I'm going to tell you a story, and then we're going to talk about Chris Christie, and if you're not into those two things, you can tag out. I won't be offended.
Let's see. How to begin.
There are enough pictures of me scattered around NPR that it's not a huge revelation to anybody if I tell you that my weight has been a pretty major battle all my life, going back to ... well, as long as I have memories. I remember the family doctor poking my belly disapprovingly when I was probably ... 7? There have been a lot of retreats and advances, some major and many minor, which I tell you not to remove myself from the hook or anything, but only to point out that I'm not sitting here not knowing or not doing anything. I've done almost everything, in fact.
(Remember when Oprah drank shakes? I drank shakes, too. For 12 weeks. Over Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and – as a point of reference – my 18th birthday. I had a spotless record of not eating for 12 weeks, in case you're tempted to chalk it up to a simple lack of iron will. In a way, I wish it were that simple. That was when I learned it was not.)
But here's the story I was going to tell you. I once went to the doctor, of my own accord, by my own choice, to say, "Hey. I'm so bothered by this. I need help. Please help." The doctor left the office, and when he came back, he handed me a booklet. "I love the title of this," he said. "This just says everything." The title of the booklet was, Are You Really Serious About Losing Weight?
Well, I was serious. If that said it all, that would have been great news.
Anyway, I sat in the exam room by myself looking at the book, and I heard him across the hall talking to the nurse. The nurse asked him what I was there for, and he said to her, dripping with contempt, "Well, she says she's going to do something about it." It was a conversation I have always wondered whether I was supposed to hear or was not supposed to hear. It might have been carelessness, or it might have been supposed to make me feel defiant and determined. Either seems plausible. It was a little hard to hear. I was, at that moment, reaching out spontaneously for help. I was pretty sure I was serious. I was trying to ask a doctor. But he kind of seemed like he hated me.
I was 13.
(I can hear you now: I thought we were going to talk about Chris Christie. Yes, we're getting there.)
I don't tell you this story to make you feel sorry for me (though I have to admit I feel a little bit sorry for that 13-year-old and would give her a big old hug if I could). I am fundamentally an awfully contented person, probably more contented than anyone has the right to expect to be. But this is my red handle.
Here's what I mean: A lot of people have a red handle installed deep in their person, where if somebody yanks on it, it hurts. For some people, it's some terrible mistake they regret, and for some people, it's something they're always trying to get better at that hasn't worked, or a relationship they can't repair, or a weakness that makes them self-conscious, or a memory that's sort of awful. I'm not any better or worse off than anybody else in having something like this in my nature/history; the only difference between mine and anybody else's is that mine is on the outside.
I mean, let's say your red handle is that you have a busted relationship with your parents. You're a happy person, but there's this one thing that's really hard, that you haven't really figured out, that's just ... a thing you haven't overcome. Imagine if you had to walk around with a big sign around your neck that said, "Once called my mother a terrible name and we haven't spoken in 10 years." So that everybody knew – strangers, friends, nice people, mean people, salespeople, people on the train, people who drove by you in their cars while you were walking. Eeeeeeverybody. This is what it's like to have your red handle on the outside. It can feel a bit like you are at the mercy of literally everyone.
Now, take note: Not everybody who looks like me considers this their red handle. Whether it is one depends largely on how much it hurts you. It would be a huge mistake to think you can look at a person and tell whether this particular thing makes him or her sad, just like you don't know how people feel about anything else about their own history unless you know them personally.
OK, Chris Christie.
Every time Chris Christie is in the news, for some reason, every humor run about him has to include a bunch of mentions of the fact that he's a fat guy. They're rarely inventive in the least — they're basically just mentions of the fact that he must eat doughnuts or pie or things that come in buckets, that he's huge, that he's big, that he eats everything and everyone and so forth. It's like quoting Monty Python at this point; it's not humor as much as it is something that takes the place of humor because it's located in the same place where humor would normally be found.
So I mentioned on Twitter the other day that it would be great if somebody, somewhere could do the comedy angle on that story while just leaving that be. And what surprised me the most was hearing back a few times that he really brought it on himself, because he mentioned that he'd found out about some very newsworthy e-mails right after his workout.
Think about that. He brought it on himself ... because he mentioned his workout. He deserves to be made fun of over something we deem bad about him because he mentioned trying to address it. I mean ... that's really weird.
As weird as it is, it brought to light something that I think a lot of us know, deep down, which is that there's no real logic to dragging out this kind of thing. It's just kind of free-floating contempt. It's just pulling the handle because it's there to be pulled, and it's free, and you can, and mentioning his workout didn't really justify it as much as it just kind of put it in your head.
When I brought that up, I heard back from a few people that they don't care about Chris Christie's feelings, because they think he's a bad person. And hey, if that's how you feel, if thinking somebody is a bad person makes it open season on everything about him, that's totally up to you.
But you shouldn't do it without understanding that every time you do that, it's not just that handle you're pulling. It's mine, too, and probably a fair number of other people's. I remember once hearing many years ago that one of my friends had told someone he was concerned that he sometimes made fat jokes about other people in front of me. He was worried that it hurt my feelings. (Which it did.) His explanation had been, "I don't think of her as a fat person." And my answer to the intermediary from whom I heard this story was, "Well, he should. Because I am."
[Please, by the way, don't be someone who tells yourself you make these cracks because you want people not to be coddled so they'll be motivated to change. I care a lot more about my well-being than you do, and I promise you that public shaming is the one thing that has been tried, for decades/centuries, on the entire weight-battling population and demonstrated through countless trials to be ineffective/counterproductive/soul-destroying/life-ruining.]
Truthfully, it's only been in the last couple of years that I've been able, when people spit out nasty little unkindnesses about other people in front of me, to say, "You know, I'd love it if you didn't do that, because it kind of makes me feel terrible." They're generally mortified. Apologetic. Head-smackingly embarrassed. Because they understand as soon as I mention it that you can't really talk about how hilarious and disgusting it is that some lady you saw at the movies was fat without implying that if I were there and you didn't know me, that's what you would say. (The workout thing, by the way, is a shockingly common example of this. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard people ungenerously grouse about some slow, unathletic fat person taking up the treadmill with their stupid slow pointless walking. There is something about making fun of large gym-goers that I consider extra-super-mean, so ... maybe don't.)
I'm just saying: I promise you, if you are talking about me or presumably other people within the subset of large people who have a long and complicated history with it, every time you do this, you just take something that already hurts a lot and make it hurt more. And if you're going to keep doing that, the three possible explanations are pretty much (1) you didn't know, (2) you think we deserve it, and (3) you can't help it. So now you're down to the last two.