The often overlooked connection between trauma and obesity.
By James McWilliams
(Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
“There’s a huge myth that all fat people are lazy,” Becca Reed, 51, tells me. Becca, along with her husband James and their son Drew, who also struggle with their weight, agreed in June to work out three days a week with their trainer, Mike “Bonebreaker” Crockett, and eat nothing else but a healthy vegan diet based largely on the Engine 2 program. As they enter month four of the experiment, the results have been remarkable. (Earlier pieces on the Reeds’ experience can be found here, here, and here.)
Becca is now down to 325 pounds from 400; James dropped from 303 to 247; and Drew has gone from over 425 to 258 (with the help of gastric bypass surgery). Becca’s A1C numbers — a measure of average blood glucose — had gone from 9.74 to 5.8. The marker for diabetes is 7.0 or above.
Becca, due primarily to the regular exercise, was also feeling well enough to stop taking an anti-depressant drug. James, who initially declared one of his goals to be avoiding diabetes, saw his A1C reading drop to 5.4 from 6.9. His once high cholesterol now registered a perfect 153. Drew was regularly doing hundreds of leg presses and riding many miles on the stationary bike, tasks he could not do before the June transition. To top if off, he says, in his own laconic way, “I’m kind of happy.”
“All I knew was that people hurt you. They hurt you emotionally and they hurt you physically.”
As Becca started to regain her health she became reflective about the underlying causes of her obesity, a condition that public-health experts now call an epidemic. The myth of the lazy fat person, one that has had a lot of traction in the realm of public opinion (see here, here, and here), especially bothers Becca. She does not deny that her own choices led to her obesity — she’s not blaming others for it — but, she explained, when it comes to obesity, there are also “circumstances that brought us here; usually there is something else, some depression, or imbalance, or some trauma going on.”
Research suggests she’s right. As Olga Khazan reported in The Atlantic last year, women who were physically or sexually abused as children were two times more likely to become obese. A great deal of related research strongly supports a connection between unusually difficult childhood events and obesity in adulthood. Becca is aware of these studies. But she’s more inclined to cite her own experience as proof.
Becca was thin as a child. She remembers spending almost all her free time being active outdoors, mostly riding bikes in the neighborhood with her friends and cousins. Everything changed when she was about six. An older boy in her neighborhood sexually abused her and bragged about the incident to his friends and her cousins. Becca felt burdened with more humiliation and guilt than she could bear. “You are this little girl,” she tells me, “and you want to belong and these were the people you hung out with; I was easily manipulated.”
As word spread that she was “easy,” Becca retreated into the safety of her home. “I was afraid to leave the house,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell my parents. I wouldn’t even go into the back yard to get on the swing set.” And while she eventually she did tell her parents—the boy was promptly “banned from my yard”—the emotional scars remained. “I didn’t feel safe,” she says. “All I knew was that people hurt you. They hurt you emotionally and they hurt you physically.”
So Becca did what so many victims do: She sought recovery through food. Junk food mostly. Sequestered in her home, she would vegetate on the couch, watching hours of television and eating Hostess cakes and “ketchup sandwiches.” Food, she says, “became that nurturing thing.” She remembers standing in the kitchen, looking at her refrigerator and thinking: “You are a fridge; you are not going to hurt me. You exist and I get something from you and you can’t hurt me. You are the only thing I can get comfort from.”
A negative feedback loop kicked in. Staying inside all day made her gain weight. Gaining weight made her stay inside all day. The cycle, as for so many obese people, spun in silence. Whenever she did re-enter the outside world, she found it a cold, cruel place.Her fourth-grade teacher declared open season on Becca’s physical appearance by telling her in front of the entire class that she “walked too heavy.” For Becca, these words echo in her head as if spoken yesterday.
Over the years, disease set in — diabetes was the most severe. Then came arthritis. High-blood pressure. Immobility. And so on. The narrative arc of Becca’s life, probably at some point in her 30s, turned into a downward spiral. There seemed to be no hope. Depressed and obese, she confined herself to her bed. In the summer of 2016, through some inner calculus only she and her family will ever fully understand, the Reeds decided to make a radical change and regain their health.
Now that Becca has gained the upper hand on her obesity, as well as a broader perspective on her condition, she wants to do more than highlight the link between trauma and weight gain, and to explore its implications. Namely, she wants us to better understand why it’s not OK to condemn or mock — even in a seemingly lighthearted way — obese people. When I asked her to elaborate on these thoughts, she veritably erupted:
I think all people deep down are insecure about something in their lives. How do you make yourself feel better? By making others around you look worse than you do. And there’s peer pressure. I tried to think of times I have been cruel to other people and what my motives were and it was always peer pressure. Being mean to fat people is that last prejudice that’s OK. We are blamed for our situation. Even the medical terms are humiliating. My medical records say I’m “severely morbidly obese.” Can you imagine someone’s medical records saying “severely completely ugly or stupid”? I can’t tell you how many children have said things like, “Wow she is really fat” or ask, “Why are you so fat?” My answer is “because one day I got sick and couldn’t go outside and play for a very long time.”
Like most of what Becca has to say about obesity, her answer to that terrifying question — why are you fat? — is true. Her knowledge comes from within and it speaks to a gut emotional reality that’s largely missing from today’s discussions of obesity. Becca’s honesty reminds us that, while there are many reasons for becoming obese— many of them are personal and traumatic — none of them numb the ability to feel the sting of our judgment.