Airplanes, buses, trains, movie theaters – there are endless places where you may find yourself seated next to a fat person. I’ve talked about it time and again here – I’m a big woman. Plus-sized. Curvy. Overweight. I’m fat. We as a nation tend to shy away from using the word “fat” when we’re describing someone we love. We flinch at it, it makes us uncomfortable, we dismiss the word and tell them that of course they’re not fat. Just big. Or plus-sized. Or curvy. “Fat” carries with it a negative connotation, it’s used in comments sections to put people down, dismiss them, describe them, always in a bad way. It’s just something on a person’s body, literally everyone’s body, just in different amounts. Like freckles or hairs. But because weight is hard to hide and obesity is rising, I feel compelled, as a fat person, to offer the world this in-depth guide from the inside on how to treat someone like myself, a fat person.
Step 1: Treat them like you would any other human being.
That’s pretty much it. Taking up more space does not mean they’re worth less.
While I get the occasional creepy Facebook message from guys who fetishize big women, I also get to see the thousands of comments every day all over social media left by people who are disgusted by fat people. Their actual words, they’re disgusted. Why? Because a human being dares to look differently than they’d prefer. Do you want to date or marry every person you’re kind to on a daily basis? The person you held the door for, are you harboring a deeply-rooted love for them? Did you profess your feelings to the person you smiled at across from you at the restaurant? Have you entered into long-term relationships with every stranger you’ve encountered without turning your nose up in disgust? No? Then why do people have to make themselves attractive for you to be nice to them? Why must someone conform to your physical ideals to not be reviled?
If you think your lower numbers on the scale or higher numbers in the gym make you a better person – or worse, assign you more worth – then the problem isn’t my weight, it’s your heart.
“Ah, Jen, I’m glad you brought up the heart. Obesity is so bad for you – ”
I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a post to celebrate or encourage obesity. This is not a post where I justify my weight. Search it line by line, and you will find no excuses, justifications, or fact-ignoring celebrations. This is purely and entirely about treating people with kindness. If you react with anything that resembles a, “yeah, but…”, then you don’t get the point and should start back up at the top. Repeat as many times as necessary.
But since we’re on the topic, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something we keep hidden deep in the bowels of Lane Bryant – fat people do not have to justify their choices to you. Ever. Period. Not caloric intake. Not activity levels. Nothing. Overweight people are not dumb. They are not ignorant to the medical research on obesity any more than they are to your stares and snickers. (Yes, the snickers pun was intentional.) Every single time a fat person visits a doctor, for literally any ailment, they must first spend at least 20 minutes going around and around with their doctor over their weight. Truly. Got a headache? Well if you’re fat, good luck getting your doctor to look past your waistband. There is no greater population of people that must justify their right to be heard by a doctor. So we get it, we’ve heard it, extra weight is hard on your body. No one person in an internet comments section is the messiah of skinny news, you will not bring to them the sudden realization through your “concern” that losing weight would be healthier. Suggesting diets is not helpful. Asking an obese person if they’ve tried exercise is a lot like asking a person struggling with infertility if they’ve tried conceiving. Messaging someone about a miracle product you’re selling is just plain rude and bad internet etiquette. And heck, if you’re really so concerned about someone dying sooner, then be NICE to them with the little time they apparently have left. Shaming anyone for something on their body isn’t just cruel, it shows an incredible lack of intelligence. Really, the most obvious thing about me is the only thing you could think to talk about? Teach your kids to see the person and not the size, to describe people as, “That man in the blue shirt,” instead of “that big fat guy over there.” They’ll be better friends – and writers – for it. While we’re on the topic, please don’t teach your children that eating too much will cause them to get fat. That’s really not the whole truth. Genetics, conditions, hormones, medications, injuries, depression, and yes, food choices, can all play a part in the amount of jiggle in someone’s wiggle. Diet and exercise are not secrets that have been kept from fat people. Most of the fat people I know diet and exercise more than the average-sized people in my life. Keep your regiments to yourself and don’t assume that just because a person looks a certain way that they aren’t working on it – or even that they don’t want to look like that.
J.K. Rowling said once, “Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me.”
While there is more of me, there’s also more to me. I have two degrees, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I have three kids. I can quote a mind-boggling number of movies and every episode of Friends. My husband is my best friend. I get really excited really easily. I used to want to be a professional whistler. I love to laugh, write, create. I love costume jewelry and leopard print. I can sing the 50 states song in about 40 seconds. I’m terrified of aquatic plants. I am certified to SCUBA dive down to 60 feet in open water, and want to someday swim with sharks. I play the trumpet. In high school I sang with the men’s choir at UIL competition – and the women’s. I’m an insomniac, a history buff, true-crime fanatic, and a friend. I’m not the most interesting person in the world, but the outside of me does not even come close to how much more there is of me on the inside.
Do I have thyroid problems? Hormonal imbalances? Injuries, medications, genetics, or snacking habits that have led me to become overweight? I don’t have to tell. I don’t have to justify my size. For a long time I have, and out of insecurity I sometimes still will, but really, no one, from the petite to the pudgy, has to justify their size to you. To anyone. No one’s meals, no one’s choices need your approval. My weight does not define me, but your words do clearly advertise who you are. No one, not the most morbidly obese person in the stretchiest of pants with the biggest of plates, deserves to be treated with any less respect. You don’t have to marry them, you don’t have to date them, you don’t have to befriend them, but you are not entitled, ever, to elevate yourself over them with your disgust.
Treat everyone kindly. That’s really it.
If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you know I’m a big girl. I’ve written about some of the issues I’ve faced as a plus-sized woman here, here, and here. It’s not a big secret, it’s something I discuss openly, it’s something I’ve had to deal with for a long time now. Yet for all the struggles I’ve shared and the courage I’ve mustered, few things terrify me as much as the tagged photo.
You never know when it will strike, when it will creep up on you, completely unprepared and unaware. You step away from social media, have a lovely day, then come back to a strange surge in notifications – gasp! You’ve been tagged in a photo… and people have SEEN it! You can remove the tag if you want, sure. You can adjust your settings so that you must first approve tags (and I thought I had). You can walk around in full hair and makeup, sucking in everywhere you go and appearing to candidly laugh in the background at all times. No matter what precautions you take, it never fails that someone, somewhere, will at some point tag you in an unflattering photo. Such tragedy befell me yesterday.
Earlier this week I went on a field trip with my daughter and her pre-k class. She had a great time, talked about it for the rest of the day with the biggest smile on her face, just so excited about what we’d done together that day. The day was a success! Truth be told I was as excited as she was about the day and couldn’t wait to announce it on social media, it was such a fun time. But I didn’t. Over the course of the morning we took at least 30 selfies together, and none of them met my standards. We tried side light, low light, direct light, sunlight. Silly faces, vogue faces, the right side of our faces and the left side of our faces. Different backgrounds, different poses, different angles. I looked at every single one of them and dismissed them as unworthy of sharing because I didn’t like how I looked in them. My daughter, of course, was adorable in each one, even though the last dozen or so really began to show her annoyance with the constant pictures. I’m a photographer and this is my busiest season, so I’ve been staying up working at a computer screen until 6 am, getting about 3 hours of sleep a night, and it showed. I had bags under my eyes from editing, grey in my hair from parenting. My nose looked too pointy in one photo, too bulbous in another. I didn’t like the way I looked and controlled how my friends on social media saw me. Goodbye, photographic evidence of an otherwise lovely day.
Or so I thought.
Yesterday evening, my adorable daughter’s amazing teacher posted some photos she had taken of the day. Group photos of the class, pictures of her with some of the kids, parents… and then I saw it, the reason I’d gotten a notification in the first place – a photo of my little girl and I, together, and I was – gulp – tagged.
My cheeks instantly flushed, my ears burned with embarrassment. I was sitting, rarely a good pose for anyone and never a good one for a plus-sized person, and my tiny little daughter looked positively elfin next to me. There I was, obviously large, nothing and no none to hide behind. Just me. I was humiliated at how much of the photo I took up, how apparent my size was. I was disappointed, all my carefully-crafted, expertly-angled, creatively-cropped selfies gone to waste now because this photo was showing the truth. I felt exposed. Here I was and there was nothing I could do to change it. I’ll be honest, as silly as it may sound, my eyes burned with tears. I didn’t like what I saw and I didn’t want anyone else to see it.
But they already had.
The photo already had a handful of “likes” from friends who had seen me, the real me, in their newsfeed. As I stared at the image and dissected it, made a mental list of everything I hated about myself, I got a few more notifications that friends had “liked” the photo I was tagged in. Crap, there goes another one. And another.
I put my phone down and hung my head. I stayed silent for a while, just sitting on the couch, watching tv with my husband and feeling that gnaw in my stomach that comes with regret. I badly wanted to go back in time and either decline the photo op or set my daughter in my lap and smile over her shoulder, shielded from the camera, from the truth of who I am. I wanted to remove the tag. I wanted to investigate and look at who all had seen the photo.
I opened Facebook back up and checked my notifications. Yep, a few more “likes” on that embarrassing picture of me. I clicked on it and started reading the names of my friends who had taken the time to react to it. Not react – they liked it. Some of them even took the time to “love” it. Some of the friends I’ve never met in real life. I’d met them in groups where we shared similar interests and hit it off, but we’d never met, never hugged, never shared a cup of coffee. These people had just gotten their first glimpse of me – the real me. The unflattering, sitting-down, chest-is-bigger-than-the-head-of-the-child-sitting-next-to-me, what-on-earth-is-my-hair-doing me. Some of the friends – there goes another like! – do know me in real life. They’ve hugged me, seen me cry, listened to my loud voice and smiled when I walked into a room. They weren’t duped. They’ve seen me look like that, every time they’ve been around me. They’ve seen me sit, seen me with lipstick on my teeth, seen me sweat and get frustrated and take my heels off in stores to walk around barefoot. They’ve seen me, and still they’re my friends. And they “liked” the picture. They support me, encourage me, and are happy to see me smiling on a field trip with my daughter. They may not have cared if I was sitting, they may have, but they’ve seen me and it didn’t matter. They “liked” it. Oh man, Amber just saw this picture of me. Come ON, I saw Amber in person two weeks ago, this picture isn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know about me!
Instead of seeing each notification as a nail in the coffin of my image, I began to see them as little high fives, little pats on the back, little gestures from friends who saw me, the real me, and were happy they had. Friends I’d encouraged to make sure they had pictures of themselves no matter how unhappy they were with their appearance. Friends I looked up to. Friends I grew up with. Friends who knew me when I was thin and friends who first met me when I wasn’t. It sounds so simple, they just “liked” my picture and went on scrolling. But it meant so much more. Instead of feeling exposed I was feeling accepted. Instead of feeling disgusted I was feeling loved. I may not have liked what I saw in that picture, but my friends did, and not because of how I looked, but because it was ME in it.
Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be changing my profile picture to that one any time soon. My profile picture which, by the way, is a carefully-angled selfie of me wearing a shirt that says “Plus is Equal”, picked from about 30 other attempts at the same shot and run through a filter or two. Do I look like that? Well, sure, from the right angle and cropped close in. But I sit a lot more than I stand on my porch in full makeup, looking up just enough to elongate my face and neck. I have bags and greys frequently enough, too. I’ve been hiding in plain sight, so scared of how I’d look that I forgot that this is how I really do look, that people in my life see me every day without a second thought. I’ve been laying bare my emotions and experiences and hiding my appearance, the very thing about me that so many posts have sprung from. I’ve been telling everyone without hesitation that I was a plus-sized woman but was too embarrassed to prove it.
So there I am. I’m not removing the tag. I’m not mad, I’m not upset. I’m still probably a little sheepish about the picture, but I’m glad I have it, glad to have a memory saved of that wonderful day with my girl, glad she’ll have something to look back at and remember. I’m challenged now to embrace who I am. I’m convicted that I’ve been using my voice to advocate for people who look like me but using any other means possible to keep people from looking AT me. My pants size didn’t change when that picture was seen by others, my weight didn’t fluctuate. I’m still exactly who I was and I still look exactly the same. My husband still loves me and tells me I’m beautiful, I still have 3 awesome kids, and the Backstreet Boys are still better than N Sync. Nothing really changed in my world apart from how terrified I’ve been to let my friends see me.
Now I challenge you, friend, to do the same. Let your friends see you. Let us know you. Don’t duck away from photos (guilty), don’t hide behind the camera so you don’t have to be in front of it (guilty), don’t pass up an opportunity to capture a memory forever because you didn’t want to see yourself in the present (also guilty). Take pictures. Heck, jump into the pictures. Who you are is not how you look, so anyone who calls themselves your friend has already decided to like you without knowing that you wear your belts under your bust instead of around your waist (so very guilty). So you look different than you used to – there’s a whole day devoted to laughing and musing over how much we’ve ALL changed, Throwback Thursday. So you don’t love how you look – you’ve got a lot of people who love who you ARE. I challenge you to answer these questions whenever you hesitate to share a photo, a memory – what is the absolute worst thing that can come from an unflattering photo of you being seen by others? Is it catastrophic or can you survive it? Is the memory of that moment more valuable than the image you’ve crafted up until then? Have you ever lost respect for someone or ended a friendship with anyone because they had a roll of chub showing or were in the middle of a breakout? If you have never been so shallow as to stop caring for a friend because they didn’t look perfect, then do your friends the courtesy of not assuming they will, either.
Let’s put ourselves out there, warts, tight shirts, wrinkles and all. Let’s be real. Let’s encourage and empower one another. Let us let go of the pursuit of perfection and remind ourselves that even Beyoncé has some embarrassing pictures tagged, and that while our social media images may be a little imperfect, at least ours aren’t as easily found on Google. Give your friends a chance to “like” what they see, and give yourself the freedom to accept just what it is they’re looking at.
That’s not an original title. There’s a whole hashtag devoted to it on Twitter, although it’s been overtaken and trolled enough by now to have lost its original momentum and intent.
This is not a post promoting obesity. I’m not encouraging people do “just do you” and ignore healthy lifestyles or guidelines. I’m not saying doctors who suggest a heavier weight is detrimental to your overall health are meanies or bullies. My feelings do not spare me from the realities of being overweight.
My weight also does not disqualify me from receiving quality, unbiased care. And THIS is what I’m writing about today.
I remember the first time I ever encountered a doctor who couldn’t see past my weight. I’d made an appointment with a doctor because I’d been experiencing some crippling anxiety and thought it was time to ask for help. I went through the usual routine with the nurse – weight, height, blood pressure, symptoms, allergies. Having never been a patient in this office before, I answered everything with patience. The handle turned, the door opened, and the as-yet-unintroduced doctor walked in, chart in hand, and handed me a pamphlet and a few information sheets. “These will help you lose weight.” Those were the first words he said to me. Barely 3 months postpartum with my second child, and being a WOMAN, I was embarrassed. I hadn’t yet realized that you’re allowed to stand up to doctors and demand they treat your symptoms, demand that they listen to you. I timidly tried to remind him what I was there for. He didn’t listen. Never once made eye contact, and wrote me FOUR prescriptions before he finally took the time to find something suitable for a breastfeeding mother. I never filled that prescription, a sort of symbolic “forget you” to the doctor I swore to never see again. For years I chalked the experience up to him simply being a jerk, a butthole, a tool, whatever. After all, in any profession you’ll find people like him, so I couldn’t assume I’d ever be treated so poorly by another physician.
Until I needed another physician.
Let me just get this out of the way: Fat people know we’re fat. No one is telling us anything new. We shop at different stores, take elevators to separate floors in department stores. We own mirrors and scales. We read the same articles and see how big of a deal it is when Target announces they’ll carry something in our size. We rarely see anyone like us in the media, and most of the time it’s only because someone felt it was their place to point out how much bigger that person is getting. Kirstie Alley has become a punch line for struggling with something the VAST majority of Americans struggle with, and somehow the same majority feels it’s okay to laugh. She knows what number stares back at her from her closet, long before anyone writes a joke about it. She knows. We know. We all know.
if you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’ve battled PCOS for most of my life. A few years ago, it began to get out of control. Not that it was ever a walk in the park, but it was truly affecting my quality of life. I sought help from a highly-specialized doctor, a man with incredible reviews and a very fancy office. I saw him several times, went through some invasive procedures, bloodwork, and tests, then sat in his office and slumped my shoulders when all he said was, “Yep, you have PCOS.” I reminded him of my symptoms, my complaints, my misery, of how I’d gained 50 pounds in a single month. Through tears I asked him if there was nothing else that could be done to help, nothing else to look for. “Well, you’re fat, so you’re not going to feel well.” Ouch. He offered to send my information to a surgeon he knew who performed bariatric surgery, despite my insistence that diet had not caused my appearance.
I worked up the courage a few months later to see another doctor. I knew that my weight was a symptom of something going horribly wrong in my body and was determined to find out what it was. This new doctor interrupted me as I tearfully shared my complaints with her to ask about my diet. My nearly 100% organic, home-cooked, acceptably-portioned diet. She was puzzled, I could tell. The confusion on her face was clear: How does she eat like that but look like this? When I told her I drank a Pepsi every day, she looked relieved and let out a huge sigh. She thought she’d solved the mystery. “Well, are they two-liters?” Out loud. She said that out loud. To me. A woman in tears, begging for her help. She didn’t care what was wrong with me, she couldn’t see past my size.
Months later, I braved the MDs again. This one actually handed me tissues as I cried. She scheduled surgery, bloodwork, tried really hard to figure out a lot of the symptoms I was experiencing. At the end of the months-long process, we were none the wiser and I was no better. Having earned my Google University medical degree at this point, I asked if she could check my thyroid. She, instead, handed me a Weight Watchers flyer. Again, yet again, this prison of fat was being seen as a cause, not a symptom. I lost my cool that time, handed her the flyer back, and gave her quite a speech on how many patients she’s probably missed the mark on because she couldn’t see past the weight.
I read a blog a few months ago that discussed this very topic, how doctors are so blinded or biased by weight that they fail to treat the actual underlying cause of a patient’s complaint. A sore knee is seen as the byproduct of bearing too much, not a possible autoimmune disorder, a legitimate injury, or even a blood clot. Labored breathing or chest pains in a plus-sized patient are met with eye rolls, not concern. There is no sympathy, no dedication. As soon as the weight of a patient is assessed, it becomes a hurdle the patient must overcome in the long path to getting a doctor to LISTEN. Yes, we know we’re fat, but please listen to what else is bothering us. Please stop staring in judgement long enough to listen with care. If doctors attend medical school for so long to help people, then start doing it already. Yes, obesity is an epidemic that causes an incredible amount of health concerns, disabilities, and death. Yes, it’s bad for us. But so are doctors who don’t pay attention to anything more than our waist band. Google “doctor fat bias” and you will find numerous studies indicating that doctors tend to treat thinner patients better and more effectively. I, for one, am less likely to seek medical care because I don’t believe that my concerns will be heard or addressed, and I don’t feel like dealing with the judgement or embarrassment that comes from being ignored.
This is a problem. All patients, no matter their size, deserve equal, empathetic care. I spent hundreds, heck, thousands of dollars trying to find a doctor who would behave like a doctor. My money is the same as that of a thin person’s. I wasn’t looking for a pat on the back, I wasn’t looking for someone to make me feel good about myself, I was looking for a DOCTOR. Yes, I’m fat, now let’s find out WHY, please. Despite treating the PCOS (which causes weight gain, hurray), I still had extreme fatigue. Hair loss. Mental fog. Aching joints. Hives. More weight gain. The overwhelming diagnosis was that I was fat. Fat people are supposed to feel miserable. Fat people only get fat by eating a whole lot. Fat people are unhealthy. Lab result after lab result showed that I was actually in incredible health. (One doctor even said “wow” when she saw my healthy blood work.) My cholesterol is fine. I am not diabetic. My heart and lungs and liver and everything else work great. I just feel terrible and won’t stop gaining weight. They all missed it. Every doctor I saw, every doctor I begged, every doctor I worked up the courage to share my struggles with, every doctor I trusted to help me. They were blinded by my size and their objective abilities to help left the room. They didn’t see the pattern. They didn’t see the fatigue, the weight gain, the hair loss, the joint pain, the mental fog, the hives, the sleeping troubles. They didn’t see a woman in front of them with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Because that woman is fat.
When I got the phone call from yet another doctor (who asked in our initial consult if I’d ever eaten a salad), I knew what was coming. A simple Google search had provided me with a diagnosis more than a half-dozen doctors couldn’t reach, months before. I knew what was wrong with me and I knew what to ask for. And while he was quite rude about it, that last doctor ran the tests that needed to be ran all along. I’d cried for years that my body felt like a lemon, like it was attacking itself, and it was finally confirmed to be true. I cried VICTORIOUS tears after that phone call. I wanted to call every doctor I’d seen and tell them the news, tell them they’d failed me. Instead my mind went to all of the other potential patients they’d failed. How many other people were walking around with treatable illnesses because they’d been diagnosed as fat? How many people who become statistics each year by dying from obesity-related issues actually have years left, but were written off as collateral damage caused by cake? I kept this news largely to myself, mostly because I’d complained enough about my health. Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder, so there is no cure, only treatment. It was likely caused by the extreme imbalances from the PCOS, but everyone is different. It takes, on average, 5 years for a patient with an autoimmune disorder to get a diagnosis. And with the way autoimmune disorders work and how connected every hormone and organ and gland in our body is, those with autoimmune disorders often develop other autoimmune disorders. So we are quite literally getting worse as we look for help. We are actually wasting away. Our health deteriorates with every doctor we visit. Doctors, who take oaths, who vow to help, who wear white coats and earn letters after their names, are making their patients WORSE, simply because they don’t have their listening ears on.
I love Humans of New York. If you don’t follow Brandon and his project, you’re really missing out on an incredible glimpse at humanity. Similar to what Post Secret used to be, it shows us, every day, that we can’t judge a book by its cover, that we truly have no idea what’s going on inside someone. Until we listen.
Last night I had to go to the doctor. My throat burned like lava, I had a fever, and my lymph nodes were swollen. I needed a doctor. He walked in, sat down, and asked if I had diabetes. “No, but I have a sore throat.” It turns out I have strep throat. Treatable. Temporary. And in no way related to my weight.
Listen up, doctors. Your patients are dying and don’t care what size their coffins are.
Heads up – this post will contain some TMI-ish mention of lady parts. Dudes don’t really read blogs, anyway – at least not ones I write – but just to be on the safe side, you’ve been warned.
As many of you probably know, I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, PCOS for short. It is characterized by, among a few other things, polycystic ovaries. Every month, when our awesome bodies are gearing up to ovulate (release an egg for possible fertilization), several eggs, called follicles, are called up to the front lines. In a normal woman’s reproductive system, one follicle volunteers as tribute, and the others go back about their business. There, the “dominant follicle” (potential baby) grows and grows and then, when the time is right, releases an egg, resulting in ovulation. In a woman with PCOS, those homies who came up to the front never go back to where they came from, and end up hanging out all over the ovaries, some growing and growing. The “dominant follicle”, rather than releasing an egg, just hangs out, either growing or not making babies, making it very difficult for women with PCOS to conceive. Occasionally, maybe once a year, maybe a few times in a lifetime, these follicles will rupture, causing extreme amounts of pain. I’m sure you all either know someone who has experienced an ovarian cyst rupture or had one yourself. Almost every gal who has been so fortunate as to experience this has ended up in the emergency room for treatment. It hurts that bad. (Don’t worry if you’ve had it happen, ovarian cysts do NOT equal PCOS!)
Why the biology lesson, you ask? Because I need you to understand the situation I’ve been in. I had my first ovarian cyst rupture at the age of 11. After a night in the hospital and a very scary ultrasound, it was determined that the pain I was experiencing was a cyst the size of an orange bursting. An orange. That was the beginning of my PCOS journey.
I have now dealt with this awful disease for 18 years. That’s a literal lifetime. As I got older, it got worse. Every year. Then I had kids, and it got more worse. But wait, Jen. Didn’t you say that women with PCOS often struggle with infertility? Way to pay attention! You see, I have suffered, through the years, in agony, with extreme, atypical, and uncontrollable PCOS. A normal woman ovulates once a month. A woman with PCOS ovulates a handful of times a year, if that. I, for some unknown reason, was ovulating EVERY 8 DAYS. It used to be two weeks, then got worse. Then it was 10 days, but it got worse. And it finally leveled off that every 8 days, I was having a cyst rupture. Every 8 days, I was in agony for part of my day, in the type of pain that sends women to the emergency room. EVERY. EIGHT. DAYS. Because I was such a determined ovulater, a few follicles had the chance to break through, resulting in my gorgeous babies (whom I was told I would never be able to conceive without medical intervention). So while there’s THAT silver lining, every 8 days I was writhing in pain.
I saw, I think, 7 doctors last year, trying to find answers, help, RELIEF. Each time I’d leave disappointed or insulted. I’d go through testing with one doctor, just to be told I had PCOS and handed a prescription for birth control, the standard treatment. It didn’t help. I saw another doctor, went through the same invasive tests, just to be told I had PCOS and handed a prescription for birth control. Which didn’t help. I’d pick myself up off the floor, rally my spirits, and get the guts to try AGAIN. More invasive tests. More of the same results. More birth control. Every. Single. Time. Depressed doesn’t begin to describe me. Each time I had to explain, through tears, the awful symptoms. Each time I had to beg and plead for them to see my weight as a symptom, not a cause. Few listened. Some symptoms are too embarassing to tell the interwebz about, but you’re welcome to Google PCOS symptoms and imagine my life. Extreme fatigue, mental fog and confusion, acne, and the worst: incredible, soul-crushing weight gain. Once “my hormones came back”, we’ll call it, after I had my daughter, I gained 50 pounds in a single month. I could literally feel myself getting fatter and nothing could stop it. With being overweight comes a whole host of health problems, which God has thankfully spared me from. But it also comes with stares and assumptions and judgements and shame. I don’t look this way because I ate my way into Lane Bryant. I don’t look this way because I drink 2-liters of Pepsi a day, as one doctor suggested. I look this way because my flawed, human body is incapable of making the correct amount of hormones, and I was trying so very desperately to get someone to help me fix it. Doctor after doctor, disappointment after disappointment, suffering in silence and trying to explain why a hysterectomy wouldn’t fix it. The last doctor I saw I thought would surely be The One. She was very nice, more sympathetic than the others, and immediately got me scheduled for a morning of various surgical procedures. Friends, cannot express the depth of my absolute despair when I awoke from surgery to discover that nothing had been discovered, nothing had been removed, nothing would be different. I cried tears of absolute grief in the recovery room. I had incisions and no hope. The surgeon and my doctor hadn’t communicated well, it seemed, and only half of the procedures had been done. Only half of my uterus was explored. But the entirety of my heart was just shattered. Give me a moment to gather myself, I can’t see through the tears well enough to type.
It was hard. I kept trying and trying and trying, and no one was able to help. Rather than find out WHY my body was going rogue, they just handed me the cookie-cutter solution, no matter how many times I screamed that it wasn’t helping. I was in pain. Miserable. Fat. Something was wrong and there appeared to be no way to fix it, ever. Could I really live the rest of my life like this? I couldn’t let myself imagine another lifetime like the one I’d already experienced. So I just resigned myself, for the time being, to be a good little patient. I took my pills, I grew my cysts, I gained weight, and I lived in suffering. I prayed. Oh, how I prayed. Deep depression threatened to overwhelm me, creeping behind me like a shadow, ready to pounce. Like the pain, it was ever-present. Between the fatigue and my self-worth plummeting, I had no motivation. No joy. I knew God healed others, but for whatever reason, it did not appear to be His will for me. PCOS was, quite efficiently, ruining my life. I sought counsel in PCOS-specific forums, only to be shunned because I had been spared the pain of infertility. I was so alone, so sad, so ashamed, so hopeless. My birth control prescription ran out, and I had nothing left inside me to seek another one. Then it got a little worse.
You see, one of the symptoms of PCOS is elevated testosterone. Every woman produces a tiny amount of it, but some women with PCOS produce way too much. I, of course, am one of those lucky ladies. You can imagine the toll it takes on a woman’s womanhood to know that her ovaries are treating her like a man. Testosterone is believed to be the cause of the follicles that hang around and turn into cysts. It also causes acne, in grown stinkin’ women who have been out of high school for 11 years. (Just for future reference, asking someone about the rash on their face probably isn’t the best way to make them feel awesome.) It does other, more embarassing things, but it had one final blow to deal me: Hair loss. Male pattern baldness, to be exact. If you know me, you know of my hair. I’m not cocky, but I can admit that it is my crowning glory. It’s the one part of me that cannot get fatter, can’t get stretch marks. If I were ever to model, it would be for hair. I have lots of it, and I complain about the work, but the truth is that I couldn’t rid myself of the last-remaining quality I had to be proud of.
I started noticing TONS of hair coming out in my brushes, in the shower. I asked my hairdresser if she noticed a difference, but I have so much stinkin’ hair that she didn’t notice. But I did. I saw the handfuls coming out. I noticed when I started being able to wrap the elastic around a ponytail more times than ever before. Then I looked up and saw it: thinning hair, just like a dude. I was starting to look like Stabler on SVU, and feared I’d soon look like Cragen. I know, I know, there are worse things. I have a beautiful friend who has zero hairs. But to a photographer, who spends so much time surrounded by beauty, it cuts deep to not be proud of your appearance. As a woman, male-pattern baldness deals a heavy blow. I’d had enough. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t be fat, pimply, tired, dumb AND bald. So I took to Google, where I earned my Google University medical degree.
Deep in the pages of a hippie healing site, I found a glimmer of hope. Well, not really hope, because I was so devoid of it at that point, but more of an it-couldn’t-hurt glimmer. Saw Palmetto. An herb used by men to lower testosterone, usually when fighting prostate issues. It made sense – if excess testosterone is causing all these problems, take a medication that blocks or lowers testosterone. DER. So I took my hiney to our local hippie store and bought the small bottle, just to try, and asked my Facebook friends to pray for me. A little over a week later, I was sitting on the couch, marveling at my baby’s-bottom-smooth cheeks. Maybe not THAT smooth, but smoother than my face has felt in about 15 years. If it helped nothing else, it helped with breakouts, so I ordered a big bottle and kept taking it. I had been taking it about a month (too soon to notice any difference with my hair) when I commented to a friend that I hadn’t had a cyst rupture in weeks. Weeks! Like clockwork, because that’s just how my body rolls, I felt it. The stabbing, burning, rumbling that starts when a cyst is rupturing. Only this one didn’t stop. It hurt. BAD. As bad as my unmedicated c-section. It hurt from my knees to my lungs, felt like my trunk was melting, and the only way to know that I could still breathe was to scream. I don’t know who was more scared: myself, lying on the bathroom floor, writhing and jerking and vomiting from pain, trying not to black out, or my poor kids, confused and unable to help. My amazing husband rushed home and took care of me, and I survived. Obviously. It was the worst rupture I’d ever experienced, and the pain never fully went away, so two days later I went to the emergency room to make sure I hadn’t experienced ovarian torsion (Google it) or something worse. A sonogram and a CT scan later, I got the greatest news I’ve received in a long, long time. While the ultrasound showed fluid from a ruptured cyst the size of a cantaloupe (OUCH), it showed ONE cyst. ONE. One single, solitary follicle. But Jen, you still have a cyst there! Yes, you’re right. And it’s a fairly large one. But 7 months ago, my most recent sonogram before that, my two ovaries were hosting more than 75 cysts. You’re reading that right. My left ovary had 31 and she stopped counting at 46 on my right. This was WHILE on birth control, the standard treatment for PCOS. I teared up with joy, felt light with hope, and just about hugged the doctor. One cyst. Just one. Years and years of trying to find help, trying to find an answer, years and years of disappointment and depression and pain… and only one cyst. 18 years of having “devastated ovaries” (doctor’s words). Only one cyst. Am I still fat? Yep. Do I still have a lot to fix and figure out and tweak? Yep. But now I finally, FINALLY have something I hadn’t dared to attempt again: hope. I know that there is something that can help me. I know that my body WILL respond to SOMETHING.
Please note that I am not a medical professional and hold no formal training in any type of healing, other than prayer. I am not one to be a conspiracy theorist who accuses pharmaceutical companies of creating customers more than assisting patients. But why hadn’t this herb been mentioned before? Go ahead and Google “saw palmetto for PCOS”, you’ll find tons of information, testimonials, and recommendations. Why had no single doctor mentioned it to me? Why did they sit in their offices and stoicly watch me sob, plead, beg for help, then only offer me synthetic hormones that they knew would not make a difference? Each different prescription I tried came with pages of warnings, side effects, interactions, and more. Each pill I took caused an unfavorable reaction in one way or another, and none of them offered any respite. Pain and pills, that was my life. But this natural herb, to which no one holds a patent, has done more for me in a month than nearly two decades of labratory medicine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to modern medicine. Without it I wouldn’t know that I had too much testosterone, wouldn’t have Benadryl or sonograms or scientific proof that what I’m doing is working. But I am ever so grateful to God for giving us natural, working medicine. I am grateful to Him for wisdom, for access to healthcare. Did I mention that I only have ONE CYST?!
I’m sitting here, still in pain from the massive cyst that just exploded inside me recently, trying not to be vain about the fact that I’m fat enough for something the size of a cantaloupe to fit inside my stomach, but I have hope. Not just hope, but excitement. I am going to continue my current dosage and begin more natural options to heal the rest of me that needs fixing. With God and His intentionally-created nature, I believe that I can find relief, can find a life that I live happily, without chronic pain. I sit here hopeful, happy, in the process of healing. It’s said that the follicles on polycystic ovaries look like strands of pearls. But today, friends, these are the only pearls I have on.
I don’t want to share this.
My hands are shaking. My heartbeat is visible through the skin over my collarbone. I’m so nervous and humiliated that I feel lightheaded. I do not want to share this.
But I have to. For a week I’ve been fighting this, and for a week I’ve tossed and turned and been awakened by my brain that seems to want to write this on its own. So while I don’t want to share this, I need to.
I love fashion. I hang out in sweatpants and Backstreet Boys t-shirts and revel in the no-makeup days, but I love fashion. I also love to laugh. It seemed a given that I would enjoy a marriage of the two, Fashion Police on E!. I DVR’ed the heck out of it, I wanted Joan Rivers’ job (and wardrobe!), I laughed, I looked forward to it. Until a few months ago when I read an interview with a random celebrity that I can’t even remember, but their words stuck with me. She said that she did not watch Fashion Police, because it was hurtful. The women they tore apart on that show left their house feeling beautiful, and those “judges” thought it was their place to say otherwise. Boom. I haven’t watched since.
Many of you know that I struggle with my weight. Yes, I say “struggle”. I’m still battling the irrational anxiety that has popped up in the last year. I went from fat and happy to fat and terrified. Terrified of what people thought, terrified of what people saw. Leaving the house means winning an internal battle some days. As much as I love to encourage others, I cannot seem to rally myself to hold my head up as often. Yes, my husband loves me and tells me how beautiful he thinks I am. Yes, I am HEALTHY. No, I never share this struggle with my children. Because this weight is beyond my control, I feel like I am grasping at nothing, drowning, falling down a well. I want to wear a sign that says “Yes, I know I’m overweight, but NO, I did not do this to myself.” I feel like I need to explain myself to the perceived disgusted public. It’s a truly overwhelming feeling to not have control over your body. Enter the hot tears. I can take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). But the outside? The part that people see? All I can do is shave my legs, do my hair, and put on some makeup. Well, it’s winter, so the legs can wait. I have literally had panic attacks in the middle of stores because I was so ashamed of how I looked and what I thought people were thinking. Again, I know it’s irrational. But again, grasping at nothing.
Last week, my worst fear happened: I caught someone taking a cell phone picture of me. This is where my hands shake and my heart races again. This person was trying to go unnoticed, pretending to check emails or Facebook, until the flash accidentally went off. I was sitting alone, just a bare wall next to me. When I climbed far enough out of my shame cloud to tell my best friends and husband what had happened, they all tried their obligatory encouraging alternatives: “Maybe it was your beautiful hair! Maybe they liked something you were wearing! Maybe this, maybe that…” Nope. Momma was having a ROUGH day that day. Ponytail, my black flats with the holes in them, glasses. Also, we had been chatting, so a compliment could have been offered up at any time. I also know that this person is a member of a very trendy gym, one that prides itself so much on fitness that the various branches host competitions for members to prove themselves. I’m not calling this gym out, I’m just saying that given this person’s trained way of thinking with regard to fitness, and my appearance that day, it is not hard to conclude why that person took a sneaky picture of me.
As a fat person, I’m allowed to say that. It’s not the worst thing someone can be, so I’m okay with saying it. It’s just a descriptor, it’s not my identity. But when that’s all someone bothers to notice about you, especially as a woman, it hurts. You can’t tell by the picture that person took that I love my family and friends, that I’m a beast with a glue gun, that I can quote every episode of Friends, that I’m freaking funny and flippin’ awesome. That picture doesn’t show my dedication, my creativity, my desire to help other people. It doesn’t show the rivers of tears I’ve cried over pants that stop fitting, the number of doctors I’ve met with to find a cure, or at least a STOP. It doesn’t show the fear I have when I approach a folding chair, an amusement park ride, or when I pass someone leaving a restaurant. It doesn’t show the internal battle being waged by my hormones, how my body is turning against me, how I have no control and no end in sight to this horrible, horrible disease. But you know what it does show, that image of my outsides? It shows the insides of the person who took it.
As a photographer, I can assure you that this person was within their legal rights to take my picture. Once you attend a public event, you lose what is called a reasonable expectation of privacy. As a human, I want to shout that they had NO right. I am a mother, a wife, a friend… not a punchline. I may not meet that person’s standards of beauty, but then again, I’m not trying to. I can call that person rude, judgemental, callous, a butthead… I can say whatever I want, but it doesn’t take away the shame. Again, I wanted to scream, “I didn’t do this to myself!” I don’t owe that person an explanation, but I was so humiliated that I felt the need to justify my measurements. Instead, I just hung my head. My worst fear, that a stranger was internally laughing at my appearance, had just played out in front of me. Me, the strong-willed, opinionated, loud, energetic force of nature, had been reduced to a lump of indignity. My friends and husband also gave me the obligatory accolades, but the facts that I’m caring, sweet, thoughtful, funny, or made of concentrated awesomesauce don’t show up in sneaky, malicious cell phone pictures. It hurt. Bad. It still hurts. Writing this has helped some, given me a sense of control over how I will react to it. Like I said, it says as much about the person who took that photo as it does about the way I look. But beyond a personal victory, I needed to share this so to offer my perspective, the person on the other side, the person who is likely in someone’s newsfeed with a crude caption.
Please consider this side the next time you do the same. People of Walmart can be hilarious and mind-boggling, and you KNOW there are people who dress that way intentionally in the hopes of a POW appearance (or the $50 gift card), but what about the innocent ones? The people who don’t have any fashion sense, the people who say “Screw it, it’s Walmart and I need toilet paper!”, the people who don’t have the money for nice clothes, or even a home to hang them in? What about the people who don’t have the mental capacity to arrange a Milan-worthy look, the people you see wearing holey clothes, too-tight clothes, too-short clothes, too-dirty clothes, too-ugly clothes, too-old clothes… what if those are all the clothes they have? Can you imagine how they would feel to see their photo on a website devoted to judging peoples’ appearance, to read the comments of strangers about how they look, when no one knows their circumstances? I myself am guilty of taking a sneaky photo of a cashier who was dressed exactly like Blanche from Golden Girls. But now I ask myself, “Why?” Why did I need the picture? Why was it my place to secretly tease this woman? And what pain and embarrassment might she have felt, what insecurities might I have unearthed if she’d noticed? When did our desire to judge and tease become greater than someone else’s right to dignity? If I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), if I was knit together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), if I am God’s MASTERPIECE (Ephesians 2:10), then so are you, so is Blanche, so are we all. Taking pictures and laughing isn’t going to change that person’s life for the better. And it certainly won’t make you a better person. So please, stop.