On Life, Death, and Fatness

This piece is a follow-up to a previous article by the author.  It can be found at http://queermentalhealth.org/article/a-word-about-fat-panic/

My baby sister passed away in September 2014. I’m not going to get too much into that; it’s impossible to sum up the impact on my existence of her life and death in one article. I’d need volumes for that. What I want to talk about this time is fat phobia, though this time, I want to get (more) personal.

Around this time last year I had an appointment with a general surgeon regarding my gallbladder. I had been referred to him because I have gallstones, and surgery, apparently, is the only treatment option my GP was willing to consider. My one-hour appointment with this guy, whom I had never met before, was focused not on my gallbladder, on my weight. In fact, he went so far as to *graciously* refer me to a bariatric surgeon, against my consent. He put me on a table and examined my stomach, told me there was ‘no hope for me’ and surgery was the only option, and that the bariatric surgeon was a ‘great guy’ and could remove my gallbladder and rearrange my digestive system, all at the same time; two birds, one stone. This was after spending half an hour in a waiting room in a chair with arms so narrow they cut into my thighs, making my wait uncomfortable and creating a scene when I stood up and had to literally remove the chair from my body because I was stuck in it.

I left there severely traumatized. As a fat person, I’m used to being told on a regular basis what everyone thinks of my body. This lovely repertoire comes from all directions: friends, family, strangers, health professionals, anonymous random people on the internet. Most of the time I can (sort of) let it roll off, and it’s never affected my relationship with the health profession. In other words, I’ve never been scared to go to the doctor. But I am now. I have other—actually LEGITIMATE (read: nothing to do with fatness)—health concerns that need to be monitored on a regular basis and I couldn’t bring myself to go get the tests until just about a week ago. The doctor was perfectly nice; my paranoia (this time) was unfounded.

The thing of it is, my sister’s death has taught me that fat shaming from the outside world is, astoundingly, the very least of my problems, even though it affects my friendships, relationships, the quality of care I receive on literally any platform, and my chances of getting things like jobs and housing, regardless of my references and qualifications. I have been realizing in the past year and a bit that the worst damage is the damage I now do to myself: internalized fat phobia.

I have a picture of the two of us, my sister and I, framed in glass on the top of my bookshelf. It’s a beautiful picture; it was a Christmas gift from her a few years ago. Memories were important to her; she was a sentimental person. She loved that picture; she loved that night. She’d come to where I lived to visit and we’d gone out for dinner, saw the sights, had a good time. The problem? I felt fat. I felt disgusting. I was comparing myself to her the entire time, her slender frame, ‘perfect’ looks, outgoing personality. I felt so incredibly less-than, I nearly cancelled and stayed at home. But I went, and I felt awkward, and now whenever I see that picture that’s what I remember: not getting to spend time with my sister, who I will never get to do that with again, but how disgusting I felt and how inadequate I was next to her.

Truth be told, it’s what I’ve always felt when I’ve looked at pictures of other women, or actual women in real life, but most especially my sisters. Inadequate, worthless, disgusting. I’m thirty-seven years old and I’ve spent most of my life feeling this way, and my relationship with my youngest sister was especially strained because of the pedestal I put her on, which did nothing but alienate her and push her away, and now she’s dead and that’s the legacy of our sisterhood: fat panic. What makes this especially bittersweet (well, mostly just bitter) is that she died of complications from alcoholism, but she had her own eating disorder—restricting—and if she’d been eating the last couple years of her drinking career she’d probably still be alive. And why did she stop eating? Because she was terrified of being fat. The pathetic irony of this has not escaped me.

Several years ago, I was in a pretty good place. I can’t say I felt great about myself, but I was in the process of some massive decriminalization and decolonization when it came to my body. I was finally allowing myself to have a body, flawed and broken as I’ve always perceived it, and in that space I’d created, that other radical recoverers had helped co-create, I’d begun to let down my guard and truly accept myself. I’m not sure what changed, but I’m right back to where I used to be: angry, bitter, depressed, hopeless, all because of how I perceive myself.

Recently, within the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing some research on some of my health issues, and I’ve been talking with a close friend who also has mental health issues and multiple sensitivities, who also struggles with body image and the obsession with food and weight, and though she’s at the opposite end of the size spectrum she could essentially be telling my story. Anyway, through the conversations we’ve been sharing lately, I’ve been experiencing a renewed sense of hope. I’m ready to try again. I’m ready to take those first trembling steps again. I’m tired of giving up. I’m tired of turning the other cheek, of letting this thing win. I don’t blame myself. I don’t blame other people. I blame fear and denial and lack of awareness and presence. I blame multigenerational trauma, abuse and neglect. I have a difficult time speaking out against fat phobia and calling out fat panic because, well, I’m fat. I feel ashamed, because fatness seems to be one of the most acceptable intersections to shame someone for, and the thing is, most of us do it, to ourselves and to each other, without even realizing it. The friend who complains about how fat she is when she’s easily one third my size? The other sister and brother who are obsessed with working out and eating ‘healthy’ and can’t stop talking about it? And then all the subtle ‘hints’, like too-small chairs, advertisements, and the representation of fat people (or lack thereof) in the media. That’s just a start. I’m tired of it. I’m sick nearly to death of it all, and it is killing me because it fuels my eating disorder as well as my mental health issues, and it will continue to do so because that’s what it does. It kills people. In September 2014, it killed my sister.

The ironic thing is that, before she died, we had a conversation in which we were discussing ‘darkness’, what she referred to as her not wanting to socialize with the outside world anymore. It wasn’t long before she died, perhaps a month or less. She was talking about skincare, and I informed her that most of it is pure crap and doesn’t do anything it says it does and basically exists to make people feel bad about themselves so they’ll keep buying the products, just like everything else in capitalistic societies. She said, You’re so spiritual. You’re the most spiritual person I know. I remember the sarcastic things that went through my head. I thought, Why would she say that about me? I’m lost. I always have been. I feel about as spiritual as a hole in the wall. But when I think on that now, I remember that she always looked up to me. I have no idea why—I never have—but it’s always been the truth. She’s always told me how creative I am, how spiritual, all these things, and she’s always wanted me to go out with her and her friends and she was always proud of me and I never could figure out why. But just for today it gives me hope, because I’m the same person I’ve always been, so if those qualities were there during that conversation, and every one we had prior to that, then they’re here now.

So today, I’m starting by writing this article, which I’ve been putting off for a couple of years, really, since before she passed, though at that time it was simply meant to be a follow-up article to my Fat Panic entry and never got written because I felt like a fraud and because, well, depression. After I write this, I’m submitting it. There are deer running around in the sunshine in the forest outside my window; I’m going to watch them awhile. Then I’m going to work on my novel and clean the kitchen and unpack the last few boxes from when we moved in, and I’m going to get on with life, just for today. And I’m really hoping I can keep the momentum going, because that’s what I want for myself, to get back to that place where I’m not putting everything on hold until I’m ‘thin’. There are people who love me, people who are counting on me to show up and be present. I’m doing them no favours by hating myself. Just for today, I choose to put the judgement where it belongs: not on me, not on my sisters or other women, but on the social systems that allow this brokenness to continue, the same ones that had a hand in my sister’s death and the deaths of untold millions over time and would keep us all in line-ups in stores across nations, ever striving toward impossible goals, spending our lives away while the best things in life go unnoticed.

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