I’m fat. It’s true. I prefer fat to the medical term morbidly obese, which sounds like I’m one fat molecule away from expiring. The word obese conjures up all kinds of character flaws, like slovenly, lazy, and totally lacking in self-control. In some attempt to compensate for these slurs, a few nice, positive traits are often implied—but I’m not jolly or cheerful. Hell, most of the time, I’m not even in a good mood.
When it comes to my appearance, I’ve had an especially unfortunate history with medical professionals. In fact, I’ve kept copies of my consultations over the past 30 years. When I was 35, I gained an enormous amount of weight from psychotropic drugs and steroids. Before that, however, I was considered average to thin.
The following is the beginning of a consultation report from those halcyon days: “Dr. Manning is a very attractive, well-dressed, and well-groomed woman who engaged easily.” Fine with me.
Twenty pounds later, another doctor wrote, “Dr. Manning is an attractive, well-groomed, 38-year-old.” I lost a “very,” and apparently, I was no longer engaging.
Then, when I took up residence in the decidedly heavy category, a doctor referred me as a “pleasant, overweight, well-groomed 52-year-old.” What was this “well-groomed” deal? They always wrote it like it was something so significant that it separated us from other primates.
I reached the tipping point with a different doctor’s cursory description: “Patient is a 58- year-old, obese, white female who complains of . . . .” There it was. Forget about the lack of attention to my attractiveness or demeanor. Now I was just a fat woman who was not even well groomed. But that wasn’t the worst part. No, the worst part was that he dictated it—in front of me!
I could easily veer into a diatribe about the inherent sexism in these men’s clinical notes. Or the prevalence of body-shaming in our culture. Or I could defend myself with protestations that I was actually a stable seven ounces short of “morbidly obese.” But I descend into self-pity and shame too easily and just end in a fantasy in which I’m wearing a big sign that screams, “This isn’t my fault!”
These days, I’m shielded from the distant consultation reports that used to come through the mail after a medical appointment. Now it’s up close and personal. It doesn’t matter if I’m there for a scaly patch on my elbow or an ingrown toenail: no doctor leaves an examining room without telling me to lose weight.
They say things like, “You know, you could stand to lose a few pounds.” (Oh really? This is news to me!) Or, “Why don’t you get out more and drop the desserts for a while?” (Oh, doctor, what an amazing idea!) Then there are the vaguely hostile comments: “I’d like to see you 35 pounds less at our next appointment.” (Yes, and I’d like to see you burn in hell!)
Recently, I added “old lady” to the list of my descriptive qualities, evidenced by my need for cataract surgery. At the follow-up visit after the procedure, the surgeon painstakingly explained the steps to my recovery. I remember thinking to myself that he was a really good doctor—until we shook hands and wished each other well. He was almost out the door when he turned and added in a stage whisper, “Oh, and how about you lose a little weight?” (In my eyes?!)
The all-time worst happens whenever I see the doctor who originally prescribed the fat-packing medicines in the first place. “Lose weight,” he always says with a smile. (“You skinny bastard,” I want to scream. “Let’s grab that chart and walk down memory lane, shall we?” But he’s a kind, caring man, so I remain silent.)
The first half of my life, I looked pretty damn good, and I couldn’t have cared less.
The second half has left a lot to be desired, with no shortage of people to remind me. And it’s not always about the flab. My 93-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, regularly squeezes my cheeks and gently reminds me of the presence of lipstick in the world. She calls it “making an effort.”
A few weeks ago, I decided to surprise her by finding color to apply to my mouth. I dropped into an upscale makeup shop and put myself into the eager hands of a young cosmetologist. I told her I wanted only lipstick, but the next thing I knew I was tilted back into a sink as she conducted an inventory of my face.
“What product do you wash with?” she wanted to know. (They always call everything products.)
“Soap,” I answered, to which she made a face like I’d said “manure.”
“I can tell you don’t moisturize,” she announced.
“No, do you think I should?” This received another incredulous reaction.
She washed and moisturized my face with the flourish of a holy ritual. Then she held up a magnifying mirror that made my pores at least 10 times bigger. They looked like cavernous pits of microbes to me, but she swore that I looked “so much better.”
Although I tried to draw her back to the lipstick, she was undeterred, unveiling the full array of makeup options she wanted us to explore. First, she tried foundation and was clearly frustrated when she couldn’t find a match with my skin. Tubes with labels like “Cornstarch” and “Dried Putty” littered the table. “You haven’t been too careful with the SPF,” she chided. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but you have that ruddy Irish to some of your skin, and the rest of your face is washed out.” She mixed up a custom batch of color, which I mentally titled “Wan,” and started rubbing it into my skin.
“Y’know, a lot of women find that the extra pounds protect them from wrinkles,” she told me. “May I ask how old you are?” When I answered that I was 67, she smiled and declared, “I would’ve sworn you were only 64!” She held up the mirror and did a tour of my reflection, showing me how smooth my skin was. “Wait, I take that back” she added, stopping at my neck, “make that 60!” Then, she dove into her mission of rescuing me from myself, with many expensive products she made sure I knew exactly how to use. In the end, she wanted me to know she was just thrilled at the way I “turned out.”
As I was paying, a stylish woman approached me and asked what color my hair was. “Gray,” I answered. (Are you blind?)
“No, who does your hair color?” she clarified.
“Nature. I mean, no one. It’s just gray.”
“That’s not gray,” she countered. “It’s silver. It shimmers. What do you use to wash and condition?”
“Um, Head & Shoulders, I think.”
My cosmetologist looked like she was going to have a seizure. “We can focus on shampoo next time you come in,” she whispered.
The next day, I followed every step of cleansing, moisturizing, exfoliating (damn, I think that was supposed to come before moisturizer), then foundation and blush and lip liner and lipstick.
Once I saw my new self in the mirror, my daily gray sweats just wouldn’t do, so I retrieved some clothes from the closet I didn’t even know were mine, and I grabbed my small, wheeled shopping cart to head to the grocery store. The cart was annoyingly low, so I had to bend over it to keep it on course, especially on the way home, when my overflowing paper bags kept throwing it off balance.
As I made my way down the sidewalk, a very cool car pulled up next to me that was more curves than angles. I don’t know cars, but the rich green shade of this one looked yummy enough to lick. As he crawled in traffic, the driver—a good looking guy in his early 50s—stuck his head out the window and smiled. I smiled back, thinking maybe he needed directions. But no, that wasn’t it at all!
“Girl,” he said with some volume, “I’d tap that ass.”
I jerked upright and stared at him, having no idea how to respond. People were around. They were smiling at me. Humiliated, I wished that the manhole cover I was standing on would open and swallow me whole.
I started crying as soon as the elevator doors opened in my building. Once in my apartment, I threw down the cart. Frozen food flew across the kitchen. All I wanted to do was call my niece and confide the humiliation that had just happened. As I dialed, I vowed never to leave my apartment, and to eat nothing but saltines for the rest of my life.
“Are you crying?”
“Yeah (sniff, sniff). You wouldn’t believe what just happened to me. I’m even embarrassed to tell you!” I gulped for air.
“Well, what is it?”
“You know how Grandmother’s always telling me to make an effort, and she’s so sincere, so I did. I bought all this makeup, and I even wore like, y’know, my real-person clothes, and I went out with the old-lady shopping cart. Then this guy in this great car drove up next to me and said, ‘Girl, I’d like to tap that ass,’ or fat ass. . . . I can’t remember.” I started heaving and crying again.
“Exactly how was he looking at you?”
“He was smiling, just plain smiling.” I started crying again.
My niece sounded like she was about to burst. Finally, she couldn’t help herself and erupted with laughter. I could hear things shuffling around on her desk as if she was knocking them around. “Aunt Martha, stop crying. Listen, his delivery was totally rude, but he wasn’t making fun of you. He was giving you a compliment!”
“Wanting to tap my ass is a compliment?” I yelled. “Tapping a senior citizen’s fat ass is a compliment? And what, by the way, does that even mean?”
“Fat asses are fashionable now. Models are getting butt implants. Hell, regular women are getting them, or they’re using padded tights and leggings.”
My niece was laughing so hard I could hear her smacking her desk. “Aunt Martha, big butts are finally in. Embrace it.” She was still laughing hysterically as we hung up.
Over the week, I changed the imaginary heading of any future consultations. Now they will read: “Dr. Manning is—on a good day—a relatively attractive, curvy, 67-year-old woman, who has few wrinkles, a great neck, and shimmering silver hair. Her engaging manner, when not obscured by a rather crude streak, is enhanced by a renewed determination to ‘make an effort.’”
Somewhere out there is a handsome man with a nice smile, a hot car, and bad judgment, who wanted to do something I still don’t understand to my ample ass. But he was a catalyst of sorts. From now on, in no uncertain terms, I shall counter the mirror, the scale, and the idiot experts, with the conviction that I refuse to be morbidly anything!
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
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