Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What's in a Name?

It may (or may not) suprise you that I sometimes get flak for the name of this blog. I'm honestly surprised when people scold me for the name (and genuinely laugh at some of the looks on the faces of the few friends I've told about this blog), but I guess your reaction depends somewhat on your personal experiences and values. For me, it's just funny. It's also a bit of social protest. But, despite what you may think, it's not self-deprecating. Really, it's not. To explain, I'll begin with a couple of snapshots from my life.

First, let's travel back to childhood. I remember very clearly being really bothered by a Sears catalog (back when those catalogs came out once a year and were approximately the size of telephone books). I was perusing the clothing section of the catalog and hit what would now be called the "plus size" section, but for kids. The clothes for larger kids weren't labeled "plus size". They weren't labeled "for fatties" (but how hilarious would that have been?). They were labeled as clothes for "husky" kids. Husky. Say the word out loud; let it roll around in your mouth. Husky.

I was appalled. I knew I was overweight, and I knew that, somehow, this was something for me to be ashamed of (not that I agree, mind you, but I'll get there later), but this euphemism disgusted me. I loudly announced to my family that I never wanted to be called "husky". Overweight, fine. Fat even, fine. But husky? Don't you dare. The reasoning behind this verbiage eluded me. Obviously someone decided that overweight kids would prefer to be called husky, but I certainly was not one of them and could not imagine that any other overweight chld would like the term.

Fast forward to about a year and a half ago. I think I mentioned that I teach middle school children. They can, you may be shocked to hear, be darlings. For the past two years, I've been blessed with the sweetest, most empathetic group of middle school kids I'll probably ever have the pleasure of working with. But I digress.

I was trying to explain the meaning of the idiom "pot calling the kettle black" to a group of these seventh-grade girls. As an example, I was going to go with an easy one: the hypocritical hypothetical situation of me teasing someone else for being overweight. So, I begin to set up the scenario, and I say, "I'm bigger than most other teachers, right?"

They were appalled. "Miss ____! You should have more self-esteem!"

Wait, what? Why does talking frankly and matter-of-factly about my size constitute low self-esteem? I said it in the same way that I might have said that my hair was shorter than another teacher's hair, or that my shirt was blue. But they, bless them, believed that there is something innately wrong about being overweight, and to admit it was, somehow, a sign of low esteem. I can't blame them, because they're just children, but I'm amused and nonplussed to see this attitude around me constantly. People always have scolded me for calling myself fat... even when I was nearly double my "ideal" weight.

Honestly, even now, I'm not sure why someone should be ashamed to be overweight any more than they should be ashamed to be inactive or to be a smoker. It's a personal choice. Is it the best choice for a long, healthy, and happy life? Obviously not, but there are plenty of other poor life choices that don't have this sort of stigma.

Fat is a description. It is an adjective. It is no better nor worse than tall, short, blonde, or brunette. (Note that "fit" does not have this neutrality, but that's because people work hard to be fit. They don't work hard to be blonde.)

Hell, even NAAFA uses the word fat! (And, yes, I was once a card-carrying member. I still support the cause in principle, even if I don't want to look like a typical member.) Anyway, in my title, fat is a description. That's all. Hopefully it won't be a description for much longer.

OK, but there's a bit more. Over the years, I've grown weary of the many ways in which overweight people (I'm talking about more than twenty pounds, mind you) are actually limited in their attempts to become fitter. Sure, yes, nutrition/diet is important. But so is activity. But what happens when we want to become active? Obstacle after obstacle.

Are you overweight and want to hike or run? Good luck finding technical clothing that fits. No, it's not impossible, but it sure is difficult. Cycling is nearly as bad, but thankfully there's Team Estrogen for plus-sized cycling apparel. Want to swim for exercise? Ha! Good luck finding a suit which has shoulder straps which won't roll off your shoulders halfway down the pool. (After a great deal of searching, I finally found a fantastic plus-size Speedo suit.)

If you lament the severe lack of fitness wear for overweight people, "normal"-sized people look at you funny. "Why on earth would they make activewear for fatties?" they ask. Well, duh, if we can't dress ourselves, how the hell are we supposed to start exercising for weight loss?!?

It's even worse if you start listening to some of the "experts" about what overweight people are supposed to do to lose weight. Putting aside the ridiculous low-calorie diets that doctors and nutritionists will push (I've mentioned before how those are cruel recipes for disaster), what do they say for weight loss? Walk. Walk, walk, walk, walk, and walk. And watch your heart rate - don't let it get above 70% of your maximum, fattie!

ARGH! Now, don't get me wrong, if you like walking, good for you. Personally, it bores me to tears. And if I had to stay below 70% of my calculated maximum? I think I'd die. Even 80% is ridiculously low for me. If I want to be active, I want to feel like I'm doing something! I want to breathe hard, I want to need to recover, I want to "suffer" from the exquisite pain of soreness the day after. I want to train like an athlete.

And why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't any fat person? Why, indeed, must anyone wait "until I lose this forty, fifty, or hundred pounds" before embarking into athleticism? I think that anyone who suggests that an overweight person "wait until" a certain weight before running or lifting weights or any kind of movement that that overweight person wants to do is doing an grave disservice.
Now, am I saying that someone who is carrying around an extra hundred or more pounds should go out and try to run a marathon just like that? Heavens, no. They need to train responsibly and push themselves just to their current limits. Similarly, the 110-pound weakling who's been playing video games and living off of Mountain Dew and Cheetos every day for the past year should respect his (or her) current limits and train responsibly.

But just because one is fat, doesn't mean that one can't train like an athlete. Fat athlete. It's not a contradiction, and it's not an insult. It just is.

OK, so now that we've covered the history of the name of the blog, it seems appropriate to touch on the future of the name of this blog. I think that some of the reactions out there (aghast comes to mind) are because people think it's limiting. It's as if they believe that I've decided that there's never a time I won't be fat. Considering the flaws in BMI, perhaps I always will be considered fat. But if it means I look like this, or this, or even this, I'm perfectly OK with it. (Note: I know that the last two take a great, great deal of dedication in the weight room, more than I'd probably ever give.) Side note, what would I want to look like if I could pick any body? Dear Gods, it would be something like this:

(Photo source: Vanity Fair Exhibit, Hilary Swank by Norman Jean Roy, 2004)

Now, surely, genetics makes this little more than fantasy for me, as does the damage I have done to my skin over the years (stretch marks, excess subcutaneous fat cells, etc). But that doesn't mean that I should waver from my resolve to change my body into something much closer to my ideal. But, again, I digress.

However, the question that remains is... What happens when I'm no longer "fat"? Do I keep the title as an ironic homage to whence I came? Do I change it to "(Formerly) Fat Athlete"? Do I change it to "Phat Athlete"? I don't know, and I don't think I need to decide any time soon. But I do know this: The title is not meant as deprecation. It's funny. Better still, it does serve as a challenge against assumptions and, I hope, occasional inspiration. Most importantly: If anything keeps me from attaining my goal(s), it most certainly won't be the name of this blog.


Arnþór L. Arnarson said...

Hi me again. Yeah, I got the name right away. And I thought to myself "hell yeah! that's the right mindset"

Karen said...

:) Yeah, it's one of those things that you either get or you don't. After explaining it to a few people, I wonder if I can ever convert them from "not getting it" to "getting it". But I had to try. Glad you got it right away.