Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why I believe in fat activism

Scene: Meeting of my university's diversity committee (of which I am a member), where we have been planning a day-long diversity workshop for our faculty. Much conversation over who will be resistant to such a workshop, who is resistant to the idea of diversity in education in general. Much conversation in general over issues of cultural competence, etc.

The conversation turns to the current crisis in Haiti.

Professor Y: Some of the coverage on this has been unbelievably racist.

General agreement around the table.

Professor Z: Pat Robertson is talking about those "colored" people making a pact with the devil. And Rush Limbaugh, too. It's unbelievably offensive.

Professor X: Yeah, especially for a fat white guy like him!


Me: Did you say "fat white guy"?

Professor X: (to his credit) I just caught myself.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

At the Y

She was there again this morning, in the vigorous Zumba class I take most Sunday mornings. I love this class because it's fun--exercising to blaring Latin music, following an instructor who shows rather than teaches the moves. I also love it because there's such a wide variety of ages and body types represented, from the hunched-over 70-something woman to 10-year-olds with their mothers. The women in the class--and we are women, although men are welcome--range from thin to fat. Each of us moves to the best of her ability. There are good dancers and bad dancers in the class, and it's all OK.

There are plenty of thin women in the class, but the woman who turned up this morning--second time I've seen her in class--is far thinner than anyone else. Her close-fitting black leggings reveal the shape of her femurs where they meet her jutting hipbones. Her arms look like they might snap at any moment. Her face has a look I've come to recognize, a driven look that also conveys flatness, a certain kind of despair.

You can't tell whether someone has an eating disorder from looking. But I'd bet a year's salary that this woman has anorexia.

Last time she turned up in the class, I went out to the front desk afterward and asked if the Y had a policy about people with eating disorders or whose health was compromised in other ways taking vigorous exercise classes. Shockingly, they do not. I explained my concerns to the woman at the desk, saying I was afraid this ill woman might collapse in class. Or worse. I hoped I wouldn't see her again.

But there she was this morning. In a sweltering room, she wore leggings and a sweatshirt zipped to her chin. I watched her exercise in the mirror; she didn't know most of the steps, being new to the class, but she threw herself into the dancing with determined force. She was burning calories. I couldn't tell if she was having fun. Most women in the class smile through much of it, but this woman's expression never changed.

I'd thought at lot about her since the last time I saw her in class, and decided I would try to talk to her after class, befriend her, get to know her. Only this time, like last time, she ducked out of class before the end. I glimpsed her on one of the elliptical machines on my way out, and wondered how many hours a day she spents at the Y.

I was struck recently by a quote in this film, made by documentary filmmaker Hope Hall about her mother, who's struggled with anorexia and bulimia for many years. The film includes a voiceover phone call between Hope and her mother, where her mother says, "Through all my growing up, through all my marriage, I was always trying to measure up, trying to be somebody else. And all of a sudden, you said, 'I just love you. I don't need you to be well.'"

I think about the woman at the Y, and am torn by what I wish for her. I hope she people in her life who just love her. But I also wish that she, and everyone with an eating disorder, had people in their lives who could help them get well. Who could help them out of the private hell of anorexia and bulimia and into a life filled with something besides starving and binging and suffering.

I hope the woman does not come back to class, because, selfishly, I am uncomfortable seeing her there. In her gaunt face I see the face of my daughter, Kitty, at her sickest. I imagine Kitty at age 40, living this kind of hell, and I feel sick.

I wish I knew what I could do to help.