T-Shirt Swim Club

Stories from Being Fat in a World of Thin People

About the Book

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • Comedian Ian Karmel, with help from his sister, Dr. Alisa Karmel, opens up about the daily humiliations of being fat and why it’s so hard to talk about something so visible.

“As charming and funny as it is poignant and thoughtful.”—Roxane Gay, author of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Ian Karmel has weighed eight pounds and he has weighed 420 pounds and right now he’s almost exactly in between the two, but this book is not a weight-loss book. It’s about being a fat person in a skinny world. It’s about gym class and football practice, about chicken wings and juice cleanses, about airplane seats and roller coasters, about fat jokes and Jabba the Hutt, about crying in the Big and Tall section and the joys of being a sneakerhead, about prediabetes and gout, and about realizing that you actually don’t want to eat yourself to death and hoping it’s not too late.

This book also includes a “What Now?” section from Ian’s sister, Alisa, who herself cycled through so many fad diets that she eventually pursued a master’s in nutrition and a doctorate in psychology with the goal of changing the contemporary narrative around fatness.

Ian and Alisa Karmel grew up fat. As kids, they never talked about it. They were too busy fighting over the last SnackWell’s Devil’s Food cookie. Now, decades later, having both turned into fat adults who eventually figured out how to get their health under control, they are finally ready to unpack the impact that their weight has had on them.

For them, the T-Shirt Swim Club is meant to be a place of support for anyone who struggles with weight issues. A place of care and candor, free of shame. A place to not deny or avoid the emotions you feel, the experiences you go through, the embarrassment, the anger, the resentment. T-Shirt Swim Club is about being a fat person and how the world treats fat people—but also an acknowledgment that maybe it doesn’t always have to feel quite so lonely.
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Praise for T-Shirt Swim Club

“Ian Karmel is truly an inspirational person. He took his life and his weight by the scruff of the neck and refused to back down in his quest to get healthier. He also got funnier when he got slimmer; this never happens. I love him and I love this book.”—James Corden

“Ian Karmel is funny and his sister is smart. Together they create a work that is both of those things and so much more.”—Seth Meyers

T-Shirt Swim Club is as charming and funny as it is poignant and thoughtful. Ian Karmel writes about life as a fat boy who grows into a fat man and eventually figures out a better way to live in his body. The stories Karmel shares are heartbreakingly relatable. And Karmel’s sister Alisa, a psychologist, gracefully speaks to the emotional realities of making this world so inhospitable to fat people and how we can better embrace people whatever their size and wherever they are in their journey to have a healthy relationship with their body.”—Roxane Gay, author of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

“A lot of people are funny. And a lot of people are warm. And a lot of people are insightful. But Ian Karmel, in his lovely book here, somehow manages to be all three of those things at once, fully and completely, across every single page. It’s wonderful.”—Shea Serrano, author of Hip-Hop (and Other Things)
The T-Shirt Swim Club is a must-read for everyone, regardless of whether they are a member or not. I recommend this book for parents, teachers, those who work with children, and anyone who used to be a child. Ian’s description of his toxic relationship with his body is vulnerable, real, and painful. Dr. Alisa Karmel offers important, research-backed advice about how to navigate a world filled with weight-stigma and diet culture from the perspective of someone who truly understands the pain that accompanies Ian’s journey. I cannot possibly recommend this book more.”—Jennifer Harriger, PhD, professor of psychology, Seaver College, Pepperdine University

“Hilarious, heartbreaking and harrowing, T-Shirt Swim Club is a vulnerable, angry, beautifully crafted window into an experience so specific and isolating, all while making it feel imminently universal. We have not all been fat but everyone is trapped in their own skin and this book shines a light on the keyhole that turns to set us free. Fat kids everywhere are so lucky to have a book like this to read. Also it pairs well with pastrami.”—Moshe Kasher, comedian, Emmy winner and bestselling author of Kasher in the Rye and Subculture Vulture

“The Karmels serve up a comic and philosophical exploration suffused with hard-won wisdom and charming wit. . . . The book could have easily turned into a clumsy plea for sympathy or a bad-tempered rant, but Ian and Alisa tell their interlocking stories with grace and humor. Ultimately, the book is about resilience and growth; for this reason, it has something to say to everyone.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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T-Shirt Swim Club

Chapter 1

T-Shirt Swim Club

Before all the pain, pancakes, and persecution, I was just a cute, fat little baby. Fat babies have a 100 percent approval rating. Admiring onlookers swoon, cooing over their biscuit dough legs and impossible little ham hands. People lose their minds around a fat baby. They speak in tongues. They melt into a puddle and recongeal just long enough to explode into a cloud of confetti. A fat baby is basically a human corgi. When they enter a room, that room is a happier place. People greet them by saying “Well, hello there” in a voice they didn’t know they had until they saw the fat baby. People love fat babies, and lucky for them, most babies are fat, but I enjoyed it so much that I just kept on going into adulthood. Life gets more complicated for the babies who stay fat.

Being a fat toddler wasn’t bad, though. Being fat lends itself beautifully to toddling. The world hasn’t tried to make you feel bad about being fat. The world hasn’t really tried to make you feel anything about being fat. Your life has a lot less shame and a lot more crayons; it’s great. Plus, you’re in preschool. I loved preschool. I attended the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Portland, Oregon, and I might have peaked in those years, to be honest. Spending all morning learning about Purim and dinosaurs, spending all afternoon in the lap pool next to bobbing bubbes, and in between, lunch. There’s a café at the Mittleman that, to this day, has yet to receive its proper respect from the Michelin Guide. I had hot dogs at this café. I had hamburgers. I discovered the knish at this café. I still can’t wrap my mind around how the knish isn’t a mainstay of American cuisine. It’s so bad for you and it tastes like God’s perfect potato. Along with psychotherapy and Mel Brooks, the knish should be counted among the Jewish people’s greatest contributions to American culture. This café also had steak fries like you wouldn’t believe. These things were sturdy. An honest man could build a home from these fries and raise five generations of sturdy Scandinavian sons within its ketchup-soaked walls. I’m carrying on about this food now, but that was kind of my issue even then. I loved to eat.

Maybe I’m putting it the wrong way. Saying “I love to eat” is like saying “I’m a big fan of music.” Let me be clear: I’m crazy about eating—figuratively, certainly, but also literally. I delighted in a good-quality steak fry, but you could put a pile of uncooked spaghetti in front of me and I’d eat it. I’d eat coffee beans. I’d chug maple syrup. I ate like Pac-Man. I ate for the same reason that people climb Mount Everest. Because it’s there. When I was a toddler, I was caught standing in front of an open fridge with a brick of butter in my mouth. It’s a cute story now, it was a cute story then, but there were a couple of decades in between where it felt like darkly comic foreshadowing.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was eating for a whole bunch of reasons other than my own hunger. How could I realize it? I was a kid! I had just found out about pizza. We should remind kids about the moment they discovered pizza when they find out Santa is fake, by the way. Like, hey, I know we screwed you over on that whole Santa thing, but remember when we told you about pizza and that turned out to be real? It would soften the blow. (Also, yes, I’m a Jew who celebrated Christmas. We’re allowed. We wrote all the best Christmas songs.) So there I was, blasting pizza, blasting knishes, blasting uncooked spaghetti, full of wonder. Adults didn’t say a cross word about it because when it comes to boys and their diets, adults are mostly just bothered by that kid who only eats chicken fingers. Can’t take him anywhere. He’ll be at the sushi spot asking for dino nuggets. Don’t get me wrong, I would have housed a dino nugget at the sushi restaurant, too, but I was also the toddler who once ate so much pickled ginger that I puked all over the inside of my dad’s car.

It’s kind of cute when you start packing on weight as a little kid anyway. You’re a chubby little guy. It’s the best kind of little guy. I kept packing the weight on, though. Bit by bit. Bite by bite. I’m not sure why it got less cute as I got older, but it was made clear, in no uncertain terms, that it was much less cute. I weighed 300 pounds by middle school. I was up to 350 pounds by high school. By the time I was in my thirties, I had tipped myself up over 420 pounds. That’s for later, though. I’m not done telling you about why I was spending so much time at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center.

It was because I loved swimming and the Mittleman, for some reason, had two glorious pools. One of them was a warm-water pool that was always full of old people and it tasted like salt. This led me to believe that old Jewish people taste like salt, and nothing I’ve discovered in the decades since has given me a reason to think otherwise. Probably they were sweating off a lifetime of lox and pastrami, and anyway, it was none of my business if they tasted like salt. I did my time in that pool, but it wasn’t my preferred destination. That honor belonged to the twenty-five-yard lap pool one room over. Crystal blue, shimmering, immaculate. Lane dividers that looked like floating strands of supersized Chanukah-themed novelty rigatoni. I jumped in that water so many times and from such an early age that I can’t tell if it’s my earliest memory or just my favorite one. I learned to swim in that pool. First, holding on to my mom. Then holding on to the side of the pool. Then holding on to a kickboard. Then holding on to nothing. We’d get patches to mark our progress, and we’d sew them onto our towels. My towel was heavy with patches. My towel looked like the sash of a Boy Scout who would go on to become either a great father or a politician who tries to ban oxygen because trans people also breathe it.

I was an amazing swimmer. To be clear, I wasn’t a fast swimmer, but I was amazing at it. From my experience, speed is the wrong rubric with which to judge someone’s ability in the water anyway. Where are you trying to go in such a hurry, to a different, wetter part of the lake? Don’t be ridiculous. Speed is beside the point. Splashing around with an agenda just wears you out. I had some friends who played water polo in high school and they told me that they’d swim so hard that they’d get hot. In a pool, they’d get hot. Where do you go once you’re hot in a pool? You go to hell, that’s where you go. Psych—you’re already there.

I wasn’t fast in the water, but I was graceful. As I got older and bigger and fatter, my size made me a little clumsy on land, but in the water I was still extremely nice with it. I moved like a hairy dolphin, or a less hairy sea otter, or an equally hairy walrus. I was liberated from gravity. I could flip and somersault and twist my body in ways that, had I tried them on the ground, would have landed me in the hospital and on America’s Funniest Home Videos. I experienced true euphoria when moving through the water. I felt like I belonged there, like I was meant to be aquatic. My body, so often the source of frustration on dry land, felt like it made sense in the water, which is a notion soaked in irony because the swimming pool might have been the first place I ever realized that I was fat, and it all started with a T-shirt.

At some point fat kids started wearing T-shirts in pools. I do not understand exactly when it began, where it came from, or who we thought we were fooling, but it happened when I was a kid and it happens now. The world is full of fat kids wearing T-shirts while they’re swimming. Every pool, pond, lake, river, and ocean worth a damn on this entire planet is a T-Shirt Swim Club. I can follow the logic of the shirts in the pool, to an extent. I was a fat kid, I had a fat belly, and I was embarrassed about being a fat kid with my fat little belly because . . . ​well, because I just was, I guess. While I was certainly self-conscious, that was never going to be enough to keep me entirely out of the water. Instead, I elected to obscure my unacceptable adolescent body with a disguise so inept that it’s very nearly darling—a T-shirt. A T-shirt that would almost immediately become sopping wet. You can tell someone’s fat when they’re wearing a regular shirt, but when that thing becomes wet, it hugs the curves like crazy. It clings to the body like a baby that somebody is trying to hand to an uncle. A T-shirt in a pool does not obscure the fact that someone is fat. If anything, it does the opposite. It accentuates everything, and it does so through a translucent cotton Big Dogs filter. The tragedy of the T-shirt is that it accomplishes the opposite of its goal—it broadcasts, “Of course this kid is fat; look at him wearing a shirt in the pool; only fat kids do that.” It confirms the very thing you’re trying to obscure.

About the Author

Ian Karmel
Ian Karmel is an Emmy-winning comedian, television writer, podcaster, newspaper columnist, and television personality. He was the co-head writer of The Late Late Show with James Corden and has worked on Chelsea Lately, the Grammys, the Tonys, and Who Is America? with Sacha Baron Cohen. More by Ian Karmel
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About the Author

Alisa Karmel, PsyD
Alisa Karmel holds a doctorate in psychology and two masters, one of clinical psychology the other of and nutrition. She provides counseling for weight-centric concerns including issues related to fatness, obesity, and being overweight, such as body acceptance; health behavior improvement; and depression, anxiety, trauma, and other mood disorders. More by Alisa Karmel, PsyD
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Random House Publishing Group