Mom with Marcella (before I was born)
I love to eat. I rarely find it easy to turn down a piece of chocolate or a baked potato drenched in butter. So when Governor Christie’s weight and eating habits dominated the news this week, I watched, fascinated by a conversation that flared back and forth across a country where it’s increasing difficult to remain trim and healthy. And once again, a complex issue turned into a series of sound bites volleyed across the country’s air waves between two people who had never met each other.
Forced at the age of three by my dad’s job loss to move into a shack on a relative’s property and eat government bologna and cheese, I found my own eating habits shaped early. I have vague memories of my tiny mother standing at a ‘50s style diner table, wrestling to slice those big blocks of meat and cheese into thin slices, trying to stretch that government handout across several days. Still petite at the age of 23, she already had three children and was pregnant with a fourth.
Those are my only memories of my mother being thin. Once Dad had a job again, we had more food on the table, but in those days in Appalachia the good cook’s reputation grew in direct proportion to the amount of animal fat that flavored every dish, even the green beans, which were cooked for hours and depleted of every natural nutrient before they were placed on the table. And, like me, my mother loved chocolate, and Oreos became a staple in the cabinet where she kept treats.
Yet while my mother gained more and more weight, my dad stayed trim, probably because the hard labor of the coal mine burned the calories my mom didn’t have time or energy to burn after a day of caring for four children under the age of seven. But, somehow, though my eating habits weren’t much better than my mother’s, I was still a size 4 in my late 30s. I exercised, but only inconsistently, and I didn’t really have to start watching my weight until my early 40s.
Up to that time, I credited inheriting my father’s metabolism for my ability to eat whatever I wanted and stay thin. But my weight gain also coincided with taking a leadership position in a school that left me few waking hours to myself from September to June. I worked all day, spent time with my husband and my daughter in the evening, and started grading papers after I put her to bed.
It wasn’t until after I had cancer that I started exercising consistently, getting up 45 minutes earlier and walking in the morning even when it’s still dark outside in the winter. And while I still love chocolate, I’ve learned to decline it more often, and I’ve learned to cook without butter and animal fat. We rarely eat pasta or bread these days, and the meats we eat are mostly fish and organic chicken. So while my amount of exercise and food intake are the healthiest they’ve ever been, I haven’t lost any weight, though I’ve been able to keep my weight steady.
Why? I’m guessing it’s in no small measure due to the fact that, shortly after I had cancer, I took a job in an office where I spend winter days sitting at a desk for hours, getting up only when I start to feel the blood pool in my butt and the backs of my thighs. When the weather is nice, I take a walk at lunch, but I have to remind myself not to be sedentary on most days.
I’m still overweight, but, unlike Governor Christie, I’m not obese. But neither do I have the demands of his schedule. And I’m guessing that his weight battle is in no small measure a reflection of how we demand impossibly long days from our public servants. And, increasingly, even from our workforce in the private sector.
We have a tendency in this country to think that being overweight is a result of gluttony and sloth. And sometimes it is. But being healthy is certainly more complicated in a society where the expectation, more and more, is that we have to be workaholics tied to company-issued smart phones even when we’re home—and where we take pride in bashing every president and comparing how many vacation days they take.
So, once again, in this complicated world, how do we lift each other up and cheer each other on, instead of weighing each other down with judgments that are heavier than our collective weight gain?