Read an Excerpt
The Extra Weight
A culture of fat
The easiest thing to be in America is fat. It's easier than working, easier than raising a family, easier than making money, and definitely easier than getting up and switching off the TV. Being fat has become the national pastime.
When it comes to body size and image, we live in a confused and contradictory world. For all the concern the social commentators, the psychologists, and the politically correct have about the unhealthy influence of those slick fashion and celebrity magazines featuring too-thin models and rapidly reducing stars, that's not where the real problem lies. Yes, the culture of thin that appears in magazines, in movies, and on television is ubiquitous, selling everything from cars to new dentures. But thin's not the story on the street.
The reality is that we worship large. Our cars are the biggest and the fattest -- we drive vehicles that consume a gallon of gas every ten miles. Our houses are huge -- the average home size is steadily increasing while the average family size is decreasing. Our homes are overflowing with the fat of the things we consume -- we spend more time shopping than any other people on earth. Our meals are gargantuan -- portion sizes have tripled in the United States over the last twenty-five years. Boeing has increased the assumed weight for each passenger by more than twenty pounds. Office chairs are being made larger to accommodate our bigger butts. Even Disneyland, the happiest -- but obviously not the thinnest -- place on earth, is redesigning some of its costumes and uniforms to accommodate ever-increasing waist sizes. You'll be happy to know that even if you have a fifty-eight-inch waist and want to work at Disneyland, they have a pair of pants for you! Everywhere we see the effects of an increasingly heavy population -- from office chairs to bra sizes, everything is getting bigger. And, most noticeable of all, our pants no longer fit most of us -- no surprise since the average waist size has grown four inches in less than ten years. With two-thirds of Americans overweight or obese, it's impossible to deny that we love, love, love fat.
As a nation we are reveling in an orgy of consumption and it shows no sign of letting up. We can't get enough of anything. The American mantra has become "more is better" and we are applying that motto with gusto to almost every aspect of our lives. If consuming is good, then consuming more is better.
When did buying stuff become a national obsession? When did we become such crazy consumers? When did we get so fat? It all seems to have happened quickly and with little warning. Yesterday you had no trouble fitting into your jeans and today you feel like you're being strangled -- at the waistline. America and the world have changed dramatically in our own lifetime. Everything moves more quickly -- fast travel, fast mail, fast food. We are all drawn into this ever-quickening pace. "I want it and I want it now" seems almost reasonable. If others can have it, why can't I?
Amazingly, we have come close to achieving instant gratification. The 1.3 billion credit cards in circulation in America are one indication that we can buy things the moment the urge strikes us, whether we can afford them or not. We can pay for it later. And plenty of stuff is cheap anyway. We buy things with little thought of the consequences and, even when buried in debt, our purchases continue. We can afford a lot and get it fast. So what do we do? We fill our houses and our lives with it.
Similarly, food is cheap and immediately available. We now buy half the food we consume outside our homes. Takeout is quick, efficient, and cheap. It suits our fast-paced lives. You don't have to think about what you're eating -- or how much. You'll deal with it later. Or not. We seem to be genuinely unaware of the connection between what we put into our mouths and the size of our waists. We can even ignore reality by purchasing one of the new digital cameras with a "slim down" function. Hewlett-Packard's website promises "the slimming feature, available on select HP digital camera models, is a subtle effect that can instantly trim off pounds from the subjects in your photos!" Now you can go down in skinny history. But in the here and now, this convenience comes at a cost. Pig out today, but strip down to your underwear tomorrow, stand in front of a mirror, and you'll see the cost I'm talking about!
When it comes to losing weight, we are promised the same instant weight loss that those digital cameras offer. A house can be built on television in a week. An ugly duckling can get a new face and a new body in a mere sixty minutes on prime time. A celebrity can lose the baby weight in three weeks. Who can blame us for expecting the instant fix? But it's all an illusion. Paying with a credit card seems painless, but we all know the bill comes later and has to be paid off with hours of hard work.
The same is true when you overeat on a regular basis. Only hard work will get rid of the excess. Our choices today have consequences we have to deal with tomorrow -- there's no way around it.
It's All Too Much:
Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff
Four years ago I became the organizational expert on a television show called Clean Sweep. The premise of the show was very simple. A team of experts -- including me, a designer, a carpenter, and a crew that assisted in the painting and redesign plans -- was given two days to help a family dig out from under their overwhelming clutter.
In two days, with a budget of two thousand dollars, we tackled two rooms and really managed to work some miracles. These were not homes with a little clutter here and there. I vividly remember walking into a home where the homeowner said, without flinching, while standing in three-foot-deep clutter, "There is a piano in there somewhere, but I haven't seen it in seventeen years." We found a dining room where the family had not seen the surface of the dining table -- much less managed to eat there -- for more than six years. And then there was the guy with more than three hundred pairs of shoes -- and that wasn't counting what he'd hidden in the garage before I got there! This was clutter that had a life of its own, taking over whole homes and suffocating any chance that the family might have had to live an organized, stress-free life.
The people on Clean Sweep may be extreme cases, but this situation is far more common than any of the Clean Sweep team had expected. It was not unusual for our production office to receive two hundred and fifty applications a day, all begging to be on the show. Like the clutter we saw every day, we were inundated with people needing our help. The sheer weight and volume of what people own is truly overwhelming many homes across America. It's hard to find a home today that has a garage in which there's room left to park a car. There are the houses so full of "stuff" that families are reduced to navigating narrow paths through their clutter. We saw spaces so full of collectibles, furniture, paper, clothes, books, and shoes that even the homeowners themselves seemed mystified by what their lives had become.
What started out as a program to help people deal with clutter quickly morphed into something very different. It became obvious that the clutter represented something much deeper going on in many of the people's lives and relationships. For those people, and many of the clients I work with, a shift had taken place -- almost without them realizing it. They no longer owned their stuff; their stuff owned them. For some, it went even further. Their "stuff" was the way they defined themselves -- "I am what I own." They were unable or unwilling to separate themselves from what they owned to the point that their living spaces became partially -- or in some cases totally -- unusable. To break this pattern is an intense challenge. It's not just about putting things in garbage bags or finding the right photo boxes. I help people confront and redefine their relationships with what they own.
The letters that appear throughout this book are a sampling of the many e-mails and notes I receive almost every day. I've removed names and/or stripped away identifying details, but the sentiments are genuine and the people who have expressed them are real.
I believe that if I can learn to "let go," change will
happen. All of this clutter is taking my life away from
me. There is so much going on, literally and figuratively,
in my house that there is no room for happiness. I find
that my body is overwhelmed, my house is overwhelmed,
and my mind is overwhelmed. This is a selfimposed
prison that I can't get out of. The "clutter"
rules every corner of my life.
Each of us has one life. You. Me. Our friends and family. But I have to ask: Is it the life you want? It may be unexpected, but this is the question I always start with when helping people declutter and organize their homes -- and ultimately their lives. What is the vision you have of the life you want to live? Are you living the life you want?
This is where many of my clients have lost their way. Somehow they've lost sight of what it is they want from the life they have. Almost imperceptibly their stuff infiltrates. Eventually the clutter fills their space and their life. A sense of frustration and impotence takes over and they feel powerless to turn things around.
Creating a vision for the life you want to live forces you to make decisions based on the real priorities that should drive your life. Do you want to keep the last three years of magazine subscriptions, or do you want to use that dining table for dinner with your family? Do you want to fill the garage with boxes containing your grandmother's moth-eaten tablecloths, or do you want to preserve your investment in your car? Do you want your children's laundry piled on your bed, or do you want your bedroom to be a place of peace and intimacy? Your home shouldn't overwhelm you. It should give you shelter from the storm. And it should be more than a roof over your head. It's up to you to make your home support you in your quest for happiness.
The transformations I have seen are speedy and amazing. As soon as people have space to breathe, their spirits lift. They have new energy and hope. At the end of the process, almost without exception, people tell me, "This has changed my life." Those are amazing and gratifying words to hear. By helping my readers and viewers and clients redefine their relationships to what they own, I have some small part in helping them look differently at their lives. Not in a superficial way, but at a level that has altered their relationships with everyone and to everything around them.
With all my work decluttering homes and watching the resulting transformations came two critical revelations:
1. It's Not About the Stuff
The first step in helping people deal with clutter is to get them to look at things other than the clutter itself. I know this sounds strange, but if you are struggling with the things you own, and focus exclusively on these things, you will never tame them. Believe me, it's rarely about "the stuff." Clutter is about fear of losing memories, or worry about the future, or a sense that something bad is going to happen. It's a way of dealing with loss, or even a way of masking the pain of some past trauma. The woman who couldn't let go of family memorabilia because of the sudden and tragic death of her brother, the father who hoarded all of his children's schoolwork because it represented what he felt were the years he was closest to his sons and daughter, or the couple whose home was overflowing with personal paperwork because they were so fearful of identity theft.
Looking beyond the clutter for answers means addressing the underlying issues. I learned long ago that if you focus on the stuff, you will never conquer the clutter and deal with the fat and excess that fills your home. This revelation is the key to the success I've had in helping people reframe the way they look at what they own. It is fundamental to helping people overcome years of clutter and disorganization in their lives.
2. Your Home Reflects Your Life
Your home is a reflection of you. Not in some airy-fairy way, but in a real and tangible sense. It's no accident that at the same time we are struggling with the national "epidemic of obesity," we are also living in homes weighted down with clutter and filled with "stuff."
Dealing with clutter and regaining a sense of harmony and organization in their homes touched many people I worked with in ways that I don't think anyone foresaw. Suddenly "clutter" meant so much more than an overstuffed closet or garage. For most, changing their relationship to their stuff became the first step in a larger process of adjusting the other relationships in their lives. Couples reassessed their relationships and removed the hurdles that had cluttered up their emotional lives. A few couples went their separate ways. Others realized that major changes were needed if the relationships were to continue. People lost weight, changed careers, reassessed the way they spent their time, and reorganized their priorities. Removing the clutter from people's lives was more than just clearing a desk of unwanted paperwork or getting all that junk out of the garage. Decluttering and organizing had an impact on every aspect of the lives of the people I worked with.
Clutter and fat -- they're not so different
Now I want to work with you on a different relationship, another relationship that we lose track of when we're overwhelmed by the pressures and demands of busy lives. Another relationship that is intense, even potentially life threatening, and, when redefined, has the power to change your life. This is a book about you and your relationship with your body -- about what you think about it, what you put into it, how you treat it, and whether you are happy with it. In our culture, the relationship most people have with their bodies hinges on size. The size of your body is probably why you picked up this book. And the size of your body is where my expertise as a declutterer comes in. This is a book about the clutter around you and the clutter inside you that prevents you from living the life you want and being the person you wish to be. Your relationship to food is complex. If you're fat, your problems are real, and there are no miracles. Changing is going to take some straight talk and I'm here to give it.
The person for whom clutter is not a problem is extremely rare. So many of my clients seem to have lost focus in their lives and live with a nagging but poorly defined yearning for something they can't quite grasp. In accumulating more and more stuff or eating more and more food, they are attempting to meet the need for "something more." No matter how much more they accumulate, however, the need remains. For others, there is an element of boredom combined with a simmering sense of frustration, even anger. Again, it's something that many find hard to put a finger on, yet whatever it is lies behind their need to fill their lives with things. The hope is that material things will bring meaning and fulfillment. It never works.
All of us deal constantly with the urge to consume more. They're just not very different -- clutter and fat: I see it. I want it. I'll have it. Consumption is king. We spend too much, we buy too much, and we eat too much. In the same way that we surround ourselves with so much clutter, we overwhelm our bodies with caloric clutter consisting mainly of sugar and fat. Almost all of us are carrying extra pounds that we just can't seem to shake. The stuff in our homes becomes too overwhelming to deal with, but we keep shopping. Similarly, the increasing weight of our bodies becomes more than we are able to handle, but we keep indulging. I'm not saying that if you're struggling with clutter you'll be fat or that a weight problem automatically means there is clutter in your home. It's not that simple. What is clear, however, is that we have a weight problem in this country and it is killing us. Look around -- in all of those fat houses, fat malls, and fat cars are fat people. Clutter and fat -- one is a reflection of the other. If you hope to deal with either, you need to change the way you look at things.
It's not about the food
As I learned in cluttered houses across the country, when you've collected too much of anything, including fat, you can't get rid of it without facing the underlying issues. To lose weight, to achieve the body and look you desire, you have to consider the many aspects of where and how you live. You have to consider the life you want to live. You have to look at your body the way you look at your house and say, "Do I honor and respect this body? Does it reflect who I am?" If your goals aren't clear and your thinking isn't focused, you can't break the habits that stand in your way.
To deal with the fat that clings to your hips, you need to look beyond the number on the scale. If that's your focus, you will never lose weight. I know that this flies in the face of common thinking, but consider this: Every year, we spend nearly 40 billion dollars on diet books and programs. It's estimated that 45 million of us diet at some point every year and yet we keep gaining weight. If diets are the key to losing weight, why is that with the increasing number of diet books the pounds just keep stacking on? Why, if so many of us diet at least once every year, are two-thirds of us heavier than we should be? As far as I'm concerned, most of those diet books are full of empty promises and short-lived results. They encourage us to spend hours weighing, measuring, and scoring what we put in our mouths. They fill us with a sense of failure and guilt. And each diet book contributes one more piece of clutter to our homes, adding to our already increasing weight -- both on our bookshelves and on our hips! More diet books, more weight -- a paradox.
The connection between clutter and weight didn't occur to me overnight. About a year ago I published my book It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. Soon after the book was released I began hearing from people who'd used it to get rid of the clutter in their homes and lives. In these letters I discovered an unexpected side effect. The link that I had suspected but only dimly glimpsed became obvious through the experiences of my readers. I was inundated with real examples of the impact clutter had on all areas of one's life -- especially weight.
I have been overweight for most of my adult life. I
think about it every day. It is a burden. I've lost the
weight and gained it back over and over. I've been
around the block long enough to know that I eat to fill a
void. What I didn't know was that I was keeping clutter,
boxes, and memories in my life for the same reason.
Furthermore, the clutter had an invisible hold on me...
like my weight, my stuff was a burden. And how did I
deal with the burden? By eating, of course!
Recently, I read It's All Too Much about decluttering
my life. I thought I was going to find out how to get rid
of some boxes in my basement and, finally, do something
with the coconut that my sister sent me forty
years ago! What I found was something quite different.
In the book you gave me permission to live the life I
have always thought about. No, deeper than that, the
life I knew I should be living.
After reading your book, I got started on the boxes,
the closet, and the garage. I started to feel lighter. Literally.
I didn't make the connection to my eating habits
and, ultimately, my weight for a couple of weeks. But as
I kept working on unloading the clutter of my life, I noticed
that I was making better food choices. I wasn't filling
up every opportunity with a snack. My desire to
work out had come back. I know it sounds strange but
it's true....This book clicked on a light that I have
been trying to get to for years.
I will never go back because I know that -- as you
say -- it's not about the stuff. And it's not about the
weight. It's about my life.
Dozens of my readers started talking to me in letters, at readings, and on the radio. They told me that when they focused on the lives they wanted to live, they were able to free themselves of years of stuff. When they focused on the lives they knew they deserved, they were able to free themselves from years of gorging themselves. And you can, too.
I have tried most diets and I have invested in many
forms of organizational products and books. Anything
that appeared to be "the answer" or "magic bullet" on
either front, I was all over it. What I came to discover is
that my weight and my clutter have very little to do with
food or things and everything to do with my outlook on
life....Now that I have gotten rid of a lot of the stuff in
my home (I'm just about to do a second round of "the
purge") that made me feel bad, new stuff that I like has
appeared. I have also lost ten pounds. The first of many
that I need to lose, but I am confident that if I live in the
now -- by keeping only what I need and love and eating
mindfully -- I can have the life I was meant to live.
I don't find that decluttering my house affects
my weight, but I do find that living in a cluttered environment
evokes the same feelings as my weight problem.
I get the same frustrations -- and feelings of utter
helplessness -- at what feels like an insurmountable
problem in both instances. I am using the techniques I
learned from Clean Sweep and your book to work
through my physical clutter, and the feelings I get when
I walk into my clutter-free areas are hard to describe. I
find myself walking in the rooms and just standing
there, looking around.
The feelings of not knowing where or how to start
do apply to weight loss, but unfortunately I haven't
been able to quite get a handle on the weight side of
the equation. I think until I am better able to handle my
frustrations with my life and especially my job, I'm just
going to have to focus on getting my physical clutter in
order, and save the "internal" clutter for another time.
Clutter or weight? Weight or clutter? What is the solution? We have to take a step back and look at the total picture. It's a huge mistake to draw arbitrary lines and to put different parts of your life into separate little boxes. Your food. Your career. Your relationships. Your schedule. Your buying habits. Your diet. Consider for a moment that where you live, what you own, how you interact with others, what you eat, and how you spend your time are all intimately linked. You can't change one piece without affecting all the others.
My oldest sister falls into the category of having
both a clutter problem and a weight problem. She was
chubby as a child and did some yo-yo dieting in her
late teens and twenties. After she married and had her
son (and subsequently divorced) she gained a lot of
weight. During this time, her home also became a complete
nightmare. If I were to take a stab at the cause of
both, I would have to say that because she was in an
unhappy marriage, she medicated herself with both
food and shopping. The weight gain was cyclical, as
was the shopping. The more she shopped, the more
junk she had around the house, and she got to a point
where she just didn't know where to begin. Books and
junk everywhere, empty boxes, stuff her ex-husband
left (ten years ago) which she's never disposed of. I
think that when a person's life is in chaos, that chaos is
reflected in all areas of his/her life.
Declutter your mind, declutter your home, declutter your relationship to food. Then watch the ripple effect this has on every aspect of the way you live. Clear out the junk, and in doing so clear out the patterns of thought and behavior that prevent you from living the life you want. If you try to clear the clutter by focusing on the stuff, you will fail to get organized. It's not about the stuff. If you try to lose weight by focusing on the food, you'll never change your body for good. It's not about the food. First define the life you want to live. Acknowledge the issues that clutter that vision. Clean up your priorities. Create a world where those priorities can thrive. Learn how to honor and respect yourself. When you do, the ability to take control of your body will follow.
Permission to be imperfect
Thin is not the answer to life's problems. And fat is not life's problem. The focus of my work is to help people be honest with themselves -- that's where change starts. Are you stuck in the notion that being ten pounds overweight is wrong and life destroying? Because it's not. Not unless you make it so. And particularly not if you're a sixty-year-old grandparent with a nice, soft lap that's perfect for cuddling the grandkids. Why are some of us perfectionists about weight when we're not perfectionists about anything else in our lives? What is most important to you? It should be personal happiness, love, family, relationships. I'm not in amazing shape myself. I'm over fifty years old, and I'm comfortable. I love the people in my life. I wake up happy in the morning. Life is good. Happiness is the ideal and should be the focus of your priorities. It's the key to a balanced, healthy life.
When I step into a cluttered home, all of the "stuff" recedes into the background. The person or people who live there become my focus -- their dreams, their frustrations, their fears, and their hopes. I don't care what your scale says. I don't care what size you wear. I don't care about your BMI (body mass index). I don't care about anything you've put into your mouth before today. I care about the person I meet. How do you feel? Are you happy and at peace with yourself? Do you have energy and enthusiasm? Are you open to new people and experiences? Do you radiate self-confidence and optimism?
I care about the world where you live. Is it safe and comfortable? Do you look forward to walking through your own front door? Is your home a haven? Does it reflect the life you want to live?
I care about the way you treat your body. Do you respect it? Do you get pleasure from physical activity? Do you have a good sex life? Do you sleep well? Are you healthy? Do you enjoy convivial meals with good friends and/or family? Do you have every reason to expect that you'll live long and well?
I want you to live the best life that you can. And I want you to decide what that is. I'm not going to tell you to exercise for twenty minutes three times a week. I have no idea if that will make you happy. You need to look to yourself for answers. I'm here to help you do that.
If you're fat and happy, congratulations. You don't need this book. I encourage you to accept yourself as you are. Imperfection is not a problem -- unhappiness is. Happiness is the goal here, and a long life in which to enjoy that happiness. If you are fine with your weight and satisfied with your life expectancy, great! You can put down this book, pick up your 750-calorie (not that I'm counting) Starbucks Venti Strawberries & Crème Frappuccino® Blended Crème with whipped cream and call it a day.
Look at your life. If you and your family don't mind the consequences of your weight or if you have a clean bill of health, maybe you should stop harping about those extra ten pounds and enjoy your life. I don't believe in weight loss for the sake of weight loss. I believe in living a life that makes you happy. However, if your butt looks fat and you don't like it, it's time to get rid of it.
A new approach
This is not a diet or exercise book. It doesn't have recipes or exercise routines; there are thousands of those you can easily purchase and probably already have. Understand this very clearly -- I am not a doctor or a dietitian or an exercise physiologist. There are enough experts already cluttering this space and I do not want to add to the frenzy. I am, however, someone who has worked with hundreds of people to get them to a simpler, richer life, one that is less cluttered and more focused. This book is the product of years of experience and a great dose of common sense. I know how to help people gain control of their lives and get out from under the "fat" of what they own. I have seen this hundreds and hundreds of times with clutter and I believe that what is true for our homes and our stuff is also true for our bodies and our weight. It is the remarkable parallel between the weight of clutter and the ever increasing body weight of Americans that has been the driving force behind this book. A cluttered home can have a hugely negative impact on your life. Being overweight or obese can also have devastating consequences for you, your family, and your life.
Unlike the latest fad diet, I'm not promising instant results. If you're looking for a liposuction kit sandwiched between the covers of a book for the suggested retail price of twenty-two dollars, then you've come to the wrong place. You want a quick fix? I'm not your guy. I want you to have long-term results that improve every aspect of your life and, trust me, that can't and won't happen overnight.
The aim of this book is simple: It will show you how to move closer to the life you should be living. It will help you redefine your relationship with your body just as It's All Too Much helps people redefine their relationships with their stuff. Your happiness is the goal. Fat, thin, cluttered, clean -- I want you to find the life that makes you happy. The world today is a complicated place. For many it's filled with fear and uncertainty. Your weight is actually something you can control. If it's getting in the way of your happiness, let's take care of it once and for all.
You've probably been on a diet before and you probably failed. That's not surprising. Fat, like clutter, can be overwhelming. Excess is always hard to manage -- by its very nature, it makes you feel out of control. I'm going to provide you with a clear and simple plan for dealing with the current wave of consumption that affects us all. Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? will help you examine how your emotions, your home, your kitchen, and your pantry are working for -- or against -- the life you want for yourself. It will ask you to explore the emotional relationship you have with food and eating. It will focus on your personal habits of buying, eating, and exercising so that you can make informed and empowered choices for yourself. If a healthy diet doesn't fit your lifestyle, well, we'll just have to change your lifestyle.
I'm not here to tell you about food. Chances are you already know more than enough. Fat people know everything there is to know about food: calories, sugar content, nutritional value. You can have a very intimate relationship with food, but don't expect it to be fulfilling. Food, like clutter, promises everything but delivers nothing. This book is not focused on the food you eat, it's about the life you live and how both are deeply linked. Ultimately, it will help you redefine your relationship to what you own, what you eat, and how you live. In so doing, it will change how you live your life.
If you have struggled with the fat that hounds most of us, then here is a chance to look at it in a totally new way. If diet and exercise books have proven useless to you, if you yearn to make a change but don't quite know how, then it's time to make a change that works.
I'm not saying it will be easy or the results immediate, but I have helped people across the country deal with the excess of clutter that has robbed them of pleasure and enjoyment. Together, we can apply those same lessons to the stretch-elastic waistbands that haunt us every day! I promise that if you embrace Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? you will come away with strategies and techniques to make lasting changes in your life.
You hold the solution in your hands. The choice is yours.
Copyright © 2008 by Peter Walsh Design, Inc.