the language of fat


    Though National Poetry Month is over, I’m still getting a poem-a-day from, for which I continue to be grateful. The first stanza of today’s poem took me on an unexpected journey, or, I should say, raised an unexpected question. Here’s what I read:

    Surf Buddha
    by Matthew Lippman

    There is a sandalwood Buddha on the desk that has my stomach
    and I don’t suppose to call myself a Buddha
    or even pretend to know much about Buddhist whirlings
    but Rachel gave me the thing and it’s got my belly
    the one my father has got
    and the one his father had
    and I know this bulge the way I know my name,
    and can’t believe I’ve become the language of fat
    that the boys in my family have kept quiet.
    (You can read the rest of the poem here.)

    The question needs a bit of contextualizing. As far back as I can remember, I’ve thought of myself as fat. When I see pictures of myself from high school and college, I don’t look like I remember feeling: I’m not fat. As I grew older, I grew larger, and round and funny has had its payoff. When I picture myself, I see a big, round guy. Three weeks ago, I started going back to Weight Watchers. I think this is my fourth time. Since I feel I’m on the verge of being a serial weight watcher, I’m working hard to approach it differently this time. So far, there’s fourteen pounds less of me than there was three weeks ago. And I still think of myself as the big round guy. So, my question is:

    How do I stop speaking the language of fat?

    Actually, the poem says it best: I’ve become the language of fat. How do I become a new language, a new vocabulary? How do I find fluency in something other than the destructive comfort that has felt so much like me for so long?

    My family moved to what was then Southern Rhodesia to be missionaries when I was one year old. Like the others before them, they spent their first weeks in language school to learn Sindabele. I stayed with a wonderful woman named Selina who took care of me and spoke to me in both her language and mine. As my father tells it, the first day of class the teacher gave them some vocabulary words. The first word was “isikwapa,” which means “armpit.”

    My father was indignant. He had come halfway around the world to tell people about Jesus and the first word he learned was armpit? (By the way, it’s the only word, all these years later, that anyone in my family remembers.) They kept going to class and I stayed with Selina. When I began to talk, I was bilingual from the start; my parents would have done better to stay home with us.

    Part of the difference was I had no language to unlearn. They had years and years of grammar engrained into their bones that had to be at least circumvented if they were going to speak a new tongue. Sindabele is one of the “clicking languages,” where you have to learn how to make a particular sound with various consonants. It’s hard work. They did it and it didn’t come easy. Then they had to do it again when we moved north to Zambia. But, if they were going to do what they came to do, they had to learn a new language.

    The language I know is as not just the language of fat but also the language of failure. In six and a half years, I will be the same age my grandfather was when he died. He, like me, was a barrel of a man who carried all his weight between his neck and his waist. He, like every male in his family, dropped dead of a heart attack. My father, who will turn 79 in September, rewrote the grammar of his life and is healthy and aging. I’m grateful for his tenacity and resolve. Even with his example, the family resemblance looms large in my life. I feel a little bit like an escaped soldier in one of those old World War Two movies who steals the German uniform and then has to try and fake his way out to get to safety. If he can’t convince people he speaks German, he’s not going to make it. Unless I learn the language of hope, when it comes to my body image, I’m sealing my fate.

    I’ve lost fourteen pounds; I have sixty more to go. But the language I want to learn has more to it than numbers and pounds. It is about more than loss. As someone who is an amazingly average athlete, I must learn the words that let me articulate how spending time on the elliptical machine at the gym is paying off. I don’t enjoy working out, particularly, and I have begun to notice my endurance is better, as is my spirit, even at the end of a twelve-hour shift. I must develop a vocabulary that moves beyond whether I gain or lose weight from week to week and talk in more expansive images of how I will be alive and fit in twenty or thirty years. I need new metaphors to remind me I am more than my tummy. I’m not Buddha. Who I am is not determined by how much I weigh. I need images that help me describe what I’m setting free within myself rather than what I’m losing.

    I don’t have to buy into the stereotype of the chubby chef. I can find language that expresses the love of good food and being fit and healthy are things that compliment each other, rather than standing at cross purposes. The language is already written; I just have to learn it.

    I want the rest of my life to be different and I want it to last a long, long time.



    1. Milton,

      We in the U.S. desperately need some help in learning how to cook healthfully. I am moving into a new phase of my life and I’d like to learn how to lovingly and joyfully cook food that will help my husband and I, both 50, live longer healthier lives. I hope you will share recipes for health-giving foods and advice on how we dare to take the time to do it right.

      Congratulations on the missing 14 pounds!

    2. My husband is a born athlete; if he’s not playing multiple sports multiple times a week, he goes crazy.

      I am not; before I married him, I hadn’t played an organized sport–or done much of anything physical–since I was five years old and picked dandelions out in left field for my T-ball team.

      It took many tearful arguments when we were dating for me to learn that his wanting me to exercise was born of his concern for my health, of his wanting me to be around for a long time if we were going to sign up for this thing called marriage. And for him to learn that it will always be difficult, if not impossible, for me to separate his interest in my exercising from my concerns about my appearance. And that my relationship to food will never be uncomplicated.

      All of that to say, I guess, that your post really resonated with me, evoked so well how -difficult- all of this is. It’s not just a matter of eating less (or better), exercising more, losing weight or being healthy… It’s a matter of learning to think of myself in a whole new way. To know that God (and my husband) love me completely even with these extra ten pounds, but that getting rid of those ten pounds is a way of loving myself, my husband (for and with whom I would like to be around for a long time), and God (who gave me this body to serve him in).

      No wonder it’s so hard–the physical work is also spiritual work! But praise God, there’s grace abounding…

    3. Hi, my name is Tom (hello Tom!), and I’m addicted to nicotine. I smoked my last cigarette on October 7th, 2006. It was around 7:30 that morning, followed by a massive heart attack. It was the day before my 56th. birthday, and was my 2nd. heart attack. When I was rolled out of the cath lab, the cardiologist told me if I didn’t quit, the next time they would be cracking me open to do a bypass.

      Almost 7 months later, I AM A NON SMOKER. This is how I now see myself. Part of the healing process requires that I remind myself of an old truism a former pastoral counselor (of mine) shared with me. “Feelings follow actions.” I’d always thought of that statement in regards to my relationships to others, but now know it applies to my relationship with me as well.

      I’m not saying it’s been easy or will ever be easy. But, I think, hope, and pray, it will become somewhat easier. I just have to never, ever light one up again.

      We live in an addictive nation – tobacco, alcohol, calories, gambling, sex, shopping, the list goes on and on. To restrain ourselves, we need to act as if our very lives depended upon that restraint, because in some cases, they do.

      Eventually we will discover that we love ourselves, indeed, that we loved ourselves all along. Why? Because He first loved us. Can’t take Jesus out of the equation. Love, for others, and self, begins and ends with Him.


    4. Milton, great post – one that has me cheering for your 14 pounds of success thus far, and praying encouragement for what lies ahead. It is interesting for me to observe that your struggle to define yourself apart from your stomach is not dissimilar from mine (and probably everybody else’s). I guess we all just long to know who we are. Tom’s write – Jesus has to be in the equation; he’s a helpful confidante, but we still gotta do the work.

      Great comments here from everybody, too.

      Prayers and encouragement for you today!

    5. Milton, well done on the 14lbs and the wise words about language. I’m in the same bind as you and have recently very slowly begun to lose the pounds. But I don’t want to get stuck back in that lose/gain/lose cycle.

      It’s early days but I find I’m being really helped by a book called Head Strong by Tony Buzan (you might be familiar with the concept of mind maps that he developed). Anyway, there’s loads in there about the connection between beliefs about yourself, thinking and the use of language. It goes way beyond the usual positive affirmations and talks about how the brain interprets the verbal and mental language we use.

      The trick is that while you can’t think of yourself as “the big round guy” and expect to keep weight off, neither can you think of yourself (yet) as the skinny healthy guy, because your brain will say “Yeah, right, who are you trying to kid?”

      So he gives all kinds of suggestions on how to “talk to yourself” so your brain will co-operate.

      If you’re interested, the reference is
      (I’m sure there’s a way to make that into a hyperlink, but don’t know how in these comments.)

      Stay well.

    6. Milton, this is a wonderful entry. I too have always seen myself as a fat person, and I’m shocked to look back at old photographs of my teenage self now. What got to me the most in your entry was learning the language of hope. You summed up in one phrase what I’ve been trying to do with all my weekly weigh in entries.

    7. i hear you brother. and what a beautiful entry. i have been remaking my language since it began being ingrained in me at an early age. and a funny thing has happened to me the past few weeks when i am eating when i am hungry, and then i don’t even feel like it when i am hungry. many years of work seem to be paying off, and then when i am trying the least, my language has changed. i am a perpetual weight watcher as well, and think i am done now, for good. i know how to cheat the system (and me) too well now, so good for you for making the system work for you and sticking to it. you are right, it much more than just getting the pounds off.

    8. Am looking forward to my autographed copy of your amazing diet cookbook. I’ll wager you’ll have a very tasty take on changing the language of recipes!

      (I personally wear a 30 pound belt of surplus goo around my middle. And I hear you about the language and image)

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