It was just a look, more of a glance really, and I knew I had no chance. Nothing I could say, nothing I could do, would win her over.
I was sitting in the green room roughly a year ago at a certain non-cable TV network, about to get my shot at fulfilling a lifelong dream: a recurring role as a national security commentator.
I knew it might be a long shot, being a conservative and having a different perspective than most of the other talent there, but I was ready—or so I thought.
My preparation was meticulous. I bought a new suit, had my hair cut perfectly, did what I could so the producers would visualize me in front of the camera day in and day out.
And then reality set in. In my heart, I knew this wasn’t going to happen.
There was one thing I could not style away, one thing I could never cover up with slick clothes, a Harvard graduate degree, and hundreds of op-eds, TV and radio interviews, and impressive credentials.
I was obese. And as much as I wished otherwise, I knew what was coming: the judging that happens every day, the glimpse of people looking at me in disgust followed by quiet rejection.
I knew it was over when the person who interviewed me stepped into the green room and saw me sitting there—and I was not what she’d expected.
You see, I played it smart when I was asked to appear on TV, picking shots that were straight on, avoiding panels or one-on-one appearances with a live host, as any of that would have exposed me for what I was.
The interview itself lasted a total of seven minutes, and that included the three minutes of walking to where we sat down. For most of it she could not even look me in the eye, staring away as if she didn’t even want to acknowledge my presence. It was clear that, in her mind, I did not belong there.
One look, one judgement—and it was all over. My dream denied.
I can’t say I was shocked. Being obese, packing on 265 pounds at one point onto a five-foot-six frame, creates a lot of problems, challenges that go beyond the inevitable impact on one’s career. For almost all of my life I have been compensating for my weight.
The fact is that over 775 million people from around the world are either obese or have a body mass index of 30 or more. Of that total, 110 million are from the United States.
But my plight was worse. If we want to get technical, not so long ago, I was actually morbidly obese. But I prefer the politically incorrect term. I was fat. Really fat.
No one really talks about what it is like being fat, the daily struggle, the discrimination, the dirty looks, the social anxiety of being judged—of not fitting into a culture that worships beauty more than anything else. And if you work in a major metropolitan city in a competitive industry, you will be judged on how you look—the fat guy or girl never seems to make it to the top, no matter their credentials or talent.
If I may, let me take you into the world of fatness, at least how I have experienced it, for almost four decades—my own personal hell.
The first thing you should know is that there is a clear physical toll that it takes on you. When you are young and fat, the body can handle the additional weight much more easily, or at least I could. I could eat whatever, whenever, and however I wanted. I had no issues playing sports, doing daily chores, or even taking a quiet stroll with my wife.
But that all changed when I hit 30. I was getting heavier and heavier. I would instantly start sweating any time I did anything besides sitting. My feet would swell in the heat. I suffered from curling headaches. Even sleep became an issue thanks to excess mass pushing into your body, as no mattress has that much give.
Because of all of this, you are tired—all the time. That makes you want to eat more to have more energy, and that makes you gain more weight, a cycle that leads to a slew of health problems that are not only costly but life shortening.
Then there is the self-isolation. When you know you are going to go somewhere that is public, well, who wants to do that being fat? You know you can’t dress the way you wish—designer clothes are only for the skinny and healthy—and the stares you get outweigh (no pun intended) any professional networking or fun you will have. That made me shy away from many big public events: they were a reminder of my fatness, as if I was wearing a scarlet “F” on my chest that I could not erase no matter how much I achieved.
But there are times, of course, when you must go out into the world, and they can feel crushing. There’s a sense of shame, that you are at a constant disadvantage, that you just don’t belong. Sometimes people stare, other times they look away quickly, not wanting to stare. Other times they just stay away altogether.
Then there are the lengths you go to hide your fatness. I had a good idea of what colors would make me a little thinner looking—if I could even find clothes that fit in the first place. Many times, I had to settle for simply what would fit. I did not have the luxury of going to my favorite department store or web retailer—only so many places sell 46-inch-waist pants.
All of this creates the worst of negative feedback loops. The side effect of being fat is you become depressed because of the damage it does to your life, your family, your career, your very soul. And that makes you want to eat even more.
I honestly can’t say how I became this way. Obviously eating more calories than my body needs is the scientific reason for my problem, but I never understood why I overate. Some of it, I’m sure, had to do with being bullied as a child for—you guessed it—being overweight. But for some reason, at some point, I began to use food as a sort of crutch, a cheap opiate to cope with whatever downturn life had in store for me.
Problems within my family? A good piece of pizza could help—but then it ended up being the whole pizza, or two. Rough day on the job? No sweat, just have a meatball grinder—or three. And don’t get me started on ice cream.
Thankfully, over the past few months, I’ve begun to find a way out of this hellacious cycle. I located a doctor who was able to break down my daily routine, who explained to me something I did not know was even possible: I was addicted to food.
For me, gorging myself on high-calorie foods was akin to what a drug addict does: looking for that spike of dopamine that, for a time, helps make all of life’s problems disappear. And just like a drug addict, there is an awful price to be paid.
The good news is that it is not too late for me. I still stand a chance of beating the condition that’s cost me so much over the last 39 years of my life. There are many ways to fight obesity—therapy, modern pharmacology, surgery, 12-step programs, simple dieting and lifestyle changes—all of which can make a big difference.
Today, I have lost over 50 pounds thanks above all to the fact that being fat became a burden I could no longer bear. And while my battle to beat this isn’t over, just knowing why I was obese—why I craved foods that eaten en masse would surely take years off my life—gave me the courage to do something about it. I can’t say I don’t want to have a nightly feast to eat my problems away, but for the first time in my life, I can conceive of the cost. And it’s one I am no longer willing to pay.
Every day is a struggle. Much of my success is making what I call micro-choices. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I must think carefully about what I am putting in my body. Every choice I make must ensure that I don’t go back to the pain, the isolation, the dirty looks, the feelings created by being fat.
I know I will slip up. I know I won’t be perfect. Those are life’s only guarantees. But no matter. I truly believe that I have a shot at a normal life, that I don’t have to be fat anymore—that I have the power to change. There is nothing more wonderful than that realization, no greater blessing.
And for that, I can only be grateful.
Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm The National Interest. Previously, he led the foreign policy communications efforts of the Heritage Foundation, and served as editor-in-chief of The Diplomat and as a fellow at CSIS:PACNET. The views expressed are his own.