When you’re an unbearably large woman, you have a few options, but all of the good ones require some natural talent or dedicated skill acquisition.
You can be funny. I’ve gone for this. I like to think I can pull it off. Not enough to make a career out of it, not even enough to conjure up a good jape for this essay when I tell myself “think of something funny.” It has to come organically, and it often does, and it’s nice. Fat girls are often hilarious. We gotta be. The world will laugh at us anyway; we’d prefer you laugh because we’re so goddamn witty.
You can torture yourself into trying to be the beautiful thick girl. A lot of girls can really pull this off and look stunning. But you have to be the right silhouette of plus-sized, and not too plus-sized. You need that hourglass, and if you don’t have it naturally, you shove yourself into shapewear and corset training and you drink that horrid poop tea that the low grade celebrities on instagram sell. You cake on the make-up, contour your tits, shove your feet into high heels, and you’ve mastered the art of the perfect winged eyeliner. Your hair, god, your hair is a work of art. Your clothes are beyond cute and sexy. You work it, honey. But that ain’t me, babe. I’m a creature of comfort.
On television, the fat girl sits in the corner, sipping on a soda, shy. Or she gets mad at her beautiful friend, jealous that she is with some jerk. She fades and disappears, or she has an inspiring weight loss journey. This is in fiction. On reality shows, some horror movie monster like Jillian Michaels screams into her ear and dehydrates her and puts her on track for a lifetime of eating disorders and exercise far more unhealthy than anything her life was before a monstrous woman with her own body image issues bullied her into years of therapy.
For me, I just went for being the smart one. Even before I got fat, I was told, over and over again, how smart I was. Gifted, they said, and not in the way every weirdo on the internet claims they were a gifted child but now they think they just had ADHD and that “gifted” was a codeword conspiracy for mentally ill children. No. Gifted was defined by academic performance and an IQ test. Gifted class was learning. School came easily to me. Standardized tests, the ultimate evil in today’s educational society, were easy as pie to me. I breezed through them. I breezed through school until homework was required, and things got a little dicey until I learned that, fuck, I actually had to do my homework, but after that, I got back on track.
In high school I was an overachiever for most of it. Before you blame my mother, please know that she was never the one to put pressure on me about this. Ask her and she’ll laugh and say she was a solid C+ student in school, and an A+ employee at work. She got good enough grades to go unnoticed, to never make anyone super angry, but also never to build up expectations so high that she could let anyone down. She would have been more than fine with a daughter who was a solid C+ student.
But by then, I was already getting “fat.” God, not by today’s standards, of course. Today my teenage body would have been celebrated. Big ass, everywhere else was normal. But a fat ass in the ‘90s and a fat ass in 2020 is not the same, and in the years that have passed, it’s not just my ass that’s fat anymore. Isn’t it horrible the way we look at old pictures and see how beautiful we once were and never had any appreciation for it?
But I digress.
I put pressure on myself to be an academic because “smart” was the only thing I felt like I had going for me. I loved acting, drama, but then again we ran into the “too tall, too fat” to be a leading lady problem. My biggest role was the Camel with the Wrinkled Knees from Raggedy Ann in Drama Club in high school, a big role to be sure, but it was a fucking camel. My second biggest role was playing some sorcerer’s assistant, a hideous Igor-like minion who hunched over, meant to be hideous, using a raspy voice and calling the sorcerer “Master” as a hideous minion does. I auditioned for The Diary of Anne Frank, and you can guess that my fat ass was not welcome in a play about the Holocaust. I was fine to play beast or a deformed creature, but not anything too serious. The beautiful waifs who fit into the heroin chic style of the era got those roles. They were my friends, my close friends, but I resented them for it. They always got to play those roles. No one ever asked them to play a fucking camel.
So in the end, smart was all I had left.
I knew I’d never be valedictorian. Those people at my school operated on an intensity level that frightened me. But I thought, I could get into a good school, not Harvard or Yale. But maybe Wellesley (where my idol Hillary Clinton went) or Mount Holyoke or Northwestern. I bombarded myself with the most difficult classes, even those like AP Physics and AP Chemistry that were well beyond my academic strengths. My mother pleaded with me when I dropped Drama completely my senior year, “you are being too hard on yourself, take something easy, take Drama again, take an art class, you don’t need to push yourself like this.”
And Mom, I know you love to hear it, so here goes: You were right.
I burned myself out by the end of the first semester of my senior year. AP Chemistry was taught by this horribly snobby teacher from a New York private school who on the first day told us all how stupid we were for our Florida public education, how disgusted she was that she would have to hold our hands through everything, that she would have no patience for slow learners, because back in New York, she never had to explain a thing twice.
I sat in the back of the class, thinking, “Well, why don’t you go the fuck back to New York, you snobby bitch?”
She hated me and the feeling was mutual. My entire academic world fell apart as I began to feel stupid in classes. Suddenly all I had, the only thing I had–feeling smart–was gone, and the cunt from New York on the first day of school was only the first taste. I dropped her class (something we had to get a psychologist to sign off on, because she refused to let me leave. Why? Sadism, probably. I was getting an F), but everything had begun to unravel by then. I felt lost. I broke up with my boyfriend who had moved to Massachusetts for college at Amherst, I made new friends, I started to party. I learned about alcohol, yes, but even better: marijuana, LSD, nitrous oxide. God, I loved drugs. Being high meant I didn’t have to worry over my own self-worth. It meant I could smile and be happy with my friends.
I tortured my poor mother that year. Again, I know you love hearing this so here’s another gift: I’m sorry, Mom. It wasn’t personal. It was burnout.
I graduated, barely, because I cut class so much because I just didn’t want to be there anymore. I still hate high school. If people actually say those were the best years of their life, it makes me really fucking sad for the rest of their life.
I moved out of the house and went to the University of South Florida, where I majored in LSD and acquired zero credits. After that I spent twelve years in the low-wage workforce, thinking, “I’ll get to college eventually.” I wandered the country, living in Tampa, FL and Lynchburg, VA, and Tuscaloosa, AL and then ten glorious years in Portland, OR.
It was in Portland, at the ripe old age of 30, that I went to college for real. I was so nervous. It had been so long! Did I even know how to be a student before? Was I smart enough anymore? Would I feel weird as a 30 year old around a bunch of kids? But I was hungry for it. I wanted it, more than anything, and I got my financial aid in order and applied and got accepted to Portland State University, right there in town.
I went to Orientation and the director of the University Honors Program made a short comment telling us where to meet if we were interested. You’d think I would have not even considered it, given my nervousness, but I’d gotten into USF’s honors program, so why not, I figured. The professor in charge of the program was unbelievably intimidating, this silver-haired, incredibly elegant and well-dressed man who delivered every sentence with such eloquence that I felt like an unwashed pleb in his presence. About ten of us showed up and he gave us a terrifying speech on how arduous the program was, but that they did still have spaces, but it was obviously a speech meant to scare us away.
After his speech, a few people got up and left. He turned to the rest of us and said, “well, now that the riff-raff has left, we have enough spots for all of you who are left.” And just like that, I was in the Portland State University Honors Program.
It was the best decision I have ever made in my life, even if Dr. Wheeler (that intimidating man, who eventually because my biggest cheerleader and wrote my grad school letter of recommendation) made it sound scary. I made sure not to take his class, I took the freshman honors class led by two women. It was a year long class and, after first quarter ended, the professors were so impressed by my work that they gave me a full tuition scholarship, retroactive. I burst into the happiest tears in my life. To this day, I think it might be the happiest moment I’ve ever experienced. To not only be accepted by this Honors program, appreciated by the teachers, but told that my work was excellent, so excellent that they wanted to pay my way through it.
Smart. I’d found it again. I was smart.
My four years at Portland State were the best four years of my life. I lived in a city I loved and I felt like it loved me back. I had friends in the city and nearby. The gloomy damp weather is not to everyone’s tastes, but it was everything to me. The scholarship allowed me to have my own place without a roommate for the very first time in my life. I had my old dog Charley. I was still healthy. I went down to working two days a week, because with the financial aid and the scholarship, I could do that. As a university, PSU made me feel cared for. They wanted me to succeed. They understood that their student body was made up of working class people. They offered so many resources to help us get through college.
My professors were beyond lovely. That same intimidating Dr. Wheeler, during my sophomore year, when I was battling a series of infections and had to miss class because of a visit to the ER, sat me down and gave me an almost fatherly talk about how he wanted me to be healthy more than he wanted me to be in class. The words, “As far as I’m concerned, no matter what, you have an A in this class,” actually came out of his mouth. As did the words, “This class is not worth dying for, you are more important than your education.” He wasn’t saying this out of liability. He was saying this out of genuine concern. He cared about me. He didn’t want to see me sickened for a class.
When graduation rolled around, I didn’t go to the big one. Just the Honors graduation, a small little party with refreshments with the dozen or so of us who had graduated from the honors program and received our Honors stole that we could wear at the big graduation. We chatted about the last four years. I took some pictures with my favorite professors, the ones who had guided me so wonderfully through the best years of my life. My friend Holly took me out to dinner to celebrate. I was to move a few days later, begin my long road trip across the country back to Florida, where I grew up, to enroll in a fully funded combination MA/PhD program at the esteemed elite private institution, the University of Miami.
Something funny happened that day, too. My left leg went numb. Pins and needles. It was obnoxious, and weird, but Holly’s car was kind of cramped and I have long legs, and I figured that was it.
But it didn’t go away.
My dear friend Teresa came down from Vancouver to help road trip me, my stuff, and my dog to Chicago, halfway to Florida, and she noticed other strange things. That I was emotionally out of sorts. She chalked it up to me not wanting to leave Portland, so did I. But she noticed other things, that I was tired so fast. That I was falling down. That my emotional outbursts were unusually strong. We got to the lake house near Chicago that my extended family uses in the summer and I kept falling down, kept being overemotional. Teresa had to fly back to Vancouver, we said goodbye, and Mom saw me the rest of the way to Florida.
In Florida I saw a neurologist. He ran all sorts of weirdass tests on my leg. Poked me with needles, gave it electric shocks, did some bizarre shit with magnets. Then, he sighed and told me he wanted me to get an MRI. I didn’t know what any of it meant, so I shrugged and said, sure. I told him I was claustrophobic so he set me up with an open MRI, which was nice, and I made an appointment to return when the results were back. Every appointment, my mom had come with me. But for some reason I can’t remember, I went to the results appointment alone. I suppose neither of us had anything that serious on our radar at all. The falling down didn’t connect. I was just clumsy! The emotional outbursts meant nothing. I just hated moving back to FUCKING Florida!
I waited in the exam room for the doctor to come give me my results, looking at my phone, not a care in the world. He walked in and I smiled and said hi, and he said, “Hold on, I think I saw something on the MRI.” I shrugged and looked back at the phone. I’m not a doctor. I didn’t know what that meant. Maybe he figured it out?
A minute later he returned, pulling up some films and pointing to a big white spot on my spinal cord. “See that?” he asked me. “That’s a plaque on your spinal cord. It’s causing your numbness and probably some other things.”
I squinted at it, though it wasn’t necessary. I could see it. “What does it mean?” I asked, still clueless.
He turned and looked at me like he was delivering a death sentence. “MS, probably.”
I don’t know what it feels like to be struck by lightning, but it’s probably pretty close to that. The rest of what he said is a haze, how he always got a bad feeling when a young white woman in her early thirties walked in with this kind of symptom, how I needed another MRI with contrast, how there has to be certain diagnostic criteria, blah blah blah. I didn’t cry, amazingly. I always cry. I was just numb, in a state of shock. Here I was, on the precipice of all my dreams, ready to get a PhD from a prestigious university, a top five Sociology department, making a sacrifice by leaving the only city I’ve ever truly loved, getting a disability sentence, a death sentence.
Oh, he said to me, “it’s not a death sentence, it’s not a disability sentence.” But he is wrong. I’m disabled. And I will have this disease until I’m dead.
I drove home and it was like my brain was on autopilot. I don’t remember anything until I got to my mom’s house, where I was staying before the semester started at UM, and she met me at the door, asking me about the results.
And then, I crumpled. I fell apart. “The doctor thinks I have MS,” I said.
I did my research. All the symptoms fit. It seemed dead on. But diagnosing MS is notoriously a long process. For me, it was three years and four neurologists. During this time, I was in Miami, getting sicker by the minute. Stress and lack of rest are too major drivers of disability progression when it comes to MS. Grad students are expected to be basically indentured servants, available at all hours, able to do anything, endless energy, endless time.
I tried explaining my health situation to my professors. That I was really unwell, but not officially diagnosed. That I didn’t have a lot of time or energy because I had to see doctors and whatever disease I had was slowing me down, but that I would try my best. I kept up the required 3.5 GPA in extremely difficult classes. I never missed an assignment and rarely missed class. I was so committed to my TA duties that when my grandfather was dying, I helped my adviser work on her fucking focus group instead of driving home to say goodbye. Two minutes before the focus group began, Mom called and told me Grandpa was gone. I sat there and didn’t shed a tear as I took notes for that bitch’s focus group.
When I tried explaining how not-able bodied I was, they told me to visit the Disability Resource Center. The DRC wanted letters of official diagnosis, which, of course, I did not have. I was rudderless, and my level of disability was skyrocketing. I was falling down all the time, one fall resulted in fracturing both feet, which, at least, got me into the handicapped parking, thank god.
I don’t mean to do much naming and shaming on this blog, but Crystal Adams was my thesis adviser. To say she was cruel to me is an understatement. She would play head games with me constantly when it came to writing my thesis. She had her idea in her head of what she wanted it to be, and my ideas meant nothing. I resisted at first, because I felt my vision should be important in my thesis, but after a while, I was too tired to keep fighting her, because of her willful desire to never understand me. She’d gaslight me, telling me to change something in my thesis and then I’d change it, and she’d ask me, “Why did you change that?” I never knew what her expectations were because they would change on a daily basis.
Every meeting I had with her ended in tears, something she constantly shamed me for. It never occurred to her that my tears were the result of her gaslighting and verbal abuse. It never occurred to her that I was undergoing a diagnosis for MS and that she, as a medical sociologist who has taught about how people with illnesses are discriminated against by their employers constantly, should have a little more fucking compassion. The cognitive dissonance that went on in that woman’s head must have been extraordinary.
Instead, she’d say, “This thesis is so bad even the worst universities would never sign off on it.”
Or, after my defense, “We only signed off on this because we felt sorry for you. But you need to know this is really bad and we had to convince the outside committee member to put her name to this, she was embarrassed to.”
She might as well have said, “You are a fucking moron and a piece of shit and while I am letting you have your master’s degree, just know that you should never, ever be proud of it and you don’t deserve it, you fucking braindead cripple.”
I think of Crystal Adams and her cruelty, and then I remember Dr. Wheeler and his kindness, and I wonder which one of them represents the real world? Sadly I think there are more Crystals out there than Wheelers.
I graduated from the University of Miami with my MA in Sociology in 2016. When they sent me my diploma, I gave it to my mother, telling her that if she didn’t hold onto it, I’d set it on fire.
My bachelor’s degree from Portland State hangs proudly in my room in a beautiful mahogany frame.
I was officially diagnosed with progressive Multiple Sclerosis in August of 2016, three months after graduating with my Master’s, three months after the University of Miami kicked me out for the crime of being sick. Since then I’ve had countless nightmares, some Post-Crystal Stress Disorder where she’s haranguing me in my dreams, this slight little woman a third my size, telling me there’s something wrong with my brain and that my work is such garbage even the worst schools wouldn’t accept it and all I’m worth is a pity vote.
My only peace in all this hell is that it appears she was denied tenure at UM. If there’s any justice in this world, she’ll never be allowed near another disabled student again.