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Battling weight problems and ensuing baggage

Though heroin and cocaine are dangerous and illegal, both drugs carry with them a cachet, the dark romance of, say, the doomed hard-rock singer or the wild film star. Alcoholics — unless you happen to live with one — are still regarded by our culture as either tragic figures or lovable clowns. Even cigarette smokers, hounded from the work place and restaurants, shoved into the cold streets, penalized with taxes higher than those once levied by the English on our forefathers, may still occasionally appear in the public eye as mysterious and cool, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, or as tormented, like Sandra Bullock in “Twenty-eight Days.”

Fat people, however, receive no such ancillary laurels, no tarnished crowns. They are simply fat, and those around them regard them with a mixture of repugnance, aversion, disgust and horror. They eat too much, they drink too much, they exercise too little. They are quite literally shaped by their gluttony, and our pity usually extends no further than “There but for the grace of God and dietetic caution go I.”

That this pity is so limited is itself a pity. Few of us watching an obese man wheel about in a mobilized shopping cart in Wal-Mart or a woman the size of a freezer trying to keep up with her 3-year-old rarely put ourselves into that person’s shoes — or oversized sweat pants. We make jokes instead, offer insults like the one in the previous sentence, and wonder why someone grown so gargantuan would continue to eat bags of oily salted chips and drink vats of cola or beer.

In other words, we rarely try, as we might with the drug addict — poor tortured devil! — or the alcoholic — poor demon-driven sot! — to understand fat people, much less sympathize with them. The ignorant, gluttonous sods have eaten themselves into a hillock of flesh, and if they really disliked their shape and physical health, then they would take up a dietary spade — in some cases, a dietary bulldozer — and reduce the sides of that hill.

In Designated Fat Girl (978-0-7627-5962-0, $16.95), North Carolina author Jennifer Joyner tells us what it’s like to be fat, how it feels when you can’t help your child off the slide at McDonald’s because you’re too big to get up the ladder, how you look at yourself in the mirror each day and weep, how you go day after day wondering how your husband can love you. And not only does Joyner tell us how awful she felt about the weight she carried, she also demonstrates how she put on this weight, the double meals ordered at the windows of fast-food restaurants, the binges on pepperoni pizza and Coke, the times that she would “take a loaf of bread, a jar of pasta sauce, and a tub of butter, and over the course of an afternoon, I would eat all of it.”

In addition, Joyner shares the awful side-effects of obesity: the inability to tie her shoes, to take the Christmas decorations to the attic, to keep herself physically clean, to properly care for her husband and children. If we read attentively Joyner’s account of her life and her struggles with over-eating and with a poor diet, we begin to perceive what we may have missed in our judgments of the overweight. We understand that our fellow human beings don’t like being fat, that indeed they despise their condition, that they may have tried numerous times and ways, as did Joyner, to break their emotional dependence on food. Rather than revulsion, by the time we finish Designated Fat Girl we may even begin to feel a real pity for those who cannot break themselves of overeating, who look to food as solace in a hard, revved-up world of expectations and demands.

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Jennifer Joyner finally defeated her food problem — she once weight 336 pounds — by undergoing gastric bypass surgery. Readers who experience her account of this surgery and who have perhaps felt that such an operation provided an easy way to knock off unwanted pounds in bowling ball numbers will quickly find their preconceptions disabused. Joyner suffered severe health problems from her surgery, including a partially collapsed lung and a reliance on prescription pain medication, and she continues to struggle with vitamin deficiency, as do all patients of such an operation, necessitating a dependence on various supplements.

Despite her conclusion that she would not encourage others to undergo gastric surgery — there was, Joyner says, too much pain and too many complications from her own surgery — she nonetheless does encourage those with the same problem to consider it as an option after having weighed its risks. Joyner herself does lose a massive amount of weight, and emerges from her struggles with both food and depression with a renewed sense of self-worth and an appreciation of “all my many blessings: a wonderful marriage, two great, healthy kids, and finally, some happiness.”

Designated Fat Girl is an honest book which will give strength to those who struggle against weight and overeating. To those who have long wondered why some people just can’t stop eating, it offers a unique portrait that should arouse a sense of compassion and understanding.

Designated Fat Girl by Jennifer Joyner. skirt!, 2010. 264 pages

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