I’ve written extensively on these pages about my struggle with my weight. About my life as a fat kid called “Elephant Youngs” on the playgrounds of every grade school in Falmouth Maine. About my victories and losses on the battlefield of Weight Watchers where I’ve easily gained and lost myself five or six times over the past 20 years. About my shame at being faced with a buffet and my love of being immersed in water where I can float, nymph-like without a thought to what feel like on solid ground. About clothes shopping and squeezing into theater seats, and of my deep and abiding love for a summer full of ice cream stands. There’s little I’ve not divulged here and little I have to hide when it comes to the most obvious part of me. Frankly, it’s gotten a little tiresome.
In a year I will turn 50. For some people this is a motivator to get in shape, or embark on some amazing spiritual or physical journey. I thought about that but then I realized that what I finally was going to do was give myself permission to be who I am. To be a woman of size and to be finally, gloriously ok with it. The thought of spending a year, counting, measuring, weighing, and narrowing my focus to that number on the scale was frankly not just exhausting but depressing. I decided I was going to own my fat. Own this wide, jiggly, wiggly, body with its cellulite and rolls. Wake up each morning, do my best, and stop worrying all day every day that I was too fat to exist.
Now I am no fool. I read a lot (a LOT) of ‘fat positive’ articles on the Internet. I know that the minute a woman starts being ok with her body, that the concern trolls come out in droves. “Well it’s all well and good but what about her HEAAALLLLTTTTHH.” They all cry. “I wouldn’t celebrate promoting such an UNHEALTHY lifestyle!!” Yeah, Yeah. Let me tell you one thing, the concern trolls don’t give a you know what about any fat woman’s health, what they DO care about is that someone out there is challenging the notion that the only possible way to be happy is to be thin. Even on a closed group of on line friends during a really frank and interesting discussion about body image and food a few members couldn’t let go of the “well that’s fine for you but I can’t disregard health like that” mantra. Disabusing the notion that fat does not equal unhealthy is never easy, but the discussion was a good one nonetheless.
So if I was going to do this and truly be ok with myself I knew that step one was going to be doing something I hadn’t done in years – visit a doctor to get a baseline assessment of my health. Notice I said health, not weight. Contrary to what the concern trolls think the two are not mutually exclusive. But for years I had lived with the fat girl complex that anything that might possibly be wrong with me, from a headache or cold to a niggling back pain was my fault because I had committed the cardinal sin of being fat in America. I’d had doctors in the past who couldn’t see past my size, who said things like “eat one cookie not a whole box,” so I was naturally gun-shy. Something would be bothering me, my wife would suggest a visit to the doctor and I’d responds with “eh, she’ll just tell me I’m fat.” But thanks to her persistent reminders that even fat people deserve healthcare, and some supportive friends, and the kind encouragement of a the breast health specialist who reads my mammograms each year, I bit the bullet and made the appointment.
My new doctor was lovely. Warm, with a tendency to giggle, and a demeanor that put me instantly at ease. When I confessed I was a little nervous she looked around the room and said “of me?” My lab work was analyzed and every result fell exactly in the normal range other than a slight vitamin D deficiency ( hello, it’s March in Northern New England after the worst winter ever, this is hardly surprising), my niggling back pain was taken seriously not dismissed as just the result of lugging my fat body around. Oh sure we talked about my weight but in a very gentle way, no numbers, no goals, no “lose this,” directive. It was everything I had hoped for. I left feeling as though I had a new lease on life. I was back at the gym after a winter of crippling seasonal anxiety and depression and to my great joy my pace on the treadmill was still pretty strong. Yes I was fat, but my health was good, my heart was strong, and damn I loved the life I was living. I was so proud of myself for conquering this last hurdle and felt like I had my life on track.
Flash forward a few days and I’m happily working away when an email shows up in my in box from an acquaintance. It’s a forward of an article linking the risks of childhood obesity to cancer later in life, with the helpful accompanying message stating ‘this is scary!” Someone got this article and thought “hey! I’ll send this to a woman who was a fat kid who also lost 2/3rds of her family to cancer, that’s a GREAT idea!” Concern trolling has been taken to a new level apparently. Because if for a second I had forgotten what it was like as a fat kid, if for a second I had put my three dead family members to rest in a quiet corner of my mind, and if for a second I had dared to be at peace with my size, here was a friendly reminder that I couldn’t for one second let my guard down. I stared at the email in disbelief and then hit delete. But it bothered me all day. Not the article. Not the implication of the article. But the fact that someone thought that sending it to me would be remotely helpful. When in fact it was decidedly hurtful. And rather than inspiring me to whip up a kale smoothie and run a 5K it sent me home to open a bag of chips.
This concern trolling serves no one, especially those of us who have been fighting the battle for self-acceptance with ourselves for decades. If you have a friend, like me who is fat and who has the audacity not to actively hate herself, even if she occasionally slips into periodic bouts of not loving herself all the time, even if she chooses the ice cream instead of the fruit, even if she has that second piece of pizza on office pizza day, even if she sleeps in instead of going to the gym. Lecturing her about health is pretty much the last thing she needs. Take it from one who knows.
It starts as a tingle, a sort of buzzing in the center of my chest. Then spreading across my chest slowly, then more quickly, creating the feeling of something heavy permanently placed there. My breathing is now shallow, as I try to take a full breath around what feels like a rock between my breasts. I yawn, sometimes too loudly, trying to force the air past it and feel the relief of my lungs finally filling with oxygen. My fingers tingle as though numb with sleep needles and I shake my arms out trying to rid myself of the sensation. Sleep evades me and I often wake up sore from the fact that I slept all night with my fists clenched. Worry. Anxiety. Panic. Call it what you will. During the winter it stalks me in the form of alarmist weather reports, icy roads, slippery steps, mountains of snow, bracing cold and the utter despairing soul-crushing lack of light and warmth. My ability to focus is shot, and with a ritual bordering on the obsessive, I shovel, sand, check batteries, place flashlights, chip at ice, and worry.
My worry creates a wall, imprisoning me in a fortress inescapable and impenetrable. From behind its’ walls I watch the rest of the world handling winter in completely normal ways, staying home when it’s prudent to do so, driving safely in storms and managing to get where they are supposed to be on any given day no matter the conditions. I know my fear, while rooted in reality, lacks any rationality. I can drive in snow. I have a jeep with four-wheel drive. I am a New England native. It shouldn’t be this hard. But the minute the first flakes of the holiday season fall the anxiety tickles me to let me know it’s there — waiting. This year a storm on Thanksgiving Eve it self brought power outages and the insult of heavy wet snow blanketing the leaves that should still be heralding autumn’s last days. Everything has always seemed harder in winter, but it’s the unpredictable nature of winter days that taunts and torments me. The way my carpets were thick with water while my window frames dripped melting ice dams into the house. The way my power steering hose froze and burst at a busy intersection one morning. The way my Jeep, four-wheel drive powerless against ice, began sliding sideways down my condo road barely two weeks ago when a routine grocery-shopping trip turned into a white- knuckle ride home on black ice. The way I felt as a new single mom rushing to clear my jeep, move to the road, let the plows clear the parking lot, all while leaving a five year old inside on her own because it was easier than bundling her up for outside. For years it has seemed as though winter was stalking me, mocking me, laughing at my inability to cope, and leaving me feeling like a fool on the side of the road while the rest of the world posts photos of ski trips, snowshoe excursions and “winter hikes.” Dear God, how is there is such a thing as a winter hike?
“Embrace the winter!” Cry these outdoor enthusiasts. So we explore the possibility of renting show shoes, until we find that to be properly fitted for a good snowshoe requires choosing said shoe on its ability to support your weight. Let me repeat that. Support your weight. So before we can join the legions of smiling bundled snowshoers we have to submit to the indignity of confessing how much we weigh. Online shopping didn’t yield much encouragement when I realized that I probably stray outside the upper limits of any “woman’s” snowshoe, my Amazonian frame more suited to sturdy men’s snowshoes. I should just take the plunge, find a place that rents them, try them out, but the thought of submitting to the indignity of telling some hapless snow shoe fitter how much I weigh is paralyzing, so for now my “winter-embracing” waits.
“Escape the winter!” Cry others. This year for the first time we shall, fleeing to Orlando later this winter for a much-needed break. But that comes with its own anxiety-provoking baggage. What if snowstorms scuttle our flights? What If there’s so much snow while we’re gone that the ice dams come back? What if our car doesn’t start after its stint in the long-term parking lot? What if my expansive hips don’t fit into the seats on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train or prevent me from sitting side by side with my family in the Haunted Mansion? What if I’m too heavy for the flying boats of the Peter Pan ride? What if my shorts don’t fit? A well meaning friend ads me to one of those horrible 30 Days of Fitness challenge groups on Facebook and I want to cry. “First day down! Zumba! Planking! Core! Cardio!” the posts scream at me. A colleague who probably barely tops the scales at 100 proudly shows off one of those step-counting Fit Bit while making an off-hand comment about a mutual acquaintance she thought looked as though had ‘been enjoying a good meal or two” while I smile nervously and pull my sweater further down across my belly and hips. All around me people are renouncing sugar, running in place during Super Bowl commercials, cutting out carbs, juicing, lifting, cleansing. They chant, breathe, pound, lift, woo! And exhale. They post about eating kale and renouncing wine. I make jokes about eating chocolate only to have one friend tell me ‘well, pictures don’t lie,” as if I’m unaware of my belly, hips, the fat that overtakes my face. As if it never occurred to me to ‘try’ to be thin. As if I don’t hate that my fashion choices are limited to the plus size department And every day I am more keenly aware of the space I take up and I feel too big, too clumsy for the world around me. The buzzing in my chest comes back and my breath becomes shallow and I burrow further under my ever-present fleece blanket and pour another bowl of cinnamon covered pecans from Target (my new winter obsession) and try to block it all out.
The snow rages, he winds blow, and my depression and anxiety grow worse. My wife listens, counsels, understands, holds, hugs. I hesitate to confess the level of my anxiety, gun shy from the time I unburdened about my ice dams to a friend only to be told with a shrug “it happens.” My panic won’t be understood of that I am sure. My friends urge me to see a doctor, get a physical, push past the fear of the dreaded lecture about weight and fitness. The memory of an OB/GYN on call telling me to ‘put down the cookies’ sixteen years ago when I was pregnant still rings in my ear, but I luck out and get a nice nurse who schedules blood work and reassures me all will be well. In the meantime I watch the skies, obsessively check hour-by-hour weather forecasts, shovel, chip, brush, worry. And pray for sun.
“Take the high road,” was a particular favorite expression of my mother’s. This was often followed by her other favorite expression: “Rise above it. “Don’t give them the satisfaction of letting them see they’ve gotten to you,” she would say when I would come home crying about the kids who called me Elephant, the girls who laughed at my clothes, or the friends who had ditched me because I wasn’t ‘popular’ material.
My mother was the world-class reigning champ in ‘rising above it.” When my father’s good name was under attack, when our family suffered the losses of my grandfather, father, and sister, when friends let her down, when her work as a teacher ran into administrative red tape and bureaucratic changes, she took a road so high it seemed to end in the clouds. Someone who signed from the age of four, my mother was incapable of talking without using her hands. She used to tell me that when things got too tough and she was afraid she would “let loose,” she would literally sit on her hands to keep her from talking. She relied on a steely gaze, a firmly set chin, and an unrelenting ability to hold her head high no matter what. I admired her, but a part of me always wished that just once she would have let it all go, let loose on the people who had hurt her or our family, put a few folks in their well-deserved place. Would it have righted any wrongs? Of course not, but it sure would have been satisfying. The closest she ever came was years after my father’s death when an acquaintance apologized for some particularly damaging things he had said about my father’s reputation. She fixed him with her inimitable gaze and said “I forgive but I never ever forget.” I imagine he quaked a bit inside.
My mother’s advice has guided me through my adult years. I’ve “high-road”-ed myself in the face of friends who felt compelled to provide me (in writing!) with a laundry list of all my short-comings, professional acquaintances who threw me under bus after bus, of people who walked away from obligations leaving me holding the bag, and donors who reneged on pledges without thinking how it felt for the underpaid staffers left scrambling to fill the shortfall in expected revenue. I’ve “risen above” jabs about my parenting, passive aggressive remarks about my ‘lifestyle,” comments about my weight, and being dumped by friends who have ‘moved on’ to greener pastures without telling me. I’ve swallowed my hurt and nodded and smiled in the face of situations that made me want to scream, cry, run away or all three. I know the high road so well I could write a TripAdvisor review.
But often I wonder: why do people like my mother and I cling to this high-road ideal? Why do other people get to indulge when we rise above? Sometimes the suppressed anger and frustration are so great they bubble to the surface in my dreams and I wake up crying from a dream about telling someone off, yelling at someone ‘til my throat hurts, of the satisfaction of making my voice and my feelings finally known. I fantasize about how good it would feel the way dieters fantasize about hot fudge sundaes or enormous pizzas. But just as the overindulgence of sweets and carbs can backfire and leave one feeling sick to the stomach, I know that to indulge in this romanticized notion of payback would leave me feeling sick to my soul. It is not me, nor shall it ever be.
So, on the cusp of a New Year, as I contemplate the ups and downs of the year just finished and wonder what will be in store over the next twelve months, I gently say no to the voice in my head begging that I resolve to “speak my mind” in the coming year. For I am my mother’s daughter and one thing Mary Youngs taught her baby girl was that there is power in a steady gaze, a well timed raised eyebrow, and the inner peace that comes with ‘rising above.” The high road may take longer to travel, but what you gain is worth the journey. Happy New Year wherever you are, momma. I’ll be thinking of you along the way.