Sometimes, my filter is broken and words just fly out of my mouth like projectile vomit, long before my moral compass has a chance to register.
A few days ago, I was at the gynecologist’s office for my annual checkup — an annual I’d put off for three years. Your reproductive health isn’t a priority when you’re just working to breathe, learning to cope with chronic illness.
A nurse I’d never met before called me out of the waiting room, and as is tradition, immediately asked me to step up on the scales.
I was dreading this moment possibly more than the pap smear itself.
She announced my weight wistfully and then said, “What I’d give to be that small again, with shoes and a coat on at that!“
That’s when it happened. The word vomit exploded from my lips.
“I only weigh so little because I’m sick. Be careful what you wish for.”
Oh God, did I really just say that aloud? Surely, I just thought it. I would never…that would be so inconsiderate…I must have thought it…
The nurse’s wide eyes and facial expression proved that I had, in fact, lost my filter.
What was wrong with me?
I immediately felt compelled to fill the awkward silence. I told her a shortened version of my story. A healthy high school teacher, coach and mother of four who jogged and did yoga regularly. Then, seemingly overnight, Lyme disease stole my body and my life. Medications and immobility added pounds quickly. In March of last year, I weighed more than I did the day I’d given birth to my youngest daughter. Fast forward about six months, and significant dietary changes dropped the weight quickly.
I’ve lost a lot of weight in the last four months. I’m almost skeletal. My face is gaunt. My legs, which once were toned and muscular from jogging, are bony and thin. No muscle and no fat. My collarbones and chest port protrude. I am cold all the time. Nothing in my closet really fits.
A year ago, I had to buy XL shirts to cover my distended stomach, a result of antibiotics, and my humpback from steroids. These days I wear those same sweatshirts to hide how frail I look and to avoid these conversations.
I explained to the nurse that before I got sick all I wanted was to lose some weight to get back to my “normal” weight. Now, at such a low weight, I worry about being underweight and its affects on my already weakened immune system. I worry about my body’s ability to fight Lyme disease. I worry about the messages about body image I’m indirectly sending to my two young daughters. I worry.
Later, as I, draped in my “gown” and sheet, waited for the doctor, I replayed our conversation in my head. I felt like an insolent child for so stupidly overreacting to her intended compliment, but I also thought about our society’s reaction to weight and its affects on women.
One would never stop a friend in the grocery store and say, “Have you gained weight? My goodness, you’re really packing on the pounds this winter.”
OK, my late great-aunt Betty got away with making insensitive statements like that, criticizing weight, clothing choice, lack of make-up. But she was cultured and old and the Queen of Back-Handed Compliments. More than that, she loved us, fiercely.
But the rest of the world doesn’t have this ability.
I think, even without my filter, I’m pretty sure I would never, ever question a person’s weight.
Except, wait a minute. I do. We do. We do it all the time. We question how much weight people have lost. We ask what they’re doing to get in shape. We tell them how great they look (because presumably they looked like crap the four to five pounds before). Two weeks ago, a nurse at my cardiologist’s office asked what my secret to such drastic weight loss is.
Why is this OK? How is it acceptable to vocally idolize weight loss? Women of all shapes and sizes are susceptible to judgment and scrutiny based on their body type, and it is constant, even from the medical workers who should know better.
I thought of my son’s girlfriend, Casey, an exquisitely beautiful teenager who has struggled with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) most of her life. While all of us have something we don’t like about our appearance, these imperfections don’t interfere with our daily lives. However, individuals like Casey, who struggle with BDD, think about their real or perceived flaws for hours every day.
Often, teenagers with BDD will develop other issues; for Casey, it was an eating disorder. Before this sweetheart entered our lives, she was starving herself and working out all night, trying to achieve the ideal weight. Each time she’d reach it, she’d crave a lower number. She spent hours online talking to other girls with eating disorders. She was wasting away and disappearing.
Sadly, like Lyme, an eating disorder is not a disease that heals and is resolved. It’s an every day fight. It’s a struggle to eat. It’s a struggle to see herself the way we see her. It’s a struggle to feel good about herself.
Every. Single. Day.
Body dysmorphic disorder is a mean illness. I’d give anything for Casey to see herself in a mirror the way my son sees her every minute of his life. But we can’t change her; we can only love and accept her as is, monitor her habits to make sure she isn’t slipping back into her old ways and do our best to shield her from questions that damage her already weakened body image.
The statement “What I’d give to be that small again!” might send Casey into a spiral.
You never know what battle the woman beside you is fighting. Is she thin because she’s spent the last year of her life fighting a chronic illness? Is she skinny because she spent years battling an eating disorder, but is finally coming out on the other side? Or is she eating clean and working out, trying to get healthy for her family and herself? You can’t know by simply looking at her.
Let’s just try to remember we’re in this thing together. Some women spend hours self-loathing, wishing to be just a few pounds lighter. Many of us, sadly, equate our beauty and self-worth to how others react to our body, and that damage is often invisible. The best intended compliment could become a spiral-inducing backhand.
Choose your wishes and your words carefully.