Did you hear the one about the 450-plus pound man working in the fashion industry? I certainly did; mainly because I was that guy. The same guy whose scale would read ERR (short for "error" since the scale couldn't register any weight over 400 pounds), the same guy who would be out of breath just from talking on the phone, and the same guy who threw his candy wrappers in other employees' trash cans so the janitors on our floor wouldn't know who was eating multiple 3 Musketeers bars in a single afternoon. And boy, did I think I had everyone fooled.
And yet, while working for R. H. Macy & Co. (back when the store was more known for its cutting-edge styles as opposed to its one day sales), I was definitely the odd man out. Mainly because I wasn't fitting in with my fellow employees, each of whom, with a quick outfit change, could have doubled for one of the many professional models we featured in our magazine ads and editorial spreads. But not me. I was the big guy buying my sixty-inch-waist pants at Casual Male (now known as Destination XL), rather than using my Macy's in-store 20 percent discount.
And so it happened that one day, while sitting in a meeting during which buyers introduced us to the next season's clothing lines, I realized I was the living and breathing version of a "before picture." Everyone else in the room—from the other writers (like myself), to the art directors, the buyers, the managers, and even the lady setting up the coffee service—all had something I did not have: a normal body weight.
Why were they all thin while I was so fat? Had I missed the day at work when an email with "secrets to being thin" had been sent? Or had other employees received this clearly covert information before working in the advertising department? Maybe they'd taken a special class in college, one that my university didn't offer. Or maybe they'd been given a leaflet while on the subway one evening. No matter, I suddenly became convinced that there was some kind of classified information being passed around about how to be thin and gorgeous while still being able to eat the donuts that were on display near the lady who set up the coffee service.
And yes, I was in touch with the fact that I was eating chocolate (and more) when no one was looking. But these strange, mystical thin folks were eating chocolate while people were looking. This was fascinating to me. Why wasn't a Jane Goodall-type covering all this on a PBS special? This was a great mystery, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.
I narrowed my focus to our department's vice president, a man who seemed to have it all: beautiful wife, great personality, twinkle in his eye, ability to eat anything without gaining an ounce, and someone who sported a 34-inch waist (Or was it 32 inches?)
Thus I braved up, marched into this VP's office, and explained to him that I was overweight (just in case he didn't realize that I weighed over 450 pounds.) After I recovered from his blank stare, I leaned across his desk and asked him, point blank, "What can I do to lose weight?"
I didn't have to wait long for the advice that was so callously handed out to me. His words of wisdom? His "secret" to staying thin and trim? His suggestion for my being able to have my home scale register my weight again? "Just stop eating so much."
What? Excuse me?
I quickly deducted that this VP wasn't willing to share his secret for staying lean. And, quite frankly, I'd never been more offended. "Just stop eating so much?" As if. I mean, just how much did he think I was eating? This was something I pondered as I marched back to my cubicle and sought therapy from my friends, the 3 Musketeers.
And yet, I couldn't stop thinking about those five words. The more I thought about them, the more incredulous I became. I could barely believe the audacity of this person. Didn't he know that being overweight wasn't my fault? After being raised by extremely abusive parents, after being the victim of sexual abuse as a child, after living a lifetime of eating to cope, didn't this person realize that I was a victim and needed sympathy and a pat on the shoulder?
Wait a minute. Was that what I was doing in his office? Did I need my reasons for being obese to be validated? Did I want to be enabled? Looking back I would have to say... probably. Only instead I got served some shorthand advice. Advice I couldn't quite shake. And as a result, before much longer, the phrase "just stop eating so much" wasn't swirling around in my head as much as it was resonating in my soul.
It was now dawning on me that although this VP might eat donuts or candy bars in public, he sometimes didn't finish the whole donut. And other times, I would see him consume just one candy bar as opposed to three. Or an apple. Or even say, "No thanks," when someone told him they were making a snack run for our department.
"Just stop eating so much," you say?
Well, it turns out that the rudest and most insensitive advice I'd ever received also happened to be the most effective. It wasn't long before I did just stop eating so much and, along with incorporating healthy amounts of exercise, took off over 250 pounds of excess weight within a year's time. No pills, surgery, or any wacky diets required.
To this day, I've never shared this story with the VP who tore my bandage off fast and instantly rendered all my years of ridiculously intricate (and pricey) dieting "tricks"—and excuses—worthless.
And yet, I feel like many times, when we're looking to overcome a challenge or obstacle, no matter how addictive that challenge or obstacle might be (and trust me, food can be as addictive as heroin for many of us), the simple, forthright and, yeah, rude advice can sometimes be the most beneficial. It can manage to knock us out of our comfort zone. And let's face it: too often our comfort zone involves those "things" we are addicted to, be they food or whatever-related.
So for me, that quick, callous advice was also the most valuable. Today, once people learn that I used to weigh over 450 pounds and have been at a healthy weight of around 175 pounds for well over a decade, they want to know what magic wand or "trick" I used to take off the excess poundage. And when I give them the same answer I received all those years ago, they usually look at me with the same shock and awe.
We want the answers to life's biggest dilemmas to be complicated, enabling, and even pricey. But often the best advice we can receive comes without any fancy packaging or outrageous promises or gratuitous politeness—or, for that matter, candy wrappers.