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A Wider Perspective

Postcard from Roxbury, Mass.

By Jasmine J. Mahmoud

ROXBURY, Mass.—“Let’s play 50 taps,” Jose suggests while dribbling the brown-skinned basketball on the shiny wood court.

“Let’s,” my sports-ignorant self replies, not remembering anything of this game’s rules from the last time I played it, only a week prior. Not that I really care. Pitifully shooting ten percent from the floor, I derive fun from my two modest goals: stealing rebounds and (more importantly) successfully throwing the ball into the basket. I keep it simple.

With his developed prowess, Jose skillfully makes another shot. Grr! But I am not to be defeated! I steal his rebound and the ball is mine again to shoot. Jose taunts, “Don’t miss. Don’t miss. Don’t miss.” To my chagrin, I do. But I’m still loving this.

This is all fun and games, but when I lunge after my missed ball, I realize that I am playing sports with an overweight 12 year-old child. How did this ever happen?

I hate fat people. Or least I did, up until about six weeks ago. My utter annoyance with the obese seems—like obesity itself—to be inherited. Except for petite and pudgy me, everyone else in my immediate family is tall and exceedingly trim. And, as if our disgust with the overfed were genetically predetermined, we have all had run-ins. Take my brother, for example, who while spending the summer on his college campus at University of California at San Diego (a hub for summer teen overweight camps), found a cruel humor in luring the fat kids away from the basketball courts with fattening candy bars so that he and his friends could use the space themselves.

When it comes to weight, my family is cruel even to their closest ones. After my first year of college, complete with typical bad eating habits—the freshmen fifteen accompanied me home for the start of summer—my mother, in her less-than-subtle manner, practically shamed me into my health club membership. After one summer back at home with Mom, whose zeal for raising our family on a fruit-and-vegetable-filled diet is notorious, I was fitter than ever. Still not the slimmest of students, I could confidently assert that my body mass index stood healthily under 25. I worked out regularly and ate a colorful and nutritious diet. I was a pretty healthy girl. And I was damn proud of it.

But with my pride came snobbery. Put any overweight person within my line of sight and let the jokes, jaunts and taunts begin. To the fat person requesting extra mayonnaise on his sandwich, I’d hiss to myself, “Do you like clogging your arteries?” To the fat people lining up at McDonalds for a super-sized snack, I derisively thought, “You should be banned from this restaurant and forced to run a mile!” To the fat person taking the escalator, I would quietly and cruelly propose “climbing the stairs instead would do your jiggle some good.” No overweight individual was safe from my criticism.

All comments were imagined with a hateful vengeance that automatically de-humanized any overweight person into a slothful, greedy, wasteful marauder. They were inconsiderate lazy blobs, who ate poorly and were killing themselves daily. And I hated them. All of them.

Given my antipathy for the overweight, many were surprised when they heard about my summer plans: staying in Cambridge to volunteer at an afternoon program teaching fitness and nutrition to obese children. “You’re working at a fat camp?!” was almost everyone’s shocked response. I am.

Health is one of my passions. From watching the Discovery Health channel while on the jogger, to making meals with mango, non-fat yogurt, raisins and nuts, to reading (almost exclusively) the health articles in the Wall Street Journal, I’m a health junkie. The summer fitness and nutrition program naturally drew me. But by volunteering with this program, I would be intentionally surrounding myself with those I loved to hate.

The participants of this program range in age from six to sixteen, and were all referred to us from their local hospital as pediatric obesity cases. Also, all of them are minorities—black or Latino. Obesity among the young, especially young minorities has been steadily increasing. According to the Center for Disease Control, where some one in four white children are overweight today, for black and Hispanics the rate is one in three. And that blacks and Latinos are more often poorer than mainstream America does not help their situation.

Indeed, all of our participants are from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan—Boston’s poorest communities. Where Best Buys are replaced with Rent-A-Centers, and only a confusing (and often routinely late and slow) system of buses connect their community, their Boston isn’t on any tourist map. Instead, like much of the rest of low-income America, it is a mecca for obesity.

In their Boston, you’ll find no Star Market, no Boston Sports Clubs. Instead parks are crammed next to the less than modest Burger Kings, and any-thing-you-want-to-wolf-down-for-two-dollars eateries. Sickeningly unhealthy offerings from the school lunch program (one participant told me that his school serves green salami sandwiches) and a host of other factors brimming from meager incomes make their obesity understandable.

Not that being overweight is ok. The slew of health factors (heart disease stroke, type II diabetes) have devastating effects on the body, effects which are often amplified when obesity strikes at such a young age.

But understanding financial constraints and physical environments of many an overweight person makes former ignorant fat-people-haters like me more committed to finding viable weight loss and healthy lifestyle solutions for these kids.

A few days ago, during the program’s trip to a grocery store, we strolled down the aisles with the students and talked realistically about meal choices. While walking down the cereal aisle, comparing labels on the kids’ favorite cereals, one of the participants said to me, “You know what, Jasmine, you are so considerate and understanding. I love you.”

I replied, “I love you, too.” I realized I had to. Now that I understand where they come from, I can no longer hate their situation—or them.

Jasmine J. Mahmoud ’04, a government concentrator in Winthrop House, is an associate editorial chair of The Crimson. She’s spending her summer shepherding her beloved butterballs away from the candy aisles and getting schooled in jump shoots by pudgy sixth-graders.

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