Why I Don’t Diet – An Ode to My Father

Tiffany Kell headshotMy father died three weeks ago. He was in hospice, with all the pharmacological and technological assistance available to keep him comfortable and pain-free, but it was still, as deaths go, not a good one.

I had flown in hours after I’d heard about his fall. He was in late-stage heart and renal failure, and this fall was the beginning of the end. When I arrived, a nurse popped into the room to check on him. “Are you in pain?” she asked. “Just a little,” my dad said, joking through his wincing.

It didn’t have to end like this.

My father was born larger than life, to a family of larger than life people. DNA sequencing showed we are almost entirely Viking stock, no great surprise given the height and breadth of our bodies.

When my father turned 20, he was over 6’2 and 300lbs. His feats of athleticism echoed like legends among his family and friends. There was the time he simply forward-pressed an enormous king-size bed from the sidewalk to a second-story window; it took six men to wrangle it inside. There was the time he and my mother were trapped in a collapsing apartment, and he picked her up with one arm and ripped the dead-bolted door out of its frame with the other. There was the time he stopped an attempted mugging by walking up to the assailant and plucking the knife out of his hand, like you or I would flick off a bit of lint. He was a giant, thriving and vital, built of strength and flesh.

But he didn’t want to be a giant. He wanted to be thin.

After trying and failing countless diet programs, he enrolled in an experimental program hosted by one of the most prestigious research universities in the world. The nitty-gritty: he’d live in their neuropsychiatric unit as an in-patient, and he would fast. He would consume nothing but water, calorie-free diet soda, and vitamin/mineral supplements. He would be kept in the hospital to make sure there were no hidden calories consumed. Researchers would learn how the body processes starvation. My father, presumably, would become thin.

He lived in the neuropsychiatric unit for eight months, consuming, on average, 30 calories a day. He recalls that the greatest challenge of this period wasn’t the fasting itself. It was the boredom. He stole a white coat someone had left behind and joined the team of doctors doing daily rounds, pretending to be a medical student. It was months before anyone realized he was actually a patient. I still have the charcoal sketches he made of his fellow inmates, a portrait of the hauntingly beautiful woman with schizophrenia he used to play cards with, or the baby-faced man with bipolar disorder who my father would later teach to drive.

The experiment was to end when my father reached his “normal” weight, which the doctors judged to be around 180lbs. And so he did. He was physically weak, with a newly developed arrhythmia, but he was thin.

This was one of the best moments of his life, and he would spend the next 40 years of his life trying to recapture it.

The thinness lasted less than two months. He obsessively counted calories and ate nothing but the minuscule amount of food his doctors had prescribed, but even so, he gained weight. A year later, he had gained everything back, with interest. He was now over 400lbs.

His pursuit of thinness never stopped. He took fen-phen, and ravaged his already damaged heart. He was still fat, but the hunt for weight-loss made him sicker and sicker.

Eventually, doctors found he had celiac disease. A wasting disease. No one had bothered to look for such a condition in a fat man. Years of being in and out of the hospital, and no one asked why he was throwing up all his food. They joked it was probably for the best that his GI system wasn’t working well. His intestines were scarred, and would never fully recover.

Even though he was as obsessed with thinness as a person can be, and as dedicated to its pursuit as is possible, he remained fat. And his doctors punished him for it. He was called names, refused care, and left without treatment, over and over again.

The last year of his life, he wasted away. His cheeks were shrunken, and his formerly massive shoulders started to look slight. I asked him to make sure he was eating, offered to send him food deliveries. He told me, no need. His doctors were thrilled he was finally “getting healthy” and losing weight. Every week, he gave me his excited “pounds lost” update. Every week, I hung up the phone and wept.

His last night in hospice, I sat by him in his room, his head resting on my shoulder. He was so small. His formerly massive legs had wasted to small sticks – like a child’s legs attached to a man’s body. He was a shadow of himself.

Nurses came and told me they wanted to resettle him in bed. He was partially supported by my body, and they were afraid I wasn’t strong enough to hold him. They were afraid he would fall. They brought four orderlies to help reposition him. Four strangers to move him since he was so big.

I told them no, that would not be necessary. I leaned over and gently lifted him off the bed, repositioning him so that now I cradled him, his entire weight supported by my body. I am more than strong enough, I informed them.

My father spent his years fighting his size, wishing he was smaller, weaker, less of a giant. He was taught to hate his body, and he was ashamed of the amount of space he took up. But he passed his strength to me, and I won’t squander my inheritance. I will not let myself be diminished.

I am my father’s daughter. I too am a giant, built of strength and flesh. And I am strong enough to carry myself and others, even when they can’t carry themselves.

~Tiffany


359 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Diet – An Ode to My Father

  1. What a well written post. Congrats on being “pressed”. Yes, indeed, a heartbreaking story. So sorry you lost your Dad, but glad you reclaimed yourself. I’ve know many big people, many of whom were extremely fit, athletic, strong and beautiful. Body shape has little to do with a person unless one is obsessed with changing it.

  2. I stumbled on your post and was unbelievably touched by your story. I’m a big girl, born with the likeness of my earthly father and although I was taught that I was also created in the image of my Heavenly Father, I was somehoe made to feel that something went wrong along the way. Slim and slender is the only way one should want to be. My father died six years ago, his earthly body no longer able to support his life. I continue to struggle with unbelievably stunning love for my father, yet shame for who I “appear” to be. I am he…in female form. Strong in flesh and spirit. You have stunningly reminded me that I am something to be proud of… I am my fathers daughter. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I grieve with your loss and celebrate the beauty of who you are.

  3. Tiffany,
    Thank you so much for sharing this! I am sure it was hard to write but so freeing as well! I also have struggled with weight every since I was little. I am just now working on learning to love myself for who I am weight and all. Like your father I was taught that my weight was a bad horrible thing that I needed to stop by any means possible. I am stopping that lie from this time on and starting the process of affirming and loving myself right where I am at! Again thank you so much for sharing about your father! I am sure he was an amazing man!

  4. I really admire your courage in writing this. blog. I am also sorry you lost your father. I understand the fight your father struggled with. I too struggle with my weight and have decided to have weight loss surgery, and partially because I dont want to fight my body the rest of my life. I admire you.

  5. We are who we are, fighting our genetic makeup as far as weight/build is concerned, is not natural. I am 5 ft 9in and weigh 135 pounds; sometimes I weigh less. I am a small boned woman, my frame is not meant to carry more weight. Yet, my family and some friends constantly tell me “eat”. I do eat, plenty! This is who I am. The other end of heavy is light, those of us who are thin get ridiculed just as much as those who are not, sometimes worse. Being healthy at whatever weight You are is all that matters; society has a cruel way of hitting us below the belt, instilling that we should physically be something other than who we are. Shame on those people for making your father feel the way that he did, trying desperately to meet their expectations, sadly to his detriment. I am thrilled to hear you say that you will not bend to societies pressures!!! You are a Warrior and a shining example of how we all should embrace and be joyous with who we are!! Thank you for sharing your story :)

  6. I am sorry for your loss, and for the misery your father was put through in his life. No one deserves to be taught to hate their own unique body, no matter what shape or color or size or ability/disability.

    A year and a half ago, my doctor told me I would be dead within 2 months if I did not IMMEDIATELY hie myself off to be mutilated by weight loss surgery. (This is my opinion of WLS for myself, I respect the right of others to choose that option for themselves.)

    I’m stil here, fat and sassy. That would be *just* the way TheEngineer loves me, too. ;)

  7. Wow, what a touching story. I am sorry for your loss but it seems as though he definitely showed you to be a strong person through his insecurities and hardships. Thank you for your post.

  8. Tiffany, I’m sorry for the loss of your father. Your writing is beautiful, insightful and alive — a Viking spirit. I’ve known many people who were amazing, could have been amazing, or could have had amazing lives — but it was so much more important for them to look a certain way than to be themselves and live it. Not me, either, sister!

  9. Thank you for sharing such a personal struggle. I cried when i read this coz i also lost my dad and i also have weight issues. Thank you for reminding me that my worth is so much more than the number on the scale.

  10. Thank you for sharing your story and your father’s with us. My Mom died last year, so I share in the pain that comes from losing a parent too soon. Your tribute to your father’s strength and legacy was incredible and inspiring!

    My mom also sought the “perfect number” on the scale most of her life. She was a curvy Greek girl seeking the Twiggy look. It wasn’t until her last year, as cancer took over her body, that her weight plummeted. But to her- she looked, “thin, at last!” I cringed when people complimented her weight loss, but she loved it.

    Your beautiful piece reminded me of how it felt to hug her frail body in hospice. It also made me realize that what really matters is living a life guided by our own rubric for living- forgoing others’ “scales” or rules.

    Thank you, again! I feel inspired today to live loud within this curvy, strong body. Sending you waves of support and healing, too!

  11. A very inspiring post. I almost cried. Others would say that being thin is sexy but that’s wrong. They would just made others feel sorry for themselves for being big. I hate it! Kudos for this!

  12. Tiffany, my condolences to you and your family. This is one of the most moving posts I’ve ever read. My heartfelt love and best wishes go with you. Peace and blessings. Michele

  13. Reblogged this on bearspawprint and commented:
    I reblogged from Michele’s reblog. — Michele D’Acosta reblogged this on Michele D’Acosta and commented:

    I encourage you all to read this extraordinary account. There is something here for everyone. Peace and blessings, Michele

  14. I have re blogged and commented on my blog….I have to say this inspired my first heart felt blog ever. It’s usually like pulling teeth for me…but something about this just made me write until it was done. I am very moved to say the least. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Thank you for this beautifully written and extremely moving story ! Everyone should be proud of their natural bodies, I love how you have put it….

  16. Illuminating and strangely validating to learn that at least one man understood so deeply what countless millions of women face every day. I wish he didn’t have to feel shame for being a natural human being, though; I wish I hadn’t learned too, either.

    The joyous thing about humans is that there is so much delicious variety in them. If you’ll forgive me, your father was exactly the physical type of man that really melts my butter. I’ve been on the lookout for my very own Viking all my life. When I finally meet him, I will hug him tightly as far around as my arms will reach and crane my neck back to receive a kiss from what I consider to be the very essence of male beauty.

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