The Myth of Sisyphus

The prognosis is worse than not good. The prognosis is that the condition is terminal. We denizens of Fat Land are aware that the task of losing weight is a terminal condition. Most of us will die in the process. For some, that means our efforts to lose weight will directly, literally kill us. For most, it is a life sentence to engage in an activity with little success for however long we draw breath, rather like Sisyphus rolling his damn rock. A tiny fraction will somehow manage to retain our visible sign of grace – not being fat – though the private exertions to maintain a culturally approved physique may also be terminal, a never ending war against the flesh.

Fat Land, as defined by the dominant cultural narrative, is a place worse than Hell. It is filled with indulgent obese cattle who lack all will power and do little all day except belly up to a trough of bad food, stuffing our maws despite the obvious damage we’re doing to everyone and everything. The news articles and the medical reports sadly intone the hopelessness of our situation, dutifully reminding us that no matter how hard we cows try, only a fraction of us, single digit percentages, will be able to maintain what little weight reduction we can achieve. This is a crushing thing to read. Even if I do this “right,” even if I grimly hold myself to a course of managed starvation and whittle my weight down to not-so-fat levels, even if I exercise myself to the edge of collapse to wring every last calorie out of my mortal form that I can, I’m just going to gain it all back. And then some extra.

There can be no life, at least none worth living, until you leave Fat Land, and, like Hotel California, it appears you are never allowed to leave. The most damaging part is the deep knowledge that all of your efforts – the controlled starvation, the exhausting exercise, the constant self-abnegation, existing under never-ending conditions of austerity – all of this is in vain. The struggle will never end. You cannot extinguish enough of your self to be assured that it won’t all happen again. Weight cycling, the up and down of body mass that is the mundane reality of Fat Landers, is the physical manifestation of the psychological battle. There is no winning.

Here’s what I have slowly come to understand over the last few years. Fat Land isn’t real. Me, as one of Teh Fatz, isn’t real to those who want to shame and demonize what they fantasize is true about me. Think for a few minutes. What is the imagery that is used on every stinking article about the Obesity Epidemic? It’s of a enormously obese (often naked) woman. If she’s clothed, it’s in something ugly and low class. She’s dejected. She’s passive. She’s unhappy. She’s not at all well. She’s the representation of what the Not Fat Land tribe imagines us fat people to be.

We don’t see, for example, the singer Adele looking like a million bucks. Or a woman like me dressed up in my killer business clothes at my desk putting together a six-figure business deal. It doesn’t show the two fat ladies I see out for a walk together every day in my neighborhood, laughing up a storm in their track suits and floppy hats. Or the chubby postal delivery guy, walking faster than most people can jog, big mail bag over his shoulder, powering through his route. Or the ordinary guy standing at the bar, paunch sticking out, knocking back a craft beer with his similarly rotund buddies, as they talk girls, sports, skateboarding, the garage band, the new baby or whatever else is important to them.

No, you’re not going to see us represented in the media as we are, only as the mythological unhappy fat cow, a modern, corpulent Sisyphus who they take comfort in imagining to be walking on a treadmill, diet soda in one hand, Big Mac in the other, wiping away tears of self-loathing and failure with a third hand, and calling the gastric surgery clinic with the fourth (Wait, now we’re Shiva? Oy…), but always just “other” enough that we don’t need to be perceived as quite fully human. The need to visually tag anything about fat people with an image of exaggerated obesity, a thing so grossly out of proportion that it is safe to have a fit about her is an example of the need to invent monsters and myths.

The dirty secret is that so many of those who exhort you to try – put that Twinkie down and move! – don’t want you to succeed. They need you to remain in Fat Land, to be a permanent denizen of a denigrated and deprecated class of humanity, so that they can feel superior about themselves. You exist as a warning to them and their fellow Not Fat Land tribe to remain vigilant against the encroaching fat tide, the thing they can point to and say “At least I’m not that!”

They need us to exist as monsters in their imagination. As cautionary tales. As something icky and repulsive that helps them rationalize whatever weird obsession is consuming them at the moment. As things that are beyond help so that there is no need to think clearly and rationally about what would create a better health environment. As things slightly less than human and on a trajectory to certain suffering and death who need intervention and saving. Or condemnation and rejection if we refuse to give up our place amongst the damned.

Fat people are the majority of the US population, if current reports are correct, and we come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, colors, socioeconomic classes, and all that good stuff that makes us human. Some are really fat. Some are depressed. Some are sick. Some have no sartorial style whatsoever. But we’re real, breathing, thinking, loving, nose-picking, tantrum-throwing, kiss-giving, dealing with the regular mess of getting on with life people. We’re not unicorns. We’re not Sisyphus, though we’re often sucked into the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t struggle with weight loss. We’re more than the digits on the scale.

The modern myth of Sisyphus, that we fat people are doomed to a life of failure because our fat is our failure, needs to be rejected. Being fat is not a terminal illness; it’s just a way of being.


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Posted in Culture, Obesity
2 comments on “The Myth of Sisyphus
  1. quixote says:

    The irony is that no matter how much will power you have, metabolism slows down with age. So smugly thin thirty-somethings who feel fat is a personal failing will often find themselves turning into what they’ve been despising. If they’d been less about superiority to begin with, they’d have less baggage later on. Karma is a dragon.


    • anglachelg says:

      It’s even more complex (and, from a biological point of view, fascinating) than age-related metabolism slow down, though I love it when I read 20-something college guys haughtily declaring that what matters is calories-in, calories-out, and I want to say “Let’s revisit this when you’re 45, with two kids, a desk job and a mortgage, shall we?” Heh.

      I’ve been wrestling the Sisyphus myth since my late teens, so age is merely compounding a long-term condition. The real problem is not that we gain weight (regardless of age) but that we have no intelligent, science-based and humane way to address this gain when and if it starts to have unacceptable side effects. The amount of energy that goes in to constructing weight gain as a tragedy of mythic proportions is astounding to me now that I’m no longer willing to participate in the myth-making. The myth is not for my benefit, that’s for damn sure, as the story line has me suffering unto death. No thanks, I think I’ll pass.



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