By Kimberly G. Jackson
“Would you please weigh me?”
The physician’s assistant seemed surprised. She’d taken my vitals, but was going to skip the scale. She knows most women hate seeing that number, and when she looked at me she saw someone slim thin petite. That meant healthy in her mind, so her eyes asked the question: why?
“I’m here because I think I might have cancer.”
It started when I found a lump in my breast, and went for a mammogram. I was struck by the questions on the form: Have you had unintended weight loss? Come to think of it, yeah, all my clothes are loose. Fatigue? Check. Shortness of breath? Check. Night sweats? Sometimes, but maybe it’s just menopause. It got me thinking, and scared. To the extent I’d noticed it at all, I’d thought of my weight loss as good, even though I’m on the thin side to begin with. After all, they say you can never be too rich or too thin, don’t they?
Like most American women, I’ve lived my whole life acutely aware of my body’s size and shape. Desirability to men—I learned so early that I can’t remember how—is the most important measure of a woman’s worth. Of course, I’ve also spent a lifetime fighting that idea: that’s why God made feminism and psychotherapy, and I’ve done my best with both. I—and the culture around me—have made some progress in my lifetime, for sure. But for all the attention to celebrity baby bumps and butt implants, ordinary women are still flooded with constant messages that thin is good and fat is bad. And the effects are dangerous to more than our self-esteem.
The radiologist couldn’t find the lump on the mammogram or ultrasound, so she sent me back to my OB/GYN, where—after the PA helped me determine I’d lost about 10% of my body weight in six months—I got a referral for a breast MRI. That had to happen in a specialized facility, with a detailed intake questionnaire asking about family history, lifestyle, and weight. What did you weigh, it asked me, at 18? How about a year ago, and now? I put in the numbers, handed in the form.
The nurse I met with had a printout. The model said my risk was low; she figured the lump was a bunch of cysts; she was inclined to send me home. I said, “I weigh what I weighed in high school,” and she said—remember this is a nurse, a health professional, in a facility specializing in breast medicine—“Do you know how many women would love to be able to say that?”
I kept my cool. I could feel she was a nice person and meant well. More than that, I could see that she is what the world calls heavy, and I am not. I have known for years that women’s envy of thinner women is a potent force in our oppression, a powerful tool to divide-and-conquer us. So, I kept talking, signaling my goodwill, asking her questions, giving her data. She authorized the MRI, and we found out I had cancer.
When my ten-year-old daughter heard the story of my discussion with the nurse, she said, “Mommy, if you hadn’t been so nerdy, you wouldn’t have gotten the MRI.” She is right. I have thought with deep concern since then about all the women out there who may not be as “nerdy” or as assertive as I am, and who as a result, may not be getting the care they need.
For I know that my story is part of a larger one, about how men see and value women and—crucially—about how women see each other and themselves. A friend who has leukemia told me she had never had so many people compliment her appearance as when she had cancer-related weight loss, along with seriously depleted muscle tone and dark circles under her eyes. Another friend with Crohn’s disease told me the upside of being dangerously malnourished was being able to wear high-fashion items made for the very petite. And on the flip side, a heavier friend of mine almost died from known potential side-effects of a hypertension medication whose dosage her doctor had recently increased—not because the hypertension itself had worsened, but because the doctor feared it might, given my friend’s size.
The madness of it all really hit home for me the night, a few days after my diagnosis, when my husband, in tears, begged me to start eating more, even if I had no appetite. I’ve been researching these treatments, he said, and they’re going to make you lose weight. You should try to gain twenty pounds as fast as you can.
It is one of the great tragedies of my life that when my husband said this, I thought: he really loves me. Because somewhere in my head I always thought: you cannot be loved by a man unless you are thin. As I reread that sentence, it sounds like a pathetic and embarrassing admission, and I’m tempted to delete it. But I’m letting it stand, because I think I am not alone. I think my tragedy is one that’s widely shared.
Our views of women’s size blind all of us, medical professionals and patients alike, from investigating rationally what ails us. And we cannot let this go on.
So, let’s stop trying to be lithe and willowy; let’s go for blooming and robust. Let’s remember that any man worth his salt will love us for who we are, and not for what we fit into.
And finally, ladies: let’s eat.