Articles

I like being fat

Byng Whitteker October 26 1957
Articles

I like being fat

Byng Whitteker October 26 1957

I like being fat

If you think I’m overweight If you know how I can lose weight If you know why I should lose weight Please—keep it to yourself ...and here are my reasons

Byng Whitteker

Robert Olson

Every time I go for a medical checkup the doctor tells me that my blood pressure and heartbeat are normal, my general condition is fine and I ought to lose some weight. My friends present me regularly with the latest miraculous reducing diets guaranteed to transform my life.

I don’t know why 1 should want to transform my life. Radio and TV are nice work, even for the forty hours or so 1 spend at them each week, and the pay is not bad. My spare time right now all goes into founding, with Jimmy Shields, a club on Jarvis Street for Toronto radio and television people. If my schedules were not so tight I'd spend more time at home, as I have a pleasant house in a respectable part of town, and a wife and children who could not be improved upon.

I’m not sure how much I weigh at the moment, as ordinary bathroom scales collapse at 260 pounds. Maybe I'm 290. By my own standards, the extra fifty or sixty are a surplus, the direct result of good living. If the only way to liquidate them is to end the good living, I'm ready to accept the inevitable cheerfully. And I'm not convinced that the surplus, usually considered a burden, like a debt, is not instead an asset, like money in the bank.

A common utilitarian attitude condemns anything in the body that is not actively and obviously serving some 1 unction. Doctors in my childhood were quick to cut away inflamed tonsils, as if they were some kind of tumor. Often the surgeon would chop the healthy adenoids as well, while the knife was handy. If removing any part of the body was not fatal, the part was considered unnecessary. I hose notions, though popular, are already old-fashioned. Now we are told that tonsils and adenoids have a protective function, and even that the appendix may be more than just an obsolete stomach. I am waiting to hear next that the padding some people work so hard to remove from around their middles is useful or even necessary to them. continued on page 68

continued from page 26

“I thought I had to look like Gary Cooper or girls wouldn’t like me. Happily, I was wrong”

The heavyweights who go in for longdistance swimming demonstrate that avoirdupois is not necessarily a handicap. At the same time, obesity, or extra fat, is pretty generally regarded by modern doctors as an illness. Psychiatrists especially look askance, regarding it as a symptom of neurosis — evidence of “compulsive eating.”

A few doctors, though, have lately asserted that overweight — downright obesity — sometimes improves the quality of life. One, Dr. Roger I. Lee, of Boston, describes in his autobiography, The Happy Life of a Doctor, how he changed from a nervous, stammering youth into a vigorous and confident man. Asked how he was cured of stammering, he replied, “I just got fat.”

1 think good embonpoint is not only conducive to physical and mental wellbeing but is a sign of well-being. Happily married men nearly always put on weight; this is so usual that a roundish husband is more becoming to a woman than the most flattering hat.

During a short juvenile period I thought 1 had to look like Gary Cooper or the girls wouldn't like me. I was happily mistaken. The fashionable silhouette may affect the rise and fall of matinee idols but seems to have little effect on a man’s or woman’s preference in a mate. Our contemporary notion of “looking like a Greek god” is much narrower than the Greeks'. Besides Hermes there was Zeus. Apollo frightened the maidens he chased, while Dionysus, whose figure showed the effects of the fermented grape, was followed by crowds of women.

The cult of slimness is recent in the world’s history, and local. In my parents’ time, Queen Victoria’s amply nourished son was the model for the European playboy. Operatic heroes are still accepted in Italy with girths that seem necessary to support the best tenor voices. The serene, well-rounded Buddha is an ideal through most of Asia, and at one time Chinese mandarins tried to put on fat as earnestly as some Canadians today acquire a tan.

The current pressure on individuals to make themselves fit the standard sizes of suits and dresses is comparable to Chinese footbinding, Burmese neck stretching and other attempts to torture the body into an arbitrary shape. It is reinforced here in North America by a persisting puritanism. It’s a Sin to be Fat, states one book title accusingly.

I don't know' of any other period when a whole society committed itself so totally to one physical type. Where in other times and places a particular shape might be offered as an ideal, our community tends to impose one as a standard. It is strange that when division of labor has been carried to unique lengths in factories, laboratories and offices, with extreme specialization of performance, there should be such a drive to standardize the performers.

A trend to sleek conformity in everything is symptomized by a move toward regimentation of physical shape. People not only desire the clothes and appliances most widely advertised, but feel

guilty and inferior if they don’t have them. The next step is to need to look like the models wearing the clothes or demonstrating the appliances. Everybody is pressured to try and get approximately the same face and streamlined body. The spirit is usually only too willing, but fortunately the flesh is stubborn. Most of us meet enough resistance from our individual inheritance and different glandular setups to assure a continuing wonderful variety of shapes and sizes.

Whenever I am pestered to transform my natural bison shape into something more on the lines of the gazelle, I look at the family album. My father, fivefoot-ten, weighed between 235 and 240 pounds and lived heartily for eightyseven years. My mother was a comfortable 155 or 160 and lived to be eightythree. 1 was six-foot-three and 235 pounds by the time I was sixteen. According to the medical charts 1 was already much overweight, though I was fairly proficient at football, boxing, wrestling and tennis, and carried little actual fat. To reach my “correct” weight. I’d have had to get rid of muscle or bone.

Those life insurance blues

When I think back it seems that most of the English, Dutch and Scottish farmers where I grew up in eastern Ontario were mountainous and practically indestructible. Anyone trying now to explain their longevity would probably point out that they were free from the tensions of modern urban living. I wonder how much of their tension today would come from worry about their excessive weight.

It takes a stout heart to be unaffected by the warnings relentlessly directed at the men and women whose weights fall outside the range that insurance companies set as desirable. Actuarial statistics (which I have never seen presented with details of how they were arrived at. from what kind of sampling and over what span of years) always show a higher rate of mortality at the higher end of the weight scale. Those statistics are then offered as proof that corpulence is the cause of higher mortality. After alarming ail potential victims of heart disease, liver trouble, diabetes, hypertension, fallen arches and shortness of breath, the books and articles that present the statistics tell these doomed people that they can stave off their fate by battling their obesity.

It may be that a massive physical type is shorter-lived than one in which the heart and muscles have less bulk to serve. But studies of stress indicate that sustained anxiety strains the human organism more than simple physical effort. I expect some people are wprried to death by actuarial tables. The baleful statistics may work like a voodoo curse, making the plump victim his own executioner. Actuaries and promoters of diets don’t show how many of their ephemeral fat men have done themselves in by trying to conform to the dimensions of a physical type that seemed to enjoy a longer life span than their own.

Nature thickens the figure of most boys and girls as they become men and women. By their middle years, awareness that they share this aspect of the human condition is usually no longer escapable. It is a dangerous age. They start watching the scales, and when they notice a gain of. say, five pounds in one momh, they think, “Heavens! At this rate I'll be three hundred pounds heavier in five years.” If they'd let themselves alone they'd generally find that their mature proportions steadied at an appropriate level, and they would be happier as well as healthier: but they expend their energies in a campaign to circumvent their own natural processes. One popular reducing manual urges: Outwit Y OUT Appetite.

DT. Hilda Bruch, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, warns physicians against blanket diets for their obesf patients. For some of the corpulent, fat is a natural armor against neurosis They become fat not because they are neurotic, but instead of becoming neurotic.

I suspect “compulsive eating" is less common than compulsive dieting, and less sinister. Psychologists viewing fat people's eating as a compulsion overlook the obvious appeal of good food.

“Overeating” is a matter of definition. The fact that body weight is a product of food and drink is pretty plain, although some dieticians present it as a profound discovery. When somebody like me has grown beyond the limits the dieticians recommend, it follows, they argue, that his intake is too great. I don't think mine is.

l et us consider food. I am not eating or craving food all the time, but when 1 do eat I make the experience as delightful as possible. A sense of proportion improves eating as it does cooking, so I discipline my appetite—but not to excess. To ignore strawberries in their season, for instance, would be a crime against nature, and to do the berries justice means to combine them with cream and maybe a dash of cointreau. This is quite often my dessert in July, but I reluctantly turn down seconds.

During my average working week I am too busy to eat at home, except for fruit juice or skim milk and a vitamin capsule in the morning. At lunchtime 1 may have time for only a quick sandwich. I depend for my daily well-being considerably on evening meals downtowm.

Contrary to popular belief, there are excellent eating places in Toronto, the town w'herc I live. Many Torontonians fail to make the most of them because they don't realize how much the meal's

Who is it?

After years on the campus he has a new portfolio. Turn to page 74 to find out who this boy grew up to be.

success depends on sound ordering. Too often their minds are made up in advance and they miss the most reliable way of assuring satisfaction in a good restaurant—to order the specialty of the house, and of the day.

I owe some of my amplitude to specialties like chicken à la Winston at the Winston, and sirloin steak cooked in hot oil u'ith garlic and butter sauce at La Chaumière. 1 dine regally, with a maximum of calories, at Angelo's Tavern. where my host and old conspirator of the racetrack, John Belli, is evidence

of the calories available. His Italian sausage, hot or cold in tomato sauce, averages three hundred calories to a bite, every bite fully worth the consequences.

Sunday dinner, my meal at home, is the major production of the week, and 1 cook it. This is one day when my wife, who ordinarily follows her own austere diets, runs into a riot of calories. Better than any words as an argument against austerity is my chicken Genzmer (1 was christened Genzmer Earl Whitteker). It is my original creation, and this is how it is made:

Boil a very large fowl until the meat falls off the bones. Remove meat and bones from the broth. Make dumplings, adding to the dough a pound of shredded boiled chicken liver, salt and pepper and a pinch of basil. Cook in chicken broth until the broth is thick. Cut the boiled chicken meat into small strips, put into a heavy frying pan with gently browned butter and keep turning until it is as crisp as crisp bacon. Serve with the broth and dumplings.

A good salad to accompany this consists of cabbage, green pepper, celery

and cucumber, marinated for five hours in brown sugar, vinegar, mustard and pepper.

On dishes like that it is a pleasure to put on weight. And I find that, being fat, the best thing is to enjoy it. Obesity has many advantages, some of them disguised as afflictions.

A fat man in company is in a favored position to separate the dull conversational sheep from the lively goats. His large presence is a touchstone. When someone l have just met continues from the topic of the weather to observations on my own bulk, I know I can write the person off as a conversationalist without resources of wit or information. I find out in time to avoid being trapped in a corner or on a chesterfield.

At a party I have less mobility than an average guest but I enjoy more comfort. One of my favorite hostesses has eight delicate period chairs. She is never at ease until I am seated on a colonial wing chair, the one safe—and comfortable—object in the room. The thoughtful hostess who loves her furniture will bring me the most succulent titbits from the buffet, heading off any

tendency I may develop to get up and forage.

I am always rediscovering the truth of the statement, “To him that hath shall be given ...” The born host, seeing a guest who visibly is able to appreciate the amenities of the place, will provide him with the choicest in food and comfort, often ignoring some wolfiike individual nearby whose need anybody can see is greater. The fat man traditionally personifies contentment, and most people want him to be cheerful and comfortable, as a sign that all's right with the world.

A great number of people seem to share the desire of Julius Caesar: “Let me have men about me that are fat.” Yet strangely, hardly anyone can resist badgering fat persons to get thin.

The stout party needs an exceptionally strong character to resist the pressures on him to diet. Maybe everybody has to give way once to know how well-off he is. 1 am ashamed to admit I too have tried to reduce; now I find it hard to account for taking such a preposterous step.

A big man’s life is restricted in a few

practical ways that made me wish, in off moments, that I was lighter. Ordinary Canadian amusements such as skating, skiing and canoeing are outside my range —or almost. My last canoe ride was a painful episode in Algonquin Park. I had to cross Round l ake to do some fishing and the only transport was a ten-foot canoe. The park ranger said at first we couldn't do it; but we tried. "If a moose so much as breathes, we're done for," he remarked as we shoved off. 1 don't think I breathed myself until we reached the other side.

Once at a London theatre I found myself stepping on an object I quickly identified as a lady’s foot. I turned and discovered I was apologizing to the Duchess of Kent. She was gracious, but I believe she was biting her lower lip. There are times when everyone would like to fade into the landscape. These arc likely to be more frequent when there is a larger physical mass to control, and fading less possible.

Probably the greatest strain on a fat man is the steady drip of insipid wit where he happens to be. In a single hour

I may meet a dozen sallies of which these are a fair sample: "Aren’t you afraid you're losing weight?” "Aren't you afraid you'll put on weight?” "Where did you get that suit—at the tent and awning company?”

Just possibly these scintillate for somebody hearing them a first time. I can’t remember a first time. I don't like to discourage anyone doing his best: not everybody can be a Leacock or Joe Miller or La Rochefoucauld. But the awkward thing about these personal remarks is that the joker always waits eagerly to see

what effect the dig will have on me.

There are three responses for me to choose from: to pretend I am unaware humor has been attempted, to strain for a polite little laugh or to disclose the ennui such remarks naturally produce. Each response confirms a popular image: the lethargic fat man; the jolly fat man; the fat man crying on the inside. I believe I am a rather complex individual; but I sometimes have the sensation of being enclosed by a walking stereotype. It gets monotonous.

These scattered moments of chagrin, the tedium of endlessly repeated witticisms, the irritation of carrying an inane fat-man stereotype around with me, and occasionally the alarm of finding a modern steel-frame chair sag to the floor under me may have contributed to my imprudent resolution, one New Year's Day, to reduce. What actually set me off was the discovery that I was reaching forty.

Reaching the gateway of middle age is one of those inevitable events a man thinks can't happen to him until it does. Some drastic readjustment seems called for. Even sand hogs and riveters will take to resting at street corners, closing windows and wrapping themselves in shawls. On January 1, three years ago, I told myself. “You are now in your fortieth year. Life must be prolonged as far as possible, even though all the remaining years are miserable.” So I went on a diet.

I had heard enough of fad diets not to try one myself, but to see a doctor. On his orders I gave up every dish I enjoyed. Instead of my favorite roasts crackling on the outside, I was prescribed a lean steak or chop, broiled—a method of preparation that reduces good food to anonymous protein. I v/as not allowed to brighten the repast with wine, and after the main course—such as it was— when I was slavering for Camembert, I could gnaw a morsel of cheddar.

The diet was a success: I took off about fifty pounds in seven months, with no apparent harm to my blood pressure, heartbeat and general health. The only obvious damage was to my disposition. 1 was poor company and I didn't have much fun. On my doctor's program I was not just submitting to a change of menu, but adopting a different outlook on everything.

At opposite poles of human nature are people who give thanks at the table and those who do arithmetic. I counted calories mentally, though really efficient dieters keep score with pencil and paper. To the person committed to the principle of reducing, every spoonful over the calory budget has a taste of mortality. And his misery is not confined to time spent in actual eating, since it affects both anticipation and digestion. The dieter begins to eke out his emotions as well. The three main meals are the hinges the day swings on.

1 have no use for the admonition, “Eat to live; don't live to eat.” The physical and mental processes that keep us alive are those by which we experience being alive. Whoever prevents himself from enjoying any of them spoils his zest for them all. Eating, like breathing and thinking, is living, and anyone who is healthy enjoys it.

When eating is a wearisome necessity, work becomes a burden too. My radio work is mostly impromptu and low-keyed. about the easiest kind if you’re relaxed. about the hardest if you're anxious or nervous. A broadcaster who comes on every day without a script has to find himself fairly good company. After half a year of self-preservation I felt myself getting stale.

On June 29, my fortieth birthday, I

came to my senses. Winning bets on a couple of moderately long shots at Woodbine nee track that afternoon may have induced a devil-may-care attitude. 1 had a highball to celebrate, and that night I ate a creamed - onion soup, chopped chicken livers, herrings in sour cream, an outside cut of roast beef, boiled potatoes and gravy, broccoli with Hollandaise sauce, a salad with Roquefort-cheese dressing. Camembert, fruit—accompanied by appropriate wines and liqueur.

During my slender period 1 had several suits made. My wife still keeps them hopefully. Recovering my former girth took ¿bout a year, but my outlook was restored the instant the diet went smash.

The most pitiful object I know is a once-portly man who has dieted and, mournful and pouchy, obviously suffer-

ing, with lines of strain around his eyes, tells you how easy it was. His pomposity overlies a look of animal-like desperation that betrays someone who has been frightened or bullied and has gone over to the side of his persecutors. 1 am not urging thin people to stuff themselves; but 1 intend to stay the way 1 am.

The only sound advice anyone can give someone else is that of Rabelais: “Do what you will.” The important thing is not to acquire a particular weight or appearance but to live with gusto. Food and drink are the symbols of all things to be enjoyed. 1 leave the consequences to my metabolism. The best I can wish anyone— including myself — more than the accidental benefits of money, luck, long life, beauty, or even the indefinable essence of happiness, is: “Bon appétit!”