back at me had merely been unexpected: the formality of the photo, the incongruity of the slovenly youth in coat and tie, the odd three-quarter profile pose, the sepia tone intended to add gravitas to an innocuous suburban peach-fuzzed face. I knew what I looked like—saw myself every morning in the mirror when I combed my hair and faked, for my parents’ benefit, brushing my teeth. So in order to reassess, to confirm the memory I had of myself and stanch the flow of my gushing, anguished armpits, I slid the photographs out of the envelope for a second time.
I shuffled through the five proofs, tallied the five votes, arrived at the unanimous verdict: Fat. Unequivocally fat. Terrible fat. Ugly fat.
Worse came the awful realization: That. IS. Me.
It was then, as I slid the pictures out of sight and the escalator delivered me back down to earth, that I made the only decision a fat, panicky, newly despondent teenager could make in this situation: From this moment forward, I would prohibit and prevent anyone from ever taking my picture again. How else to ensure I’d never have to face my fat face again?
Some join Weight Watchers for the meetings.2 Some join for the vast store of helpful, healthy, low-fat foods and weight-loss accessories available for purchase.3 Others come to share their failures and successes.4 I come for the Tyranny of The (aforementioned) Scale.
The Tyranny of The Scale is the weekly pre-meeting ritual of being weighed in a public venue by a virtual stranger—not unlike prize livestock at a county fair, though they have the advantage of being slaughtered soon afterward. This is where members and The Scale operator learn of pounds dropped and pounds gained, where accountability gets real.
For some reason (Dr. Freud, paging Dr. Freud…) I can’t bear the thought of “failing” in the eyes of this nameless person who, I admit, always remains pokerfaced regardless of whether she’s quietly informing someone of a catastrophic gain, a monumental loss, or an adjective resistant “no change.” To avoid such (illusory, perceived) humiliating shame, I’m highly motivated to dine responsibly during and between the 21 meals until the next weigh-in. This crippling yet blessed neurosis is how I’m able to take off my 25 to 35 pounds every time. Because once I make the commitment, I’m dispositionally incapable of cheating or falling off the wagon one crazy weekend or succumbing to subtle dangers (like licking spoons or taking a free cookie at the supermarket or adding bleu cheese crumbles to my morning tomato juice).
Thank you, Tyranny of The Scale. Without your tough, spring-loaded love, I would still be viewing the world through the cellophane lens of an upturned and empty Cheetos bag.
I wasn’t exactly what employers in a tight job market were looking for: a young, inexperienced, long-haired, fat college dropout with a smart mouth and no ambition. It is, in fact, entirely possible that lesser primates and higher mammals were being offered employment before me. But somehow, after months of filling out applications, I, Bob, Equal of the Apes, finally landed a decent gig: grocery store stock clerk. The pay was good and, if I could prove myself in the 30-day probation period, it’d get better because then I’d be able to join the union. There was one hitch: the job was third shift. Clock in after the store closed at 10 p.m., clock out at 7 a.m., an hour before it reopened.
Things started poorly, due in part to my total inexperience. Also, to my general ineptitude at following instructions and physical tasks (my only real skills at the time were blowing smoke rings and saving room for seconds). Mostly, though, my job performance sucked as a result of overthinking and fear of making mistakes, the same things that have been impediments to every job I’ve ever done, up to and including this column. All of this made me far less productive than my coworkers with the added bonus of lower quality results.
Things got worse. Because of the overnight hours, the upside-downing of my life and schedule quickly got to me. It wore me out and down. By the start of Week Two, I was all but sleepwalking after 1 a.m. And as my father, a lifetime management apologist, would happily tell you, sleepwalking on the job is only acceptable after one gets in the union.
I was, at the time, a member of the Church of the Pharmaceutical Solution to All Life’s Problems, Frustrations, and Random Unmellow Moments (since shut down as a “lethal folly”) and, as such, I had access to an excess of swallowable sacraments, in both tablet and capsule forms. As a means of overcoming my fatigue, I turned to amphetamines—speed, crank, uppers, mothers’ and Major League Baseball players’ little helpers. Specifically, some tiny, Cheerios-hole-sized pills known as white crosses.
Don’t tell the DEA, but the results were spectacular. Not only was my fatigue erased, my energy and productivity rocketed; my psychological impediments were banished by a brain too busy to think. On speed I was all work, all the time, blazing through tasks big and small, taking on additional duties. And because my tongue was now unable to resist wagging, I was more outgoing, which facilitated my acceptance with the rest of the crew.
Thankfully, despite its job-preserving powers, I was unable to maintain this chemical lifestyle for very long. Or at least not long enough to kill me. But in the time I did, I found myself 40 pounds lighter. From a high of 250-plus down to 210. Best of all, I lost it without trying, without feeling deprived or having a goal in mind. Weight loss without effort or dieting: It’s the American way (emeritus).5
All the success I’ve had in losing weight with Weight Watchers over the past decades proves one thing: I’ve missed the point. Or rather, disregarded and flaunted the point.
It’s true. Because what the program emphasizes and what I’ve so far refused to accept—to internalize—is that I may join to lose weight but Weight Watchers is not a diet. It’s a new path, a new lifestyle, a wholesale rejiggering of one’s relationship to food. That I’ve not embraced and adopted this philosophy is, I can assure you, no small error. It’s akin to joining AA to stop drinking for the weekend. (Which, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve also done. Twice.)
If I were to take the program’s recommended longer view, I’d continue to attend meetings, or at least submit to The Tyranny of The Scale, free and on a monthly basis after attaining my target weight. This would force me to stay focused on maintaining good eating habits, keep me on the straight and narrow, and alert me to when I’d gained a manageable 1 or 3 or 6 pounds instead of waiting until I’ve packed on the daunting equivalent of an adult Welsh Corgi. As I’ve heard many times, keeping the weight off is easier than having to take it off again. To which I can only say: Define “easy.”
I have to admit, though, this time I find myself far more receptive to the “new relationship with food” approach. Possibly because it’s now clear I can take it off, and with the challenge of the accomplishment removed I’m bored with doing it. So, who knows, maybe I’ll hit 180 and stay there this time—in essence, let vanity win permanently. I pray there’s pizza and ice cream at the victory party.
1 Those were three of the five food groups in my
German heritage household; the other two, which I made every effort to avoid, were gristly and ghastly.
2 To me, a Weight Watchers meeting can best be compared to only one thing: every other meeting you’ve ever been in, i.e., an authority figure with one minute of marginally meaningful information buried in a heaping 30 minute pile, periodically interrupted by people with irrelevant questions or overly specific, unlikely scenarios meant to circumvent or negate the information nugget. Of course, my comments should be taken with a grain of salt substitute since, I confess, I am a) an introvert venturing out among what science labels “humanity”; b) a man who’s been in far, far too many meetings; c) starving like a member of the Donner Party waiting for little Timmy to cook through.
3 For those who have not yet done a hajj to Weight Watchers (e.g., the perpetually slender, the underwrought overwaisted, the housebound obese) be forewarned: the up- and cross-selling is constant, ranging from snack bars the size of foreign postage stamps to high-tech whizbangery designed to help you take off digital, not analog, pounds. CAUTION: You gain nothing by replacing an eating problem with a shopping problem.
4 Pro Tip: Sharing does not burn calories.
5 Noted without comment: Unlike subsequent, more responsible, non-prosecutable reduction plans, the 40 pounds melted away by amphetamines have never returned to plague me again.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue.