Being A Fat Kid Is The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me

Reverse Engineer Gratitude To Turn Your Greatest Challenges Into Treasures

I wrote recently about being a fat kid and turning my life around so I didn’t become a fat adult.

The change happened in what felt like the blink of an eye and it was 15 years ago now. But it was hardly over and done. Genes are genes, and in many ways I think I’ll be fighting becoming fat again my whole life.

Backwards as it might seem, I think that being fat is perhaps the single best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Every day and every meal ever since has been impacted by this part of my past. I never just eat. There is always some restraint required to choose the healthy option or to stop eating before I want to, or at least conscious dismissal of doing either of these things.

In conjunction I can probably count fewer than 100 days in those 15 years that I haven’t worked out in some way. The gym was by far my most frequented building in college. I avoided travel for a long time because it meant disruption to my eating/working out routine.

For most of my life I resented these challenges. I was envious of skinny people who didn’t have to think the way I do or make the same sacrifices. But then recently it hit me: being fat is the thing that led me to the things I’m happiest about. 

A Reverse Engineering of Gratitude

Gratitude is popular these days. Research on gratitude, which only began 15 years ago or so (I just learned), is now showing that being grateful has enormous health benefits. We know that gratefulness itself is supposed to lead to a great life.

In my own effort to practice gratitude I thought through some of the things I’m most grateful for in my life: I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful for my relationships, I’m grateful for my personal strengths. And then I kept thinking… to what can I attribute my good health, my relationships and my personal strengths? 

All of the sudden I realized that being a fat kid was the source of these things I’m presently grateful for. And then, within a matter of seconds, I was grateful for my experience as a fat kid in and of itself

I realized that all of us are probably indebted to the things that cause us the most heartache. If you consider the things you’re grateful for and trace them back I’d bet that many of your greatest challenges are the source. I’d love to hear the outcome if you give it a try!

Here’s my own analysis.

AVOIDING SELF-DESTRUCTION

For starters, I think being fat saved my life.

I live a fairly healthy lifestyle now and for the past 15 years have always tried to. This isn’t because I’m a health fanatic. In college I wasn’t in the gym hungover at 8am on Saturday mornings for the sake of my health. It’s because I wanted to be skinny.

Wanting to be skinny is the reason I ever skip a night of drinking, have managed to quit smoking several times, and pretty much show any restraint when it comes to “having fun”. For me, the most tangible consequence of too much revelry has always been gaining weight. Not dangerous decisions (which I have made tons of) or imminent addiction (a road I definitely could’ve gone down) or anything nearly as scary — it’s simply that too much partying = getting fat.

If gaining weight wasn’t the consequence I would probably be a raging alcoholic or some other substance-addicted lost soul. I owe much of my present ability to function and thrive in society to being fat.

It also brought me to yoga. I used to run for exercise and, honestly, didn’t like it very much. Then one day a friend introduced me to vinyasa yoga. That was the last day I ran for a very long time.

What began as a new way to exercise has completely changed my outlook on life. It taught me to appreciate introspection and to challenge myself in ways I otherwise never would have. It forced me to become more patient, more accepting, more loving. It gave me a new career path.

I wouldn’t have tried yoga if I wasn’t looking for an escape from running everyday, which I wouldn’t have done if I wasn’t avoiding getting fat.

To think that I owe my health, my career and my happiness to the one thing (being fat) that I’ve struggled with my whole life completely blew me away.

I think we all might come to the same realization. If you dig deep into the things that are hardest they’ve probably forged a path for the best things in your life.

 

LEARNING HUMILITY & EMPATHY

We all know the traits that make good people, but we have to learn to make them our own. That's what life does. Being a fat kid taught me two incredible virtues: empathy and humility. 

Most of my closest friends and family have this picture on their phones. This is me as a kid.

When I tell people I was overweight sometimes I use this picture as proof. It was no joke — I didn’t lose some baby weight, as people like to suggest. I was really on a path to being unhealthy.

150 million Americans are obese or overweight. Obesity is a leading concern for future generations. We’re laughed at internationally for it.

And I know this struggle personally. I know what it’s like to be the biggest person in a room. I know what it’s like for your body and your weight to be a lens through which you see and experience everything. I’ve known public humiliation and internal shame as a result of my weight.

This means that I can empathize with half of my fellow Americans (and more than 70% of American adults). I’m able to feel for everyone who has a constant mental struggle with food — something so basic to everyday life. I have firsthand knowledge of this experience and I’m able to be a more understanding, more relatable person for it.

The beauty of this is true for every challenge — every single challenge. I think this is so cool. Our challenges, especially the hardest ones, allow us to feel closer to other people who face the same obstacles. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve swapped fat kid pictures or stories with. 

It can be heart-wrenching to face things like sickness or failure. I read stories everyday of people facing much more immediate and difficult struggles than my own. 

But when we come out of the struggle just a little bit we can see huge communities we’re now connected to— and we have amazing avenues (like Medium) to facilitate these connections. We can discover in ourselves new capacities and foundations for relating to people. And it’s only because of these challenges that this is possible. 

If you’re able to look at your challenges as an opportunity to understand and connect with people better it becomes so much easier and more enjoyable to take them on. It’s made a world of difference in my perspective.

And then, humility…

Somehow, still, my weight as a kid is a joke with my family and friends. (Having two younger brothers helps a lot.) 

These days I welcome it. It is a wonderful reminder of who I am, how much we’re all always changing and how interesting life is. It’s a reminder of how cruel people have the capacity to be, a reminder of all the people I’m connected to in the world, a reminder to be as kind as possible.

This picture is only a text away from slapping me across the face with humility. All of our greatest challenges, weaknesses and the things we like about our lives the least have the power to do this.

PROOF OF (SELF) CONCEPT

I think that most of my successes since losing weight as a pre-teen are due in part to that experience. Being fat showed me the strength of my mind. 

To this day when I’m digging for willpower or hoping for change, I think back to the determination it took to accomplish losing weight and I draw strength from it. 

I think back to the million times I told myself I’d get skinnier, and to the time I actually stuck with it. I think back to how difficult that must have been for a kid who was still going to birthday parties with pizza and cake. I think back to the school nurse trying to convince me I had an eating disorder because she couldn’t wrap her mind around any other possibility.

I think back to the effect of momentum. I remember that, at a certain point, the weight kept coming off without as much effort. This helps me get through the early and hardest stages of new challenges.

I think back to the immediate rewards — the boost in self-confidence, attention from boys. 

And I think about the fact that without being fat I never would’ve had this reservoir of strength to tap into. If I’d started skinny, like I used to wish all the time, I wouldn’t have had any of these experiences. I still am not entirely sure how I did it.

The point is, the things we struggle with the most are our best opportunities to prove to ourselves our own worth. 

What we do in the face of our biggest challenges is really impressive. If we look at our challenges this way we can use them to continue making us better people.

THE END

Anyway, this started really short and got really long. 

My point is, I’ve learned from taking gratitude a step further. If we first acknowledge the things we’re grateful for, next I think we can discover their root in some of our biggest challenges. And once we change our perspective about our challenges there really isn’t anything negative or futile in life at all. 

Joanna CohenComment