Living While Large
I’m about to give a reading at the local library when a stranger comes up to shake my hand, an older woman who says she lives just a few streets away. “You look nothing like I expected!” she blurts.
“No?” I am surprised she’s spent time imagining what I look like.
“I pictured you as tall,” the woman says, “and slender, and dressed in a sophisticated way, kind of, oh I don’t know, sporty.”
She seems oblivious to the fact that she’s telling me I’m short and heavy. And, despite my best efforts, not sporty. I bite back the absurd impulse to correct her on that last count, to tell her I am so. But I don’t bother; I’ve grown adept at pretending to ignore such slights.
They’re surprisingly common. From the time my husband and I got engaged through the early years of our marriage, my father-in-law used to say, pretty much every time we shared a meal, “you sure don’t eat much for a fat girl!” My father-in-law found his words hilarious, repeated them each time as if the thought were just occurring to him in that moment.
Some jabs take longer to land. At meetings for a non-profit whose board I am on, Stacey—one of the staff members—invariably calls me Laura. When folks correct her, she laughs, saying, “I keep doing that, don’t I?” It took almost a year before I figured out why: the actual Laura, who had been away on a leave of absence, came to a board meeting. She is Latina whereas I am white; she’s several inches taller than I am; and she dresses in a flouncy, frilly way, with layers of scarves and an armful of bracelets. Visually, the only things we have in common are our gender—and our heft.
Mentally running through the list of people that Stacey and I have in common, I’m forced to consider that maybe Laura and I really are the only fat women she knows. None of the staff are remotely close to overweight. Neither are any of the other women on the Board. In fact, I have not met anyone with whom the organization works who is heavy. Still, this is America, where more than two-thirds of adults are overweight, so you’d think she’d encounter other fat women somewhere.
But it’s possible she doesn’t. Despite these statistics, I am very often the only fat woman where I am. Recently, my husband and I went to the Galapagos Islands. I was the only person on the cruise boat who could not find a wetsuit that fit. Even the 6’6” tall park ranger from Texas found one. At home post-trip, in a pique of indignation and shame, I looked up the most recent U.S. census data about height and weight. The ranger is in the 99.5th percentile for height for men in the US. I am in the 69.5th percentile for weight for women in the US. And yes, that’s heavy—but it also means a lot of women are my size, or bigger. I was angry that the ship was prepared to accommodate a guy who was a total statistical outlier while ignoring the needs of, potentially, 30 percent of the women on board. But in actuality, almost no large women were on board, leaving me to wonder whether the cruise line was usually right in not expecting us. Could it really be that women my size are as seldom seen as the Galapagos albatross? And if we are that rare, then why?
Lack of a wetsuit notwithstanding, I snorkeled with the sharks and sea lions every day. I love swimming. In both high school and college, I swam on the men’s swim teams. Even now, decades and pounds past my athletic prime, people at the pool where I swim still sometimes ask if I’m training for something, so unabashedly inquisitive about someone who looks like me doggedly doing laps that they break the protocol of locker rooms, that tacit agreement we all make to pretend we don’t see one another.
I want to be clear about my motives in mentioning what a good swimmer I am. For it could be a way of saying “despite all my earnest exercising, I’m fat because I got an especially raw deal in the gene lottery.” Or, more insidiously, it could be a form of distancing, a way of saying “I am not like those fat people who don’t work out and so are somehow more deserving of being fat than poor me.” What I do want to point out is the curious fact that an active fat body, like a pregnant body, is something many, many people feel free to comment on. (And, full disclosure, to acknowledge the deep joy that comes with moving unfettered).
I’m mostly over my wetsuit pique, in no small part because I’ve gone online searching for a suit, and now know that the dearth in the Galapagos wasn’t entirely the cruise line’s fault. They could have had wetsuits for large women, yes, but even if they had, none of them would have fit me because I am fat in the wrong way. Apparently, if you are large and desirous of a wetsuit, you need to be uniformly large—which I’m not. I suppose I could transfer my huffiness from the cruise line to the wetsuit industry, but they’d just be at the end of a long queue since most apparel makers ignore the existence of a large and growing market.
Those apparel makers really confound me. Stepping back from the unpleasantness of going clothing shopping as a large woman and simply considering the situation from the standpoint of economics, I marvel that the marketplace offers such limited options. Within forty miles of my home, for instance, only one store consistently carries workplace appropriate clothing that both fits and appeals to me. To be sure, this dearth is partly because I live in rural Maine. But percentage-wise, there are as many large ladies here as anywhere else in America, and most of us need work clothes. So while I realize the number of big women who want a wetsuit might not constitute a economically viable niche, the 30 percent of the U.S.’s female population my size and up does need to dress every day. Do apparel makers not see this? Not see us?
I want to understand this strange mix of visibility and invisibility, to figure out how a surfeit of visibility can result in erasure. Partly, I want to parse this oddity—the strange fact that “extra” presence is transformed into absence. But also, I want to understand it literally, want to know where the other ladies are. Why don’t I see my form reflected more often in the workplace, in the boardroom, at the pool? Why doesn’t Stacey know anyone besides me and Laura who are plus-sized?
Some of it, I suspect, is due to prejudice that starts taking a toll early—to the stereotyping of overweight children in schools that leads teachers to assume these students are less intelligent and to grade them accordingly. In studies of both middle school students and college students, researchers found that non-overweight students get higher grades than overweight students who are equivalently intelligent, conscientious, and hardworking. After eliminating all the other alternatives, the researchers concluded that teachers discriminate against these students through “direct or indirect pathways” that lead to lower grades. If teachers are unwittingly giving overweight students the message that they aren’t as smart as their peers, surely that effects the aspirations of some and their pleasure in school itself. And even if it doesn’t effect the aspirations of a given student, it has an effect on her ability to get into selective colleges since her grades are lower than those of her classmates.
How great it would be if parental support countered whatever pernicious treatment heavy girls experience at school. Alas, that’s not always the case. Researcher Christian Crandall found that parents are less likely to support overweight daughters in their desire to attend college than average-weight daughters. Perhaps I don’t see a lot of like-weight peers because heavy girls are so often discouraged, both directly and indirectly, from pursuing higher education and thus from entering careers that depend on advanced degrees.
Luckily, I had incredibly supportive parents who encouraged me to excel in school. But even we who manage to surmount school challenges eventually discover the workplace is no easier going. Overweight people earn less than their non-overweight co-workers and frequently experience weight-related bias by employers and stigmatizing by peers, which can makes it hard to enjoy a job. But switching jobs is also difficult, as considerable weight-related bias occurs in the hiring process.
I’ve worked in English departments and Art departments at small colleges and large universities and others in between. I’ve served on the boards of many non-profits, ranging from environmental organizations to a fishermen’s alliance to a doctoral program in aesthetics. Surely none of those interests are de facto off-limits for heavy folks. If statistics bore out, one out of seven of the women I have had as colleagues on boards or in the workforce during the last decade or so should have been big. To the contrary, I can count on one hand the number of women my size with whom I’ve worked.
Since we’re such anomalies, you’d think we’d be impossible to miss. But that’s not the case. And I’ve been struggling to understand why. A psychology experiment offers a key; although it’s been around for a while, I just learned about it recently at a conference. One of the speakers showed a video clip of six young women passing around a basketball. He instructed us to count the passes made by the team in white shirts. After, he asked how many passes, and the proud audience members answered nearly in unison. Then he asked us how many had noticed a gorilla walking across the court. Some folks laughed, raising their hands. Nearly as many looked flummoxed. He re-ran the video. Sure enough, a gorilla walked on court, stared at the camera, waved, and walked off.
The video illustrates a phenomenon called “inattentional blindness.” The core feature of inattentional blindness is an inability to see something in the visual field, something completely un-obscured, because we do not expect to see it. Inattentional blindness is the opposite of “we see what we want to see;” it’s that we don’t see what we find implausible.
Stacey’s conflation of me with Laura and my neighbor’s assumption that a writer must be tall and slender (and that those traits are prerequisites for being sophisticated) are but a step away from inattentional blindness. Let’s call their malady “inattentional near-sightedness.” Having been culturally schooled to assume a woman with my kind of body must be lazy, smelly, self-loathing, disgusting, unhealthy, gluttonous, stupid, (shall I go on?), they cannot make sense of my being, and so, rather than revise their mental category, they just don’t quite see me.
Many of my friends, in contrast, just don’t quite see that I am fat, a different version of “inattentional near-sightedness.” And while that’s kind of sweet, the disconnect is revelatory. My friend Mary says she never thinks of me as fat because she knows all the things I do in the world. Lois insists I’m not fat because I am confident and happy. Corinne points out that I eat healthy food I’ve grown myself, says I am “curvy” not “fat.”
And they’re largely right. Right that I am busy, and mostly happy and mostly confident and a fine grower of food. Right that I have not come by my extra pounds by using food to fill empty time or an empty heart. But here’s the thing: their love prompts them to shift me out of the category, not to consciously challenge the stereotypes associated with the category. Which I get: these women have also come up in an America where it’s hard to escape the nasty extras that go with the notion of fat.
Years ago, I worked at a small college where one of the older women in the department took it upon herself to assure/warn us younger women that “you will never lose a pound after 50.”
“And how is that different than now?” I asked.
“You’ll see” was all she said.
Back then, I wasn’t able to lose any significant amount of weight, but I managed to stave off gaining it rapidly. Five years ago, all that changed. Shortly before I hit the magical 50, the strategies that had worked to keep my weight from sky-rocketing abruptly ceased functioning. My colleague had never mentioned menopause, but now I know what the “you’ll see” was. Pound begat pound. The slide from curvy to unambiguously fat began.
Here is a thing that you don’t know unless you know: it is terrifying. Terrifying when you realize you have long since given up snacks, sweets, seconds, that the only thing left to give up is nutrition itself. Terrifying when you submit to that obviously unsound tactic and find that fasting no longer budges the needle on the scale. Terrifying when you have to give up certain activities because they are too hard on your joints, or abrade your chubby thighs, or leave you gasping for air. Terrifying when you realize you have almost no effective exercise options with which to replace the ones that hurt too much. Terrifying because you know all those individual terrors add up to a trajectory that only serious illness is likely to change.
And serious illness is likely. Being overweight is regularly associated with increased risk of significant chronic illnesses. But here’s another thing you probably don’t know if you aren’t overweight: it can change your relationship to illness in some really foolish ways. In my mid-thirties, I got very sick and lost thirty pounds in just under eight weeks. Although I knew the bad things that were happening to my body, I was ecstatic.
When I returned to my teaching post, I got lots of compliments on the “new me.” One of my students, though, visibly bristled when she heard the professor across the hall congratulating me.
“Doesn’t she know you were sick?” She asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, “but she also knows how hard it is for me to lose weight.”
She sat silently for a while, clearly working up the courage to say something more.
“When my mom had cancer,” she began, “the ladies at her church would tell her how great she looked. It was crazy. Here she was dying, and all they could talk about was how good she looked because she’d lost weight. I couldn’t stand it. My mother would say ‘thank you,’ but I could see her wincing, so I’d whisper ‘fuck you,’ just loud enough for my mom to hear, ‘cause I knew she’d never say it for herself.”
I am sensible enough now not to hope for illness, but that doesn’t mean I am always wise. This year, for the first time, I cancelled my annual physical (twice, to be completely honest) because I just couldn’t bear the contempt my doctor doesn’t hide about my weight.
As I cancelled the second time, I recalled a moment a few years ago, riding in the back of the ambulance on which I volunteered as an EMT. We had reported to a home for a patient who turned out to be bedridden and so large that three firefighters had to come help us move him. After we dropped off the patient at the hospital, the other EMT on the call wondered aloud, flabbergasted and obviously disgusted, how someone could let himself get so big. Lots of uncouth things get said in the back of an ambulance, especially on the ride home, but a cardinal rule is to never blame the patient for their condition—not the guys who OD, not the drunks who flip their cars, not the octogenarians who fall on black ice. No one, period.
That moment is so sharp in my memory both because I realized how deep his prejudice must go, that he must feel some version of it about me, and also because barely a week later, at an annual conference for EMTs, I attended a workshop on “Lifting Safety.” The instructor explained that an ever-increasing proportion of our patients would be heavy—partly because the population is getting heavier, but more importantly because emergency medicine has become the health access point for people who prefer not to engage the healthcare system directly as a result of the prejudice so many physicians express toward overweight patients.
Significant percentages of medical doctors report that they believe overweight patients are lazy, dishonest, indulgent, and unlikely to be medically compliant, as well as that we lack willpower, lack adequate hygiene, and have family problems. In one survey of more than 400 physicians, respondents were asked to indicate “patient characteristics that aroused feelings of discomfort, reluctance, or dislike.” Obesity came in #4, after drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. These same physicians describe overweight patients as often “hostile.”
I’m on the hunt for a new doctor, ideally one who isn’t prejudiced, though I’d settle for one who can hide it. And I’m very lucky I can do this. I have very good health insurance, and it does not bind me to a certain medical network. I know how to do the research to find out how other patients have felt about prospective physicians. I can drive a long way for care if I need to. These pieces of luck are just a few on the very long list that separates me from someone like the housebound patient we transported.
Which is part of what I should have told my ambulance colleague. I wish I’d had the gumption then to speak, to tell him no one wants to be dangerously fat, you jerk. It begins slowly, with some bad luck, maybe a whole cluster of bad lucks. Over time, the bad luck can get compounded, leavened with accumulating reluctances: a disinclination to be commented upon, or an unwillingness to have folks judge the contents of your cart at the grocery store. Being seen and found wanting begins to slide into not being seen, as clerks in clothing stores walk the other way, as work associates call you by another’s name. And just as weight begets weight, each pound makes it more difficult to find clothing in which to exercise, let alone to do the exercise, so too does having been rendered invisible beget invisibility. It gets exhausting, this not being seen. And so, tired of being invisible in plain sight, one may choose to be invisible on one’s own terms instead.
That’s what happened to our patient. The second or third time we came for him, his caretaker told me that a few years earlier he simply stopped leaving the house, finding it too painful to be out in the world. As he grew more sedentary he also grew heavier. Eventually, he’d become entirely bedridden. I hold that lesson close, like an amulet. For unlike my ambulance colleague, I know that man is not some hapless other who let this happen; he is me—he is so many of us—if we’d had his myriad bad lucks instead of mostly good ones.
 C. MacCann and R. D. Roberts, “Just as smart but not as successful: obese students obtain lower school grades but equivalent test scores to nonobese students,” International Journal of Obesity (2013) 37, 40–46; doi:10.1038/ijo.2012.47; published online 24 April 2012