My Journey To Self-Acceptance As 'The DUFF' Of My Social Circle

by Michael Palumbo

Yesterday, I was casually running some errands when I realized I was starving. It was 2 pm, and I decided to go to a local cafe.

I ordered a turkey club with a side of French fries. The sandwich was disappointing, but I hadn't really eaten all day so I quickly finished it anyway.

When the waitress cleared my table and walked toward the kitchen, I overheard her tell her coworker, "Wow, he really inhaled that."

She turned to me, and we made eye contact. She quickly diverted her eyes and didn't wait on my table for the rest of the time I was there, even though I tried to smile as if to say, "It's okay. I know. That was funny!"

Suffice it to say, I did not order dessert.

Her comment and her apparent guilt once she realized I had overheard is a relatively uneventful occurrence for me, considering the fact that I am morbidly obese.

I get comments like this all of the time. Friends, family, strangers and even former employers have all commented and expressed concern for my weight; it's gotten to the point that I've become desensitized to it.

My responses to people have almost become automatic because I have to repeat myself so often: "I know; I'm worried for my health, too. I'm going to make a change."

But, I've never made that dramatic change because I've never really wanted to do so. I am obviously aware of my appearance, but subconsciously, I think I was resistant to losing weight because I wanted people to accept me as I am. I ignored their concerns simply because I didn't share them.

It wasn't until I read a Huffington Post article -- about my fellow college colleague, Nile Cappello's, experience with a guy who told her she had gained weight and how she thanked him for his frankness — that I started to consider my own experiences with people commenting on my weight.

Memories of awkward interactions instantly came to mind. A few years ago during a job interview, an employer asked me if I "was always overweight," which he qualified by saying he had recently undergone a body transformation and wanted to impart some knowledge unto me.

He told me my interview skills, personality and qualifications were great, but my personal presentation could be improved by losing weight because people notice it.

At first, I thought this was a fair assessment. I also thanked him for his frank advice because what else could I do? I wanted the job.

However, I didn't have the same sense of self-actualization and empowerment as my friend at the Huffington Post.

This wasn't the first time I had heard the question: "Have you always been overweight?"

Now, I was worried that even in the professional world, my first impression would not be based on my previous experience or my communication skills, but rather, the appearance of my body.

In college, I was part of a fraternity, the school newspaper, other volunteer groups and worked on campus; naturally, I knew and associated with many people.

Many of my friends are attractive, and a lot of guys in my fraternity, even guys in other fraternities, were surprised by it.

"How do you know those girls? Do you hook up with them? Why do they hang out with you?"

My female friends told me how other guys at our local college bars would ask them about me.

It became apparent they were asking me and my own friends these questions because of my weight, and it was as if I didn't deserve to have such attractive friends.

It wasn't a phrase at the time, but I have since realized I was the DUFF (designated ugly fat friend) of my friend group.

For a while, I was okay with this because I had worked for it — not by losing weight and becoming "attractive" by social standards — by making myself stand out on my own terms.

I was invisible when I first entered college, which I knew because people wouldn't remember my name at parties, or my friends would compliment me on clothes I had for months (something that still happens constantly).

I somehow simultaneously felt invisible and like the literal elephant in the room.

I was someone no one wanted to acknowledge unless they absolutely had to. This hurt me, and I didn't enjoy my college experience at first.

I knew if I wanted to join certain social circles, I would have to make people notice me in a positive light.

One night, I impulsively decided to take my mom's expensive camera to a party. I don't know what compelled me, but I took 1,100 pictures that night.

It was fun, and for the first time, people came up to me and started conversations so I would take their pictures.

It became apparent that the only thing attractive people loved more than themselves were pictures of themselves.

I knew I had to get my own camera, so I told my dad I needed one for my work at the school newspaper.

I became the historian of my fraternity, and I was soon notorious for taking pictures at parties.

I became not only accepted, but also sought out by social groups. I was invited to more places, I got friend requests from people I didn't even remember meeting (oh, the irony) and I suddenly became worth knowing.

I took pride in myself for becoming such a social climber, despite the fact I wasn't as attractive as the people I surrounded myself with.

I circumvented weight loss, and I still got the acceptance I wanted.

Photography has since developed into a passion, and more importantly, I have so many friends with whom I share a mutual respect and love.

However, after being out of college for almost two years, that social currency has diminished and it's something I regret focusing on because climbing the social ladder doesn't burn calories.

I gained a considerable amount of weight.

During my senior year, I decided to go to Cabo San Lucas with what seemed like half of my school for spring break.

After boarding the plane, I sat down to put on my seatbelt. I was horrified to find out that my seat belt wouldn't buckle. I scanned to see if anyone next to me noticed I was struggling.

Many of my classmates were on board, and I was not about to become the Kevin Smith of this flight, despite being literally too fat to fly.

Instead, I hid the seatbelt underneath my stomach, and it went unnoticed.

It was not a proud moment for me. I could've endangered myself, my friends and other passengers had something gone wrong.

I haven't been on an airplane since. I haven't traveled since that trip because I'm afraid I would need to buy two seats for myself.

I refuse to go to theme parks because I'm afraid I'll recreate "Final Destination 3" and derail a roller coaster.

Now, it wasn't just my friends and family who told me I needed to lose weight -- it was my body. My lower back hurt when I simply walked or went on the treadmill for an extended period of time.

I get random chest pains. I have to shop almost exclusively at the big and tall section of department stores.

I avoided a scale for years until recently, and when I finally stepped on, I saw more than double the weight I should be for my height.

For the first time ever in my life, I'm starting to realize ignorance is no longer blissful, but harmful.

When I told one of my best friends I was finally going to the gym, she told me, "Push yourself, but don't die."

That angered me because it seemed patronizing, but she was vocalizing a legitimate concern: I was so fat, I could harm myself with overexertion.

I asked that same friend if she was embarrassed to be associated with me because of my weight since she constantly brought it up.

I wanted to believe the friends I worked so hard to attain were shallow and superficial and their encouragement was only to advance some ulterior motive.

I wanted to accuse them of being intolerant of my physical appearance, instead of confronting my problems and perceptions of how I should look.

I realized I was projecting my own insecurities unto them, and I was causing strain because I wasn't ready to face the brutal truth.

As a man, I understand the social standards for men and women in terms of body expectations are vastly different, to an unfair degree.

It is why a skinny girl can write about how one guy called her fat and be considered brave for her sincerity.

I would never say Ms. Cappello's emotions are invalid just because she's thin, but at first read I was admittedly peeved. "She has no idea," I thought to myself.

Has she ever been nervous during a job interview, not because she might be considered underqualified, but because she was afraid that the employer's first impression would be purely based on her weight?

If she were constantly asked about her weight, as opposed to it happening once, would she still be able to recognize that she is "beautiful" and "special" so easily?

Nevertheless, this was an unfair assessment. My personal experiences and feelings are no more important just because I weigh more.

People of all shapes and sizes are criticized, and as a result, they are insecure about aspects of their bodies.

Sometimes, I feel like what other people say shouldn't offend me because it is inherently true, or that I deserve to hear these thoughts because I made myself this way.

I think I passively accepted these comments and micro-aggressions all this time because I wanted to prove that those words wouldn't hurt me, or that I could still love myself as I am, even though others didn't.

I've been overweight all my life. My only vivid memory of second grade is when my teacher weighed me; I was 108 pounds.

Maybe that's why it's so hard for me to reconcile other people's perceptions of me without projecting my own insecurities.

So, how much value should we place on the words and labels people give us? What does being a DUFF really mean?

Is it better or worse to call out a person for being fat or treat it as taboo? Are my emotions invalid because being fat is something I can and should change for myself?

Does acknowledging that there might be some truth to those labels make it any easier to tackle weight loss?

It's hard for me to accept that I have misappropriated my friends' and family's genuine concerns in order to feel better about my current weight instead of changing for the better.

Before writing this, I had never been so candid about my weight — to myself or others — and in some ways, I finally feel empowered to change my body.

I've spent my whole life trying to be comfortable in my own skin, getting others to accept me and to still see me as cool or special despite my flaws.

Now I'm ready to make small strides to improve my health, including giving up alcohol, going to the gym and eating healthier.

Hopefully, I will learn to love myself because despite how harmful these comments were to my self-esteem (despite good intentions), I will never let them inhibit me from being the person I really want to be.