Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The 650-pound virgin

195.5 pounds
I talk a lot on this blog about how women need to accept their bodies no matter their size, but I don't intend to exclude men from this discussion. In fact, I think men suffer from the same kinds of issues as women. Let's face it, we all have trouble accepting ourselves the way we are.

So when I heard about a documentary being aired on TLC about a man who lost 400 pounds, I immediately couldn't wait to hear his story. (If you're interested, this show will be airing again at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, July 15th and 1 a.m. on Thursday, July 16th.)

Thirty-two-year-old David Smith, the "650-pound virgin," finally decided to do something about his weight when his doctors told him that if he didn't, he would die within the next few years.

Smith told himself he had three options at that point: he could have gastric bypass surgery, he could change his diet and exercise habits, or he could kill himself. If seeing the incredibly depressing video and pictures of Smith at 650 pounds hadn't already been enough to make me feel completely horrified by his situation, his admission that he seriously considered taking his own life—and his graphic description of his plan to set himself on fire—certainly would have.

The truth is that Smith's story is heartbreakingly sad and, at times, almost too difficult to watch. He was so unhappy that he nearly ate himself to death. But no matter how hard it was to watch, I still think it's important for us to talk about people like Smith in order to avoid letting what happened to him happen to more people. I often complain about how we try to hide people who are overweight in our society, and Smith's situation proves how dangerous that can be. The more Smith was ridiculed for his weight, the more uncomfortable he became going out in public, and the more he stayed at home, the more he ate. At his worst, he described himself as simply sitting at the window of his house every day and watching the seasons change. His obesity was like a prison he could not escape.

Fortunately, Smith decided to change his entire life rather than end it. He reached out for help, and a selfless local trainer took on his case, initially having Smith do simple at-home exercises—like stand up from the sofa, lift water jugs, and climb the stairs over and over—to get in better shape.

In the end, Smith lost over 400 pounds, having surgery to remove the excess skin and repair other problems caused by his weight gain. And now, despite the scars left over from surgery, he looks like a regular guy.

Everything might sound fine for Smith now, but the problem is that while he was hiding away in his house, he missed crucial opportunities to develop as a person, specifically missing the chance to learn to interact with and date women. And Smith's desire to meet a woman, fall in love, and have sex for the first time in his life is how the show ended up being called "The 650-pound Virgin."

The catch is that he still sorely lacks the skills to approach women, much less ask them out on a date. And, to be honest, this was the saddest part of the documentary: when I realized that not only had Smith missed so much of his life but that he had also missed so much of the learning that happens when we experience life. Smith couldn't simply lose the weight and re-start his re-enter the world. He had to lose the weight, have major surgery, and only then could he even begin the difficult process of learning how to be a functional member of society. And he's still trying very hard to learn to do that.

Ultimately, what I think we can learn from Smith is how important it is to talk about our body issues before we let them get out of control. Smith dropped out of high school because he couldn't handle the constant ridicule from his peers. As it turned out, that was the worst decision he could make because once he disappeared from the world, he ate even more. It's also notable that things turned around for him when he found someone—his dedicated personal trainer—with whom he could talk about his problems, including being molested as a child and losing his mother at a young age.

When I saw the pictures of Smith as a boy—pictures that were described as showing him having problems with his weight at a young age—I honestly didn't think he looked that bad. But from Smith's point of view, he looked awful. And that makes me wonder if he saw himself as obese long before he could accurately be described that way. Did he initially stop interacting with others because of his own negative perceptions of himself? And this makes me wonder whether or not things would have ever gotten so bad for Smith if he simply lived in a society that was more accepting of people of all different sizes and shapes.

I guess the only thing we can do to help prevent this from happening to others is to simply try to be more accepting—not just of others, but also of ourselves.

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