Chapter 1: No Friend to the Fat Man
I’m fat. Sumo fat. Kool-Aid Guy fat.
I’ve always been a big guy. Even as a little kid I was “thick” and that’s just been a constant (and at times more of an expansion) as I’ve gotten older. We’ll talk about diets and all that fun stuff a bit later but let’s just say I’ve tried just about everything under the sun and I still look like a serial buffet molester. I’m reasonably lucky in that I’ve also always been tall- 6’4- and that my weight has been reasonably well distributed across my body. I’ve known people who hadn’t been dealt as good a hand and it’s caused them endless physical, not to mention psychological, problems as a result. That’s not to say I’ve gotten off scot-free in that regard, but I’m well aware of how much worse I could have had it.
Being a big person you automatically have a fairly unique perspective on things. For instance, I think that the military should start recruiting fat people to be strategic advisors. Why? Fat people are freaking experts with a lifetime of experience at evaluating situations and coming up with rapid solutions to problems. We do this every time we walk into a crowded room or a new environment with untested furniture. Immediately your fat-sense starts to tingle and you’re taking in the room at a glance to decide on the best path to take to meet the least amount of resistance, or evaluating which chair might be safe for you to sit in without reducing it to toothpicks and firewood.
I’ve had more chairs break on me than a professional wrestler.
There’s nothing as panic-inducing as being in a crowded room or in someone else’s home, sitting in a chair, feeling it start to creak, and realizing that you’ve made a tactical error in furniture selection. There’s also nothing as impactful on your self esteem. If it happens once it’s embarrassing and you can usually laugh it off. When it happens often enough that your friends have “special” chairs for you to use when you come over, it really starts to make an impact.
This kind of highly-honed threat assessment is developed at an early age as a survival mechanism in the vast jungles of adolescence. I can remember, as a kid, dreading the bus rides to school. Now, no kid likes to ride the cheese, but for big people it was a daily source of dread and humiliation. For me it was extra special, because not only was I taller than just about everyone else and big enough that I took up most of the bus seat as it was, but I was also a nerd. Not just any kind of nerd either- I was a band nerd. Which meant that not only was I carrying a seventy-five pound backpack filled to capacity with school books, but also a trumpet case the size of a small trunk. I looked like a mutant hobo ready for life on the road.
Being as how I grew up in the south, every morning the bus ride to school was like a re-enactment of scenes from Forrest Gump, with me looking forlorn as I slowly hauled my crap down the bus aisle looking for a place to sit as little redneck kids would shake their heads and reply in a slow southern drawl “Seat’s taken.” As a result I made it my mission in life to be the first in line to get on the bus after school so I’d be able to snag the Mecca of school bus seats before anyone else- the half seat at the very back of the bus next to the emergency door. It was the perfect size for me and had enough room on the floor next to it so that I could stow my luggage and not have to sit with it constantly digging into my legs. Plus it meant I didn’t have to worry about sharing the seat with someone else while they complained that I took up all the room.
Survival of the Wittiest
The school bus was also the place where I could develop another useful tool in the arsenal of fat people- being a smartass. See, when you’re big you really only have a few options for self defense against the other kids. One, you can be the introverted fat kid that hardly ever talks and prays that the other kids just won’t notice you or care enough to mess with you. Two, you can become a bully and use your size to your advantage, coming from the school of thought that if they’re afraid of you they won’t mess with you. Third, you can become a smartass, because if you can make them laugh at something (or someone) else, then they’re not laughing at you.
I’ve tried the first option, and I have to admit that it really doesn’t work all that well. For one, when you’re as big as I am you never really “blend.” When you walk into a room you’re going to draw attention regardless of what you say or do. Plus, when you act introverted and keep to yourself it’s like wearing a bullseye on your back for all the less intelligent social predators looking for easy prey.
The second option is very tempting to someone who’s been picked on all their life. The idea of not only fighting back, but of having people be afraid of you is great, in an ideological sort of way. I mean every guy fantasizes about being the Clint Eastwood of the schoolyard where everyone shows you “respect” and all the girls swoon. Unfortunately the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. When you’re a bully, no one really likes you. They may act like they respect you, but it’s really only fear, and your so-called friends won’t hesitate to turn on you as soon as the opportunity presents itself and they think they can get away with it. Any kind of relationship built on fear is only an empty illusion, and a life devoid of true friendship, loyalty, or respect can be worse than living with getting picked on all the time.
Plus, being a bully means you have to hurt people and the reality of seeing someone truly in pain and knowing that you caused it is far different than the romanticized version that we’ve grown so used to seeing in various types of media. The fact of the matter is when you’re a big person you have to be that much more aware of the kind of damage you can unwittingly cause. What is normal roughhousing for most kids becomes something that could be decidedly more dangerous when you add someone twice their size into the mix. This is a lesson I learned the hard way one summer when I was ten years old.
My cousin and I grew up together in Granite City, Illinois. Granite is a small steel mill city just across the bridge from St. Louis and both sides of my family are from there. I lived there until I was seven and my dad, who worked for the Kroger Bakery as a supervisor, was transferred to Houston, TX. While my cousin and I were always close, he grew up on the bad side of town, and tended to have a street mentality about things. By that I mean that if he gets mad, he lashes out. If he feels you’ve insulted him, he lashes out. Sometimes it means he just decides he’s going to be a jerk for no other reason than he felt like it at the time. I don’t mean to trivialize his issues, because he did have a lot of them. He didn’t have a great childhood or home life to begin with, and once my family and I moved he really didn’t have many positive outlets left to him.
That summer my parents had him sent down to stay with us for a while. Most of the time he and I got along fine. The rest of the time our “fights” consisted of little more than calling each other names and going off to our respective corners of the house to sulk for a bit. However one night things escalated into something physical.
The fight started over something pretty stupid, as most fights at that age do. My little sister, who was not yet six at the time, had fallen asleep on the couch while we were all watching T.V. and I wanted to carry her into her bedroom and put her to bed. My dad worked nights and mom was in another room at the time, so I asked my cousin to go in and pull back the covers so I could lay her down. For whatever reason, he decided he wanted to make an issue out of it and refused. We went back and forth a few times until I finally gave up and just put my sister in her bed on top of the blankets.
When I came back out he and I got into an argument about it. He pushed me. I pushed him back. He pushed me hard. Before I knew it we were in my bedroom doing our best to kill one another. Now because my bed was fairly small, my parents had taken the mattress off the bed and put it in the floor so we’d have more room and no one would fall and hurt themselves if they happened to roll off the bed. This also conveniently gave him a frame to use like the ropes on a wrestling ring and jump on my back and choke me. Without thinking I grabbed at his arm, which at this time was wrapped around my throat doing a boa constrictor impression, and threw him over my shoulder to land rather spectacularly onto the mattress on the floor. His body bounced a few times before finally coming to a rest, at which point my mom, having heard all the noise, stormed into the room and separated us.
Now, this all sounds like a pretty silly fight like most boys that age have. The problem, as my father pointed out to me later, was that it could have ended up being something serious. My cousin was a year older than me, but I was still several inches taller and more than twice his size. Had that mattress not been there to break his fall, I could have very easily hurt him. In fact, looking back on it, considering how forcefully he hit I’m surprised that he didn’t end up hurting his neck or back anyway. My dad really made sure to hit that point home with me that night when he got back from work. He wasn’t mad that I defended myself, but he did want me to realize that someone my size had to be extra careful in everything physical that I did, especially with other people. That night I learned that with great weight comes great responsibility to not crush people, and I’ve never been in a fight since.
So, if being the quiet kid just got you picked on, and being a bully wasn’t an option, then that left being a smartass. Now, it took me years to really come out of my shell and fully embrace my destiny, but by the time I was a junior in high school I realized that when you can make people laugh and are generally a nice guy, they tend to like having you around. Liking having you around doesn’t really correlate to true friendship or wanting to date you, but we’ll address that a bit later. So as a result I’ve come to rely on my wit and sense of humor when it comes to dealing with people. I don’t do it just as a defense mechanism anymore, though it can certainly become one when I’m nervous or scared. Over the years I’ve genuinely enjoyed having the ability to make someone laugh, especially when you’re trying to help and need to get the other person to open up a bit.
I had a professor at Lee University, Dr. Bill Effler, that used to teach Personal Evangelism. It was basically a class that was meant to prepare wannabe ministers to be evangelists. During that class Dr. Effler said something that really had an impact on me. In fact, it was something that became a personal mantra of mine that I’ve since gone on to teach to my own students: in order to reach anyone, you have to first earn the right to be heard. It’s easy for people, especially ministers, to assume that just because you have something to say then the other person has some kind of responsibility to listen. That’s not true. Why should anyone listen to what you have to say? Why should they believe a word that comes out of your mouth? If respect is earned, then so is the right to be heard by other people. Using humor to relate to people, to make them laugh and feel good, is one way to earn the right to be heard. Besides, being a smartass can be a lot of fun.
Now while furniture and public transportation can be problems for big people, public restrooms are definitely no friend to the fat man. I’ve seen some restroom stalls so small that I was literally afraid that I’d get stuck if I tried to use them. One of the most horrific experiences of my life was moving in to the dorms at Lee University and finding out that we had community bathrooms and all the stalls were of the average “holy crap I hope I don’t die” variety. I was only in those particular dorms for a semester, and believe me one of the best things about moving out and into the apartment dorms was having a normal bathroom again.
Because stalls are such a pain in the rear (often literally) that means that I generally have to wait until the handicap stall is available. Ahh, the handicap stall- the fat man’s home away from home: large toilets, plenty of room to maneuver, and sometimes even a private sink. While the half-seat at the back of the bus was the Mecca of bus seats, the handicap stall is the Mecca of bathrooms. My bathroom at home isn’t as nice as some of the handicap stalls I’ve been blessed enough to frequent. In fact, on the trip between Memphis, where my parents and I currently live, and Chattanooga, where I went to college and worked for several years, I have specific places I always stop to fill up and use the restroom just because I know they have four star handicap stalls. Sounds ridiculous? Ask any fat person you know. If they’re brave enough to admit it, they’ll tell you they have their favorite bathroom alternatives as well.
Because that’s what you have to do to really get by as a big person. You have to think ahead, use strategy, assess and respond. If the zombie apocalypse ever happens, don’t save the cute chick with the big breasts. Save the fat people. They may not be as much fun to look at, but they’ll be able to use their tactical genius to keep you alive until the government comes with flamethrowers and shotguns. Just be sure to stock up on beef jerky. We don’t think as good on an empty stomach.
Clothes Make the Big Man
Another source of dread growing up was clothes shopping. I can remember saying a silent prayer every time I tried something on, hoping to God that it’d fit and I wouldn’t have to shamefully exit the dressing room and shake my head as my frustrated parents went off to search for something else. I never got to wear the fun clothes that the other kids did, with pictures of the Simpsons, Homey the Clown, or superheroes on the front. Instead every day I looked like a pre-teen dressing up as a middle aged accountant for Halloween due to the fact that most of my shirts and pants, at the time, were bought in the adult section where my father shopped.
As I got older, and bigger, clothes became even harder for me to find. Now they have big and tall shops where it makes it a bit easier for people like me to find decent clothes, but up until a few years ago it used to mean ordering special clothes using a catalog and paying easily twice as much for them as normal people do. For that reason, even now, my wardrobe is woefully limited and being able to wear the same pair of jeans that you wore a year ago is a point of pride- like athletes presenting their trophies. “See this pair of jeans? I’ve had these for three years! I haven’t ripped the butt out of them or anything!”
Shopping for underwear is even more fun. Tighty-whiteys really live up to the name when you’re my size. I wore them for years and can remember the excruciating pain that could occur when you shift the wrong way and the edges ride up as far on the crotch highway as is physically possible. That was especially fun when driving, leaving me desperately shifting and squirming to try and pick them out of the dark crevices of my lower half while doing my best not to crash my car. Often I’d just rip the things out of desperate frustration and be left with nothing but just dangling cloth covering what was left of my modesty like something God might have fashioned for Adam out of animal skins.
Eventually I gave up on conventional underwear all together and am currently employing pairs of shorts in the position usually occupied by boxers. They’re more durable, comfortable, and they have pockets. Why I’d need pockets for my underwear I’m not sure, but they’re there just the same so at least I’ve got options. I guess if I’m ever visiting a foreign country I could keep my wallet in those pockets as opposed to trying to fashion a sumo-sized fanny pack. Even the best pick pocket in the world wouldn’t be able to get his/her hands down my pants and take my wallet…at least not without dinner and a movie first. After all, I do have standards.
You can read more “Down With the Thickness” here.
© 2009-2012 J.R. Broadwater