Debating Diabetes

A reader writes:

I was so glad to see the letter from your reader who protested the constant equation by the media of “diabetes” with “obesity”. I myself am a 40-year-old Type-1 diabetic, diagnosed at 15 with the highest blood sugar on record at that particular Baltimore hospital (I’d apparently been insulin-deficient for more than a month). The most interesting thing to me about this terminology trend is that it’s pretty recent in the US, coming into regular practice with the obesity epidemic, and, especially, the juvenile obesity epidemic.

I lived in Japan for two years from 1999 to 2001, and I taught English at a language school in Tokyo. We teachers had to do a lot of mundane back-and-forths, and we ended up talking about ourselves a lot, just to get students out of their shells. Whenever I let people know that I was diabetic, all the students – to a person – laughed. Japan is a country of very few diabetics, and the ones it had were, typically, old and fat. So when I – a tall, slender, young American guy in the prime of life, or whatever – divulged that I was diabetic, it was just so absurd to my students on its face that they could only assume I was making a weird joke, like saying “I eat with my feet” or “I’m married to a man.” I remember marveling at how weird that reaction seemed at the time.

Fast-forward to a decade later, and the stereotype of the fat unhealthy diabetic who brought the disease on himself is in full bloom in the US.

This stereotype didn’t exist when I was diagnosed in 1988. If you’d said to me the word “diabetic” before the disease landed on me, I’d have thought, “Oh, that’s that tragic disease that keeps you from eating all the sugar you want and forces you to prick your finger and jab yourself with syringes all day, all night, forever” – not “Oh, that’s that hilarious disease that fat people get after too many deep-fried bacon double cheesesteaks.”

The diabetics I met in the wake of my diagnosis were all plucky kids who put me to shame with their easy, breezy approach to what I saw as a horrific daily regimen of sharp objects, blood, and boring food. And the very first diabetic I ever met, a boy in my second grade class, was one of the best soccer players in my school.

But it feels that, over the last decade – ever since the word “obesity” started being regularly used in teevee news stories – accompanied by the obligatory B-reel of faceless fat people walking – diabetes has become a disease that folks are more comfortable pointing and laughing at. In my formative years as a diabetic, I became very comfortable with being pitied for my disease – “you have to give yourself shot?! Four times a day?! I could never do that!” – but being a joke? Irritating. The letter from your reader reminded me of the good old days.

In conclusion, thanks a lot, Paula Deen.