Monday, November 30, 2009

Gordito or Gordita? Obesity: It's Not Just About Looks

Fernando BOTERO Angulo

I was sitting in my car, gazing out at the parade of students rushing to their next classes, and I thought, “These students are really fat.” For the rest of the day, as I walked down the halls, as I watched my students coming in and leaving my classes, I kept thinking, “They are really fat.” 

Until the weather turns so cold that students have to put on layers, there's a lot of flesh on display: Throughout the summer and until it turns too cold to do it, I see young women wearing super-tight tops with plunging necklines (yes, I know, that's a funny thing to wear to class), or short tops that show off their waists so you can see the tattoos on their lower backs. I wonder if the display is deliberate or if they are wearing such tight clothing because they are outgrowing them.

I am no fashion model myself; I have had a serious weight problem against which I have struggled for most of my adult life, and my family members are fat, but I wasn’t heavy when I was 21 and when I think back to my classmates, I can only remember a single classmate in high school and one in law school who were obese.

When I was 22, I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and the transition from walking everywhere to a car culture really made a difference. I started to put on weight. I was working as an elementary school teacher, earning $500/mo. We didn’t have much money and eating cheap was important. Carbohydrates are very filling and I didn't count calories.

Brooklyn pupuseria

Pupusas--I gain five pounds just thinking about them

Maybe it is a characteristic of what I think of as “poor people's food” but the comfort foods that I crave compete for the fattiest food on the planet: pupusas stuffed with cheese or ground pork; tamales made with lard and cornmeal; fried fish or fried chicken; chorizo with eggs; fried platanos with beans and sour cream; yucca con chicharones…fat, fat,fat. Just spread that manteca right on my thighs; I can feel my arteries hardening. I don't know how anyone eating a Salvadoran diet can be skinny; I don't know how they can avoid heart disease. Even though I crave it, I seldom eat it; the guilt is so strong that once I've given in to it, it haunts me for weeks, keeping me away for two or three months until the next time I can no longer resist.  

It's not just about looks. Latinos/as prefer softer-figured women to the anorexic American ideal, but diabetes, high blood pressure, arterial sclerosis don't check to see if your name is Smith or Gonzalez.

I don't know what I would do if there was a Salvadoran pupusa shack on every other corner, distributed like McDonald's or Burger King or Wendy’s restaurants. (In El Salvador or Guatemala, there are pupusa sellers everywhere, on the streets and in public parks.)  Fast food is easy, available and cheap. You can come home exhausted and it takes five minutes to buy it and another five to eat it. But the calories pack the weight on. I resist those fast food hamburgers just by remembering something that happened to my dog. I had been craving a hamburger so I stopped by one of those drive-through windows and bought one. I ate about half of it then gave the rest of the meat, alone, to my dog. This omnivore, with the indestructible stomach who can eat anything without getting sick, gobbled it up then ran outside and threw it up. That is the last time I ate a fast food hamburger. 

Sad to say, most of my Latina/o students, as most of my black students, are well on their way to the dreaded diabetes diagnosis but the problems cut across races and ethnicities. Americans are fat. I wish I could say something to my students but I have no credibility on this matter and it crosses a line that is unacceptable for a professor in any case. My own attempts to lose weight have been erratic. I lose it and then get stressed out or lose my resolve and I gain it back. Sometimes, I just want to say, “You don't want to look like me.” 

Recently, one of the historically black colleges, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, announced that it would no longer allow obese students to graduate without taking a course in nutrition, That's harsh but I can understand the desperation that Lincoln's administration much feel. It is an overwhelming problem for Americans; I don't know how you fix it.

I want to tell them, change your habits NOW. Lose the weight NOW. If you don't, when you're 50 and facing the results of poor eating habits and overweight, including diabetes and assorted other weight-related problems, you’ll be sorry. I am. 

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