"I'm just saying, you could do better."
I was a few steps behind her as she climbed up the three or four stairs leading into Grady Hospital. In her hand I saw that she was carrying one of those venti sized coffee milkshake drinks complete with whipped cream and what looked like chocolate syrup on top. She wrapped her lips around the unusually large-diametered straw and slurped hard. My pace was faster than hers. It didn't take very long for me to catch up with her.
"G'morning," I said in what was likely the most mundane way ever. She pulled the straw from her mouth, nodded at me and returned the gesture.
By my estimation, she was definitely younger than me. That said, her face lacked the mischief or innocence of youth so I'd say that she was definitely "grown" and maybe even somebody's mother. Her skin was of a deep pecan color with eyes peeking from above her ample cheeks like two tiny slits. The sides of her face looked to be almost painted with this darker brown hyper pigmentation and, in that moment, the doctor in me sifted through my brain for the mechanism behind when such a thing happens when people carry lots of extra weight.
Hmmm. Acanthosis nigricans, maybe? Or even kind of like melasma or "the mask of pregnancy," I thought to myself. Except this she didn't appear to be pregnant at all. Just obese.
Very, very obese, to be clear.
|example of facial acanthosis, from this source (not the person)|
Even without trying I could hear her laborious breaths as I walked along side her. She was mouth breathing, yet balancing it with savoring deep swallows of what was surely a beverage well over her daily allowance of calories. Without even stopping myself, I made an unfair inventory of what I imagined to be her morning diet--some unrestricted three thousand calories, most likely. She pulled back on the straw once more, her cheeks hollowing at the sides followed by more panting.
Confession: I could already feel my insides cringing, my nose metaphorically wrinkling with disdain. With each slurp, I noticed more things about her. The ill-fitting stretch pants that did little to hide the amorphous lumps that made up her buttocks and thighs, the wide feet folding over her distressed flip flops, the rippled upper arms that easily exceeded the size of my thighs--or likely even both of them.
Now she knows that she doesn't need to be drinking that. Words I mostly thought, but that I probably would have uttered to Harry under my breath had he been beside me at the time.
Just then, I caught a glimpse of the crumpled McDonald's bag in her other hand and immediately formed more unsolicited opinions about that choice as well. Judging. Disapproving. And almost--dare I say it? Disgusted to some degree. And you know? I'd be lying if I said that wasn't true of what went on in my head. I'm also ashamed to say that such thoughts have probably entered my mind countless times before. Even though they were fleeting--seconds at most--they were there. They were.
It was in the morning at Grady Hospital so there were many other passersby with me. They cast their glances in her direction as she shuffled up through the lobby. I could tell that many of them had those same thoughts yet the vast majority did little if anything to mask them. And so I let myself see what was happening--around me, in me--as it related to this innocent woman. The more I watched, the more I could see them; adjectives swirling all around her, pasting themselves to her swarthy cheekbones, her gelatinous arms, her abundant abdominal folds.
Fat. Lazy. Shiftless. Disgusting. Morbid. Invisible.
Her eyes kept shifting downward and away from those she encountered. It was automatic, a part of a shield of armor that immediately formed around her in such situations. The more I watched the more I saw. Person after person grimacing their faces or even shaking their heads--right out in the open where she could see, feel, and be stung by it all.
Of course, many of those who tsk-tsked her could stand to shed a few of their own pounds. But now she was in a different realm. She had the kind of body habitus that had crossed over into the kind that drew stares and widened eyes from little children who don't know any better and adults who should. The kind that made single seats on commercial airplanes out of the question and even seatbelt restraints in a car a gamble. So yes, she'd moved into that public spectacle kind of obesity, making her a target for all of the stares, yes. But none of the pity.
Just that morning, I'd turned the radio station away from NPR because I was just too tired of hearing about all of these unfortunate examples of discrimination against black people making the headlines. Black boys gunned down in Missouri, the President of the free world who gets openly dissed day after day, and yet another NBA franchise owner spitting out venomous words about the fans who look like me or even having those same ideas discovered via email. Ugggh. Too much. Next my mind wandered to the op-ed pieces I've read on these same subjects, my eyes scrolling down to those nasty, racial slurs in the comment section from those internet trolls, all crouching tigers and hidden dragons in their anonymous virtual worlds.
But this? This, that I was not only seeing but even participating in, was as messed up and discriminatory as anything. And worse--none of it was even hidden from sight. Blatant, open, egregious prejudices not because of race or sexual orientation or identity. . . . but because of something universally affecting someone in every one of every group you can think of: weight.
Yep. And here I was, no less guilty than the rest of making her a pariah. Yes. That. A pariah.
Movies have won awards for complex tales of interracial loves fighting for familial acceptance. And, it seems, that the world has gotten or at least is getting the memo that it isn't cool to just outwardly let the world know that NO your child can't marry some black person or HELL NO you aren't interested in meeting the man your boy has fallen in love with and now calls his "soul mate." I mean, not publicly it isn't. Your job is to bury it under concerns like "cultural difficulties" or "religious beliefs" -- because everybody knows that you can't just come right on out and say, "I just don't approve because I think black people are gross and have tails" or "I'm glad to watch them, the gays, on TV but beyond that I want them no where near me and my family" And sure, okay, people still do it but when they do, the backlash is swift and mighty. Those are the ones that lead to "closed comments" on the NYTimes from all of the folks marching on Washington in those free-text boxes.
Yet somehow with obesity it's different. Socially acceptable to shudder where others can see you or text some hurtful observation to a friend. No one is super pissed, or rather, as pissed off as they would be about such open discrimination in any other group. And even worse, with obesity, the good guys are often in cahoots with the bad guys making it all exponentially worse.
So here's what I am trying to work through: I'm trying to rage against my own machine--the imperfect human being with not nice thoughts. I am thinking of the hurt I have felt when watching the news or listening to news radio about my own people being mistreated and how important it is for me to push myself to see my own shortcomings toward others. My hope is that it will give me more empathy toward those who think negatively of me just from looking in my direction.
Whew. I just sort of need to unpack on this today. This idea that Michael Jackson had about starting with the man--or rather woman--in the mirror.
Oh. And let me be clear: I get it. Obese people were not brought here against their will on slave ships, oppressed for hundreds of years and horrifically disadvantaged historically. But I guess my point is that I don't think there needs to be a pissing contest to see who has been treated the worst. Instead, as we all fight for equality for the groups closest to our hearts, families and identities, that can't ever happen if we aren't willing to self reflect on what we are doing, feeling and thinking about the ones that aren't.
Does that even make sense?
Here's the truth:
I didn't even know that woman. I don't know her life story, her trials, her upbringing, her resources, her support, or any such thing about her. I don't. And while I think it is perfectly okay for me to want a healthier life for her (and myself, too) I know it's not okay for me to make up my mind that all of this represents laziness and self-loathing. I know as well as anyone that obesity isn't that simple and can't just be chalked up to being unmotivated. And you know? Even if it were, is it kind of me to focus just on that part without considering all of the things that may have led to that point? Hell no it isn't.
In my opinion, society graduates discrimination, you know? Like . . . for example. . . . .the most obese people have it the worst but even still those who are still heavy but haven't quite reached a pariah-status body mass index still have it tough. Surely the most effeminate gay man or the most masculine lesbian woman or the transgender individual has a harder row to hoe than the queer-ish person with a phenotypically vanilla identity. And last, I am keenly aware that the darkest of my brothers and sisters with the most afrocentric features, particularly when combined with the most limitations on socioeconomic status, struggle more than perhaps I do with my smattering of freckles and more delicate facial features. It's just the truth. But even still, the discrimination is there and it hurts that it is.
Try compounding a few of these things together--particularly with obesity or even some mental or physical disability. Very, very obese and black. BMI over 40 and transgender. Or all of these things plus a cerebral palsy or a cognitive disability? Better yet, don't. It will only depress you.
I guess a big part of me always embracing members of, for example, the LGBTQ community has been about this shared understanding of how it feels to be prejudged and mistreated as a group and how vital it is to us all to just be seen, man. But I wonder sometimes if part of it is just because it is socially acceptable for me to do so? I mean, I hope not. Either way, today I am working to expand my views to include more than just what is "sexy."
You know what? I'm a work in progress, man. And I'm going to work as hard as I can to "see" even more people than I ever have before. . . .but to especially keep self reflecting enough to see--and deal with--my own feet of clay in the process.
31 “Your Majesty looked, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance. 32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them."
- Daniel 2:31-34
Happy Wednesday. And I'm just saying, we can do better. Me included.
Oh, and if you haven't seen this? Watch it and be intrigued. It's complicated, man.