Content warning: ableism, fatphobia
I’m twenty-one years old, a senior in grade level only, and I need to get a cane.
I didn’t get a cane a year ago, when I fell outside Clapp because my knee pain got too bad to stand. I didn’t even get a cane this summer, when I was tripping up the subway steps multiple times a week.
I’ve been putting this off as long as possible. Now, lying in bed unable to move despite two heat packs and a healthy dose of pain meds, I just can’t deny it anymore.
I have multiple herniated discs, arthritis, and a few other things doctors frustratingly “can’t quite put a finger on, but we’ll get there.” A lot of my issues show up in my bloodwork or stem from my own past trauma. Some are genetic; my grandmother was in a wheelchair at thirty, before an arthritis drug that worked for her hit the market.
Despite all of this, new doctors and strangers who glare at me when I take the elevator up one floor only see one thing: I’m fat.
I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life, for tons of reasons. Again, some are genetic and some stem from past trauma. Still, I entered college at an average weight. A hospitalization resulting from autoimmune issues led to being prescribed large amounts of steroids for a long period of time. They controlled my autoimmune flare, but also caused me to put on quite a lot of weight. With steroid weight, doctors tend to recommend you “wait it out.” There simply isn’t much a person can do about it. I can’t really exercise because of my chronic pain and joint problems, and dieting isn’t a healthy answer here. For me, there really isn’t anything I can do about it.
So while I wait it out, I’m back to being fat, and I’d love to just say “so what?” On a typical day, my weight bothers others more than it bothers me.
Does all that mean I don’t deserve a cane?
I know that on its face, this is a ludicrous question. I see why it’s absurd. Still, I know I would have allowed myself a cane much sooner if I were thin.
I see people’s reactions when I use the campus rides list and call Campus Po to go from Lulu to the quad. I hear the annoyed sighs as people speed past me when I’m walking somewhere. Those eye rolls when I take the elevator up a floor? I know what you’re thinking when you look me up and down.
Whether I want it to be or not, my size is political. My disability is political. Our bodies are political, and if you don’t already know that, you are part of the problem. You’ve been part of the problem.
When I first got to Wellesley, I was truly shocked at the general lack of fat people I saw walking around. How was it even possible? It still catches me off guard sometimes, even now that I better understand how much class and race tie into weight. Of course, Wellesley is full of thin people! What else should I expect from a predominantly white institution, sticker price $66,984 a year, where 41 percent of students aren’t receiving any financial aid? But with no one openly talking about this aspect of life here, it’s easy to feel like being fat at Wellesley makes you a failure.
No matter how or why you are your size, and no matter that it shouldn’t matter, it does. I worry that my fatness is going to hold me back in my career. I worry that I miss out on more friendships because my body means people don’t want to get to know me. I worry that getting a cane will lead to more passive-aggressive elevator comments, with sibs assuming I’m fat because I’m lazy or that I only have trouble getting around because I’m fat—and so what if that were true?
I’ve also thought about the alternative response; maybe there are enough semi-aware sibs here that me getting a cane will result in fewer elevator comments. Maybe having a visible sign of my disability will mean others will respect it, and me, more. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, or maybe it would feel even worse. What would it mean to realize I have to display my disability in a way that able-bodied people understand in order to receive common courtesy?
I guess the changed reactions from strangers once I get a cane will be a matter of which will win out—fatphobia or invalidation of invisible disabilities. I’m guessing I’m going to see a fun combination of both.
But hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I didn’t?
Wellesley, we’re not immune to societal biases here. You are not immune to social biases. We’re not exempt from them, because Wellesley does not exist in a vacuum and we bring our biases with us, but that doesn’t mean we need to enact them here. Nineteen percent of Americans have some form of disability, half of them severe. It’s time to start talking about physical disability—whether invisible or not, fat or not—and while we’re at it, Wellesley, let’s talk about size.
I want a conversation about bodies that advances beyond “all bodies are good bodies.” I want a conversation about bodies informed by the roles the politics of race and class and ability and gender presentation play in how we think about ourselves, sure, but what we really need is an open conversation about how we think about others—and how we treat them.
Let’s talk about the times you judged someone for taking two plates at the dining hall, or just asking for fries. Why did you do that, and how did all of these issues play into that judgement? What outdated notions of “health” do you subscribe to? What judgments do you place on your sibs before you even know their name? How are they shaped by your own identity and background—race, class, ability level, and gender? How are they shaped by your assumptions about the other person’s?
What bodily biases do you need to correct?
It is not my job to figure any of this out for you. I just don’t want any other fat, disabled sib to ever feel like they have to decide between mobility and acceptance. Wellesley, please make this easier. Compassion should not be too much to ask for.
By the time this article comes out, I’ll have received my cane in the mail—I just ordered it. Part of me wants to add “for better or for worse” here, but the “worse” has nothing to do with me and everything to do with people’s perceptions of me. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me to feel comfortable using a cane. It might take an hour, or it might sit in Mail Services for awhile as I work up the courage to even pick it up.
Whenever that day comes, you’re going to eventually see me, fat as ever, walking around campus with a cane. Check your pity at the door; I’ll have finally listened to my body instead of other people.
From March 2018 issue