As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. Like many first children of a household, I was born in a period of my parents’ life during which they were still establishing careers, house, etc. So contrary to my brother’s upbringing, much of my earlier years were heavily influenced by my mother’s parents. Besides having a natural sweet tooth, my grandmother grew up in abject poverty. When she immigrated to the States, she took great pleasure in discovering sugar in all of its American forms. Since sugar was a commodity of luxury in India that she had often been denied, her natural instinct was to shower me with all my heart’s content. Having a strong sweet tooth myself, yet little moderation, I was obese by the age of eight.
The peak of my heavy period was my senior year of high school. I spanned out to tightly fill a size 13 pair of jeans. Certainly a 13 isn’t the most extreme of American sizes, but considering my age, that I came from a highly educated family with good constant access to healthy food, advanced medicine, a life that allowed for recreation time, and a solid understanding of the long-term health implications of obesity, my size was hard to justify short of a psychological explanation, which I have to admit I could not blame. It wasn’t until I saw myself on TV towards the end of that school year that I realized how large I had become.
I decided to make a lifestyle change, and have been an avid gym rat ever since. I take bad food in moderation and eat plenty of the good, all in balanced portion sizes. In the ten years since I made that change, I have lived everywhere from the cusp of the Sahara desert to some of the most expensive parts of Europe and the States. I have been through major surgery, dealt with a few traumatic events, and been through many highs and lows. Understandably there were some bad weeks in these ten years. Still, through it all, I have remained very consistent in always finding a way to exercise, to get proper nutrients, to find a way to take care of myself. After losing that weight, I become a happier, better, stronger person. Most of the health problems I had went away, I stopped having mood swings, and even my skin and hair look better.
When I was in grad school, I took a small road trip with two of my classmates and the sister of one. During that trip, the sister explained that she was working on a thesis examining a media movement in South Africa among HIV/AIDS infected people. While the movement did a lot good in bringing a much needed voice to those who were infected to ensure they were being treated fairly and HIV/AIDS as a disease was understood, the movement went too far as to normalize the disease itself. It was diminishing the gravity of what it meant to be infected. It was building an exaggerated sense of community in HIV/AIDS patients that it had almost become a badge of honor to be infected. Public health officials were concerned the simple fact that AIDS is a life threatening disease was being lost in the messaging of the campaign.
I by no means wish to suggest that discriminating against someone who is obese is anything but illogical. We all know physical lazy people who are mentally very driven, and physical driven people who are mentally very lazy. Being thin doesn’t automatically mean someone is healthy or in shape, and being overweight doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t care about their body. And in fact, it is not uncommon to see blogs, online forums, commercials and other media outlets promote the very pragmatic ideas of being comfortable in one's own skin, not being obsessed with size, and having a healthy self-image.
Though not as extreme, my concern, however, is related to the example above: obesity is becoming normalized. Being obese is often now explained as “just another trait” some people have, like one’s race or sexual orientation. The problem is that in reality, the message of self-confidence can be misconstrued to mean that being concerned with one’s health and weight are categorically superficial goals. In that skewed interpretation of being comfortable with oneself, self-accountability for taking care of oneself can be demonized. Valid concerns for another person's health can be branded as shallow. Telling a friend they should quit smoking is socially acceptable; telling a friend they need to lose weight is not. Addictions to specific substances are a bad thing; arguing overeating is an addiction is not even considered to be a thing by many people.
Of course, losing weight is not the cure to all health problems, of course there are many physical and mental ailments that might prevent a person from being healthy, of course there are cultural implications for a lot of people in making healthy choices, of course the cost of being healthy in America is prohibitively high for many, of course modern medicine has increased life expectancy drastically even as the world becomes increasingly sedentary. But regardless of the reasons behind the problem, being obese does have many negative effects on the body and mind. As is the case with any disease, not treating both the cause and the symptoms can have dire consequences. The literature of what obesity is costing the United States alone in health care is endless. The quality of life obesity strips away is a finer, but equally important point. Looking at my life is a perfect example.
When I made that lifestyle change, I finally embraced the idea that wanting to be fit is not embedded in superficiality. Laughing at consistently unhealthy eating habits is a detrimental defense mechanism. Writing off a total lack of physical activity as “understandable laziness” is not an excuse. Increasing my clothes size every year is not a suitable alternative. My decision to lose weight was not based on media influence of impossible-to-achieve standards of attractiveness. It was not predicated on some idealistic notion of finding the perfect partner only after attaining the perfect body. It was a decision to become accountable for my own choices, and to allow my health to take precedence in my life.
I can only hope that individuals who are going through the battles of obesity make the same moves to learn how to prioritize eating well, exercising, and staying away from harmful substances (or, equally - harmful amounts of substances). Attributing unhealthy behavior to a beauty counter-culture is not the solution. Finding excuses instead of answers is not the solution. Normalizing obesity, justifying obesity, is not the solution to the epidemic.
 Back then I shopped in the juniors department. The adult American equivalent size is 14; the adult European equivalent size is a 44. For those who have seen me in the last few years, I currently wear a size 8 (38 in Europe), though my body composition is now of much more muscle than back when I was in high school.