I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this lyric from the classic Paul Simon song “You Can Call Me Al.

You know the one: “A man walks down the street / He says, ‘Why am I soft in the middle now? / Why am I soft in the middle? / The rest of my life is so hard.'” Then, invariably, I stare down at my own softened center.

Am I fat? Ask my loquacious uncles and they’ll tell you — yep, he’s gotten fatter, and they’ll jokingly compare my relatively young panza with theirs, nurtured over many years with light beer and carne asada.

Like many, I succumbed to the dreaded “COVID 15.” Or at least that’s what I told my scale, which, to my astonishment, spoke back. “Fifteen pounds?” scoffed its disembodied voice. “Honey, take that number and damn near double it.”

About 42% of U.S. adults grew sideways during the pandemic, according to a 2021 study — and not just by a pound or two. The average person gained 29 pounds during the first year of the pandemic.

I actually don’t mind being fat. I enjoy the liberty of responding to my food cravings, just as the body is meant to do, and I am loath to work out (I will gladly chase a ball on a soccer field, but I refuse to put my body under the artificial circumstance of running like a rodent on a hamster wheel).

At the same time, I saw too many of my weight-class peers and contemporaries (I’m 35) become severely ill or die from COVID-19. 

Cruelly, the constant drumbeat of headlines describing the COVID-caused deaths of otherwise healthy men, often Hispanic like me, pumped more cortisol into my system with every pitter and patter. Release of the stress hormone is one of many bodily phenomena that can lead to weight gain. I already take anti-anxiety drugs, of which weight gain is a known side effect.

The stay-at-home mantra of the early pandemic days also fed into my addiction to work. I eschewed the sourdough starters and Zoom workouts for long nights in front of my computer, burning the midnight oil to understand how COVID-19 was affecting San Antonio and how to get that information in front of an increasingly information-parched public. 

The upshot of that was a sedentary stasis. Even getting up to prepare a wholesome meal took precious time away from my growing obsession and, almost invariably, I’d end up DoorDash-ing a calorific takeout dish to my doorstep.

And so I found myself more vulnerable to a severe COVID-19 infection as time went on and my panza expanded. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are overweight are three times as likely to be hospitalized after being infected with the coronavirus.

Aside: The method for measuring whether a person is underweight, overweight, obese or “normal” is known as the body mass index, but I like to call it the Bogus Metric Invented by white dudes. Plenty of people are perfectly healthy but fall on the overweight or obese end of the BMI scale. 

With all of its blemishes, however, it is the standard often used by researchers and government agencies to track the collective prevalence of obesity and, in turn, the potential for populations to develop underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

With that caveat out of the way, two-thirds of the adult population in San Antonio are either overweight or obese, along with a third of children ages 10 to 17.

The last two pandemics (influenza subtype H1N1 and COVID-19) have disproportionately affected obese and overweight residents. Obesity affects people of color at higher rates, too. Black adults have the highest rate of obesity at nearly 50% followed by Latinos at about 45%, according to the CDC.

Of the more than 75,000 Texas residents to have died from COVID-19 as of Dec. 31, nearly 33,000 — or about 43% — were Hispanic, a lopsided statistic when you consider that Hispanics represent less than 40% of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

It’s terribly reductive to say that obese people should just eat less and exercise more, and yet I hear it all the time — sometimes from our elected leaders and people in positions of power who should know better.

Weight gain is a complicated devil. Our waistlines are influenced by many things: stress, our circadian rhythm, genetics and whether we have access to nutritious food (or time to cook it). Yet obesity is often mistaken by society at large as a disease of vice, as though a fat person could simply choose to quit being fat as one would quit smoking.

It isn’t by accident that Latinos and Black people are the two most represented demographics in the obesity epidemic. These minority groups are on the lowest rungs of an American society built on a foundation of racist policy and long fixated on the pseudoscientific concept of racial hierarchy (Read Isabel Wilkerson’s excellent book on this, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent).

The stress of being a Black or brown person in America is just as much a factor as the food deserts many people of color have been economically cast out to, by practices such as redlining and the more recent phenomenon of gentrification.

San Antonio is a majority-minority city, and its obesity rates are as high as the Tower of the Americas. It’s time we work to counter the systemic ass-backwardness causing it. Please spare me the casual fatphobia reducing it to lifestyle choices.

The next pandemic is waiting in the wings, so we’d better act fast.

JJ Velasquez

JJ Velasquez is a columnist at the San Antonio Report. A former reporter and editor at the SA Report, he currently works as a project manager for New York City-based Advance Local.