Commentary on I Can’t Help the Way I Feel

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Years ago, a woman who was morbidly obese passed out in the lobby of the clinic where I worked. She must have slid off her extra-large wheelchair because by the time I raced down the stairs she was lying on her back like a tipped-over refrigerator. Several of us desperately pushed our fingers through many inches of fat, rooting around in her wrist and neck for a pulse. Someone started CPR. The woman’s calves, in comparison to the rest of her, were sticks, her thighs globular and round, like toothpicks stuck into plums. Because of her size—500 pounds, minimum—everything moved slowly. The techs couldn’t lift her and had to call for backup. It took eight strong men, sweating and red-faced, to hoist her into the ambulance. I never saw her face, never knew her name. In my memory, she is simply obesity incarnate.
Last summer, I thought of her again, that nameless, faceless massive woman, when I visited the Wellcome Center’s “Medicine Now” Gallery in London. There, larger than life, about seven feet high, stood a naked human mountain: bulky layers, fatty rolls, bulging protuberances balanced uneasily on two strained, overburdened legs. This was John Isaacs’s sculpture I Can’t Help the Way I Feel, and I could not look away. Here was a chance to gawk, to regard what was an exaggeration, for sure, or maybe not: the lumpy disfigured flesh, the bulbous pendulous globs one on top of the other. Just when I started to wonder whether I should feel ashamed for looking for so long, I realized this: the sculpture had no head, no arms, no sign of gender. And so, freed by the anonymity, the lack of real personhood, I kept looking, and I started to think about how it might feel to be this obese.
Examine the sculpture: there is no symmetry; the smooth and knobby slabs hang irregularly, the ever-larger mounds of tumor-like flesh grow upward and outward. Yet the suffering shows most in the legs. How much concentration must this top-heavy creature marshal to maintain a precarious balance. The calves balloon weightily; the puckered elephantine skin is blotchy with sores and welts. A scrimshaw of blue ineffective veins render the skin of the feet ruddy, and the soles—from years of heavy pressure—flatten into the ground.
John Isaacs has stripped away the usual elements that make a close visual inspection awkward. I stared in a way that I couldn’t with a real patient and found myself mulling over some of the reasons why so many in the medical community dread caring for patients who are morbidly obese: frustration with the extra flesh that gets in the way of a decent physical examination, the inadequate treatment options, not knowing how to talk about weight without offending or shaming. Then there’s the common belief that obesity is a failure of willpower, not a real disease.
I also considered the overarching bias of many in the medical profession who view every single aspect of a patient’s life through the lens of obesity. This is why I am particularly grateful for coming across John Isaacs’s sculpture. The beauty of the artwork—and yes, I mean beauty—is that when you look at the headless, armless body, your usual prejudices are not only brought to the surface but turned upside down. You can’t think, “This woman can’t say no to a box of doughnuts,” or “This man won’t even try to exercise.” The sculpture forces empathy. When you look at the legs, you start to grasp the effort required to haul this huge body around.
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