As a musician, I hold fast to the notion that a bad performance can be redeemed by the ways it teaches me to improve my preparation for the next concert. When I sit at my desk to write, it is with the certainty that each shaky chapter or lackluster short story of the past will enable me to find a clearer approach in the future. I believe that I'm a better husband because I've paid attention to the ways in which I was a less than stellar partner in my youth. I trust that there is value in even the worst of my experiences as long as I glean some sort of lesson from it. I try hard to learn my lessons and move forward.
There is, however, one lesson that I haven't managed to make stick. It stares back at me every time I look into a mirror. With brief interruptions, I have been overweight since childhood. The lesson on how to lose weight and keep it off is one that I've repeatedly shown I can't quite grasp.
When I was 12 years old, I ran out of clothes to wear after a lengthy eating binge added 20 pounds to my already stout frame in a matter of months. My mother woke me on a Saturday morning, instructed me to put on the one pair of pants that still fit, and drove me to a Weight Watchers meeting. By then, of course, I already knew that I was fat. My schoolmates and my older siblings made sure I had no delusions of thinness. But I had believed until then that my mother and I were on the same side. When I'd overheard her saying to my aunts that, "Junior eats just like a grown man; I can hardly keep up with him," I thought what I'd heard in her voice was pride. I was an emotional, artistic boy, and eating was the only thing I did "like a grown man," as far as I'd ever heard. So I convinced myself that my mother and I had settled into a mutually beneficial arrangement in which she happily supplied delicious food and I flattered her culinary skills by eating massive amounts of it. I discovered that Saturday morning that I'd been mistaken.
My first Weight Watchers leader was a charming woman with towering, lacquered hair that, from a distance, looked like a mass of glistening black cotton candy. At the end of that first meeting, Audrey took me aside and told me the story of a friend of hers who had refused Audrey's many entreaties to join Weight Watchers. After suffering the health crisis that Audrey had long seen coming, that friend's fate had been to end up enormous, ill, and immobile, reduced to begging her overburdened caretakers to bring Oreo cookies to her sick bed. "Edward," Audrey said to me while sadly shaking her head, "she just refused to learn her lesson." Audrey would later permanently cement her place in my affections when she brought in five pounds of fat, fresh from the butcher, tossed it onto the floor, pounded her foot on it several times, and then gleefully invited everyone to come up and have a turn at stomping on the enemy. With her big hair and her flair for drama, she was a nascent novelist's dream.
At 12, I didn't know that there would be countless weight loss attempts in my future. Most would be marked by promising beginnings and disheartening endings. Some would be dangerously unhealthy. None achieved, or could ever have achieved, the unreasonable results I'd envisioned. Unlike Audrey's friend, I learned from my missteps. I learned to view each uncompleted stab at shedding fat as a personal failure and to see myself as physically unattractive and lacking in resolve. Strangers, schoolmates, and even people who loved me reinforced those feelings, and I absorbed them more deeply every time I stepped onto a scale.
Thankfully, there was only so long I could keep beating myself up before the instinct to fight back kicked in. As I entered middle age, I finally rethought some of the uglier lessons I'd learned. While I can't claim to have completely shed the self-sabotaging beliefs I drilled into my soul for decades, other lessons have presented themselves to me. The new lessons have, over time crowded out the old ones.
After seeing myself fat, thin, and everything in between, I've learned to be thankful for every version of the body that has carried me from adventure to adventure. I've learned that whatever space I take up, I have the right to occupy. I can want my body to be healthier and more compact, but still love it for what it has done and continues to do for me. I have learned that when anyone other than my physician offers an unsolicited opinion about my size, often they are saying that they want me to become smaller in some other way. They're saying that I should be less successful, less gay, less black, less smart. The motivations and the messengers change. But the goal is to lessen me, and it's rarely for my benefit.
I'm glad now that my mother took me to that first Weight Watchers meeting all those years ago. My experience there continues to inform my ongoing effort to become healthier. Still, I wish that Audrey had told me when I was 12 that the most important lessons I would learn about my size had nothing to do with inches and pounds. But Audrey was younger when I met her than I am now, and maybe she hadn't yet learned those lessons herself. Because I liked her so much and remember her so fondly, I hope Audrey learned how to look in the mirror and see a person she was truly happy to be in fewer lessons than it took me.