Browsing "Physical Ed"
Dec 15, 2014 - Physical Ed    No Comments

No One Left Behind

A lot of the social justice work I do is about making spaces–everything from housing to the whole of Minnesota–more welcoming to people whom society often forces out. Sometimes, that’s practical stuff, like urging schools or cities or events to offer gender-neutral bathrooms where trans*/gender non-conforming folks can feel safe. And sometimes, it’s more abstract, like working against police profiling and brutality toward people of color in their own homes and neighborhoods.

The basis of that work is education and empathy. I read, I listen, I ask questions, so when I walk into a new space, I see the ways that place values and welcomes all different kinds of people and their needs. And I also see the ways those spaces exclude and isolate people, which makes a good starting place for effecting change.

So I’ve attended community meetings, planning sessions, trainings, and seminars. I regularly participate in protests, which might include rallies, marches, and sit-, stand-, or die-ins. And the saying in the groups where I organize is that, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth debriefing,” so I’m learning how to observe what does and doesn’t work well, and share constructive feedback.

But it’s possible for a space that’s been engineered with great intention to include a typically excluded group to unintentionally exclude a different group. Some feminists say they don’t feel safe from patriarchy and misogyny if trans* women are included in the space (I happen to think they’re wrong, for the record). Often, queer people of color feel uncomfortable in the largely white LGBTQ activist movement. Class barriers manifest often in community meetings, where those with more income and education assert themselves as more worth listening to than their less privileged neighbors. We all need to do better, even if we think we’re doing the right thing just by showing up.

As I see intersectionality championed in the powerful, new spaces we’re constructing, though, we’re missing the mark on disability. I’m physically and neurologically disabled, thanks to the Wonder Twins, fibromyalgia and autism. I’m not the most restricted person at a gathering, but I do face barriers that others don’t. I’m also used to being in the company of someone with more intense disabilities, though, so I’m attuned to obstacles so I can help them negotiate our environment.

And the new movements need to do more. I’ve had to choose which breakout session to attend based on which didn’t require me to climb a flight of stairs. I’ve had to leave valuable trainings early because the bright lights and unchecked noise level wore me out. I’ve also sat through meetings which taught me nothing because I couldn’t hear or see the speakers. And I’ve both hurt myself trying to keep up, or just fallen out completely, with marches that followed a route and went at a pace that left all but the able-bodied behind.

And I’m full-sighted. I’m not in a chair. My lungs and heart are strong. I have 40 years of coping skills to manage sensory input. I hear exceptionally well. If I can’t keep up, who else is bejng left behind? And what knowledge and wisdom are we losing when they’re abandoned?

I have a lot of thoughts about accommodations and modifications to make the spaces where real, radical, revolutionary change is happening accessible to all disabled people. I’ll probably break them into separate posts.

But I’m asking each of you who reads this to spend a bit of time thinking and examining your surroundings with renewed curiosity. Think of the physical gestures that literally embody the movement: raised fist, raised hands, bodies marching and lying down. Imagine that you can’t make those gestures in solidarity. Think of the speaker whose voice and insights you most want to hear in the world. Imagine the flight of stairs that keeps you from getting to see them. Imagine seeing that person but not knowing what they’re saying.

How welcome would you feel? How valued? How powerful?

If the answer is “not very,” well, the revolution’s got to change.

Jun 22, 2014 - Physical Ed, Sex Ed    1 Comment

Au revoir, Aunt Flo

I have not had a menstrual period in 52 days. That’s almost a month late. No, I’m not pregnant. And this isn’t the first time in the last few months I’ve been late, though it’s certainly the longest delay.

I know what this means: I am beginning “The Change”.

But Jess, you’re thinking, you’re so young! And I am, though the pink hair is part of an illusion that obscures my real age to some extent. I can also, at long last, thank oily skin for something—I have very few wrinkles, despite a whole lot of worrying and laughing.

But early menopause is in my family. In fact, when the first irregularity appeared right before my 39th birthday, I called my mom and said, “Didn’t you start pre-menopause when you were 38?” She confirmed that fact, and I replied, “Well, like mother, like daughter,” much to her horror. My aunts began that phase of their life early as well.

I’m rapidly discovering that I know far less about what to expect than I did before I got my first period. There’s no health class with this information, however awkwardly delivered. To be sure, the inexplicable movie we were forced to watch in fifth grade, featuring the Broadway cast of “Annie” explaining menstruation, wasn’t what I’d call helpful. In fact, there are Internet discussions among people who left gym class the day they saw it, more confused and weirded-out by the random choice of message-bearers than the message delivered.

And even though I was well-informed in advance, you’re never really ready for that first period. I discovered mine when I took a bathroom break in the middle of a theater screening of the legendarily horrible movie Ishtar. It lasted a few days, then failed to return for an entire year. In fact, I’ve never been quite sure whether it really was my first period, or that the movie was so bad it caused me to spontaneously hemorrhage.

I took the absence of menstruation as one of the small graces during my pregnancies. Sure, I was puking my guts up all day, every day, for 5 and 7.5 months respectively, but at least I didn’t have to put in a tampon for almost a year.

So I definitely won’t miss having my periods. Nor will I miss my fertility, in all honesty. Even though I occasionally have baby urges that seem to come from a completely alien source outside my brain, I’ve resolved that I simply can’t do the pain and sickness again, let alone the sleep deprivation and potty training. Pregnancy was quite simply hell for me; labor and delivery were a breeze by comparison.

I’ll admit some concern about the physical discomfort, sleep loss, and mental changes that are common to menopause. None of those are things I’m going to deal well with more of—they would surely aggravate my already existing challenges with fibromyalgia and mental illness. And I’m already slightly annoyed at the unpredictability thing. Wearing panty liners and avoiding light-colored pants for the next ten years is going to be a pain.

But otherwise, I’m curious about the new club I’m joining. It doesn’t feel as momentous as the “now you are a woman” club, but I’m betting this one, with all its life experience and perspective, has a whole lot more fun.

Mar 25, 2014 - Physical Ed    No Comments

This Dissenting Body

Every body I inhabit is a dissenting body.

Anxiety, anger, and disorientation emanate from my autistic sensory body. I can’t stop listening to other people’s noise through the walls, and each heavy footfall above me bruises my eardrums. A puff of my husband’s breath on my face is enough to wake me from a sound sleep. I adjust the blinds, the lights, the brightness of my screen in constant rotation. I seek refuge under the comforting weight of white noise and thick blankets, even when my heart longs for other people and open air.

My physical body protests in a language of chronic pain and sleeplessness. These disruptions occur arbitrarily; actions which give me joy now may trigger furious flares an hour, a day, a week later. And if physical penalties for disobeying my body’s limitations weren’t enough, it also inflicts its dissent on my psychological self by failing to administer the correct neurological chemicals to avoid the fogged-in abyss of depression. Sadness begets sleeplessness begets pain begets sadness, and so forth.

I often find my body unacceptable, and so does society. Every narrow seat, every cutting waistband, every judgmental voice tells me I don’t fit expectations. I brush, I tweeze, I shave, I wax, I drape, I shift, I cut, I hide. My shape is segregated into shrinking fabrics and diminishing retail spaces. It is targeted with advertisements and poisons. On the days when my body prevents me from doing meaningful work or feeling lovable, I am crushed under relentless waves of warfare.

And even if my body could fit into the definitions of worth, its very identity—as a woman, as a bisexual, as a disabled person—is constantly erased for others’ convenience. The conditions of my existence are subject to legitimized dismissal by the medical establishment, the justice system, the corporate structure that wants to suppress and exterminate that which cannot turn a profit. Reproductive control and healthcare are privileges I can check out with my skin color, only to be recalled by my economic status. If I wear my gender too openly, I’m asking for sexual assault. If I conceal my gender too well, I risk violent words and acts by those threatened by challenges to an artificial binary.

So because all my bodies are cause for dissent, I use my body as an instrument of dissent. I’m learning to seek pleasure, and to wear my rolls and creases, flagrantly and without apology. I’m walking into the halls of power to demand care for my body and others like it, through access to healthcare, economic security, an end to rape culture, and equal rights for LGBT and disabled people. I’m raising my voice in rhetorical flourishes and strident shouts to demand an end to systems of racist, sexist, and classist oppression, fueled by corporate and military powers seeking to buy or win what I am entitled to as a citizen and human being.

As long as I have a dissenting body to my name, I will use it to obstruct that which oppresses it.

Oct 11, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    No Comments

Written In My Bones

Last March, I stopped sleeping. I’m no stranger to insomnia, so at first I just thought I was launching into another warped cycle. I stocked up the Netflix queue and resolved to wait it out.

But it didn’t resolve. No matter how tired I got–well past the point in any normal round of sleeplessness where sheer exhaustion would keep me down all night–I woke up between 1:30 and 3:00am, and couldn’t fall asleep again until the alarm was about to go off to wake the kids for school. I couldn’t figure it out. I cut caffeine after 6pm, I stopped napping (no matter how much I needed the extra spoons that helped me steal back), I adjusted my night-time meds up a notch.

Nothing. 3am and wide awake.

And then I remembered: Exactly that time, one year earlier, I lay awake to listen for Connor’s footsteps on the kitchen floor, going for a knife to kill himself. I never heard those footsteps last March, thank the gods, and there was no such fear this March. But my body knew that anniversary better than I did, and it sent a clear message–“It’s March, and you need to keep your boy safe. You can sleep when the sun is up.”

We all have smells, sounds, textures, even lighting that bring us directly back to very specific times and places. The silky binding on a baby blanket. The smell of the cleaning fluid from that time in the hospital. The unreasonably comforting taste of Kraft Singles melted on Wonder bread. The suffocating weight of a body, even though it’s not the body, pressing down on yours. When I asked about how their bodies store memories, friends mentioned more of these than I could keep up with. There’s no doubt that sensory triggers own the key to our memory, whether we like it or not.

Those experiences don’t surprise me anymore, except sometimes in the strength and speed that they fold time neatly in half, delivering us back to a precise moment in the past. What does surprise me is how well my body remembers past events that my conscious memory has long packed away in mothballs.

This March wasn’t the first time I’ve felt the gravity of memory. For almost a decade, I’d get depressed and irritable in May, around the time of year I was sexually assaulted. And a year after my deepest dive into suicidal depression, I was so anxious and high-strung, I was absolutely intolerable with trying to make everything better than the previous August. Neither of these is surprising–many people who go through trauma of some kind experience difficulty with anniversaries of those occurrences, well beyond just realizing that significant time has passed even as it felt like the hours and days were barely creeping along since incomprehensible loss.

There are other things that can trigger buried experiences. I worked with a physical therapist who practiced myofascial release. Fascia is the connective tissue that links our musculoskeletal system; it covers every single muscle, fiber, and organ in our bodies. When our bodies sustain stress and trauma, it stretches and tightens this connective web, causing pain. And therapists practicing this technique help people unwind and loosen the places where the fascia is bunched up and causing problems.

My therapist warned me when we started that unwinding damage sometimes causes memories to rewind in equally powerful ways. He said my body remembered things I hadn’t thought about in years, maybe even things that precede what I consciously knew. He advised me to have some time free after each appointment, in case I needed time to recover emotionally. And he was so right. We unwound injuries and threats as old as I was: fear and bracing against an unpredictable alcoholic father, a rib-breaking high-speed run-in with a vaulting horse, and the car accident that most likely triggered whatever latent potential for fibromyalgia rested in my body. I cried at almost every session, and only once was it from physical pain.

Now, so soon after helping my friend through the first steps away from sexual trauma, I find that my pain levels are sky-high. I’m not eating much. Honestly, I’m drinking more, though still never to drunkenness. I feel ill at ease in my body, and I find myself devoutly wishing to change its landscape, whether with wax (don’t ask) or tattoo ink, or cloak it in clothes that aren’t heavy with past wearings.

I can’t afford any of that, though. So I just sit here, with this body that remembers too much.

Jun 21, 2013 - Physical Ed    1 Comment

Perfect in this Skin

I felt it coming on yesterday: a strange, slightly alien feeling so unfamiliar, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt it.

I felt beautiful in my skin.

The sensation was so unusual that I found myself wanting to move around more, just to feel the shapes and textures that suddenly fit me. If you’ve ever rubbed your face on the silky strip of a blanket, or rolled around on really high-quality sheets, you know the feeling. And it wasn’t that I was wearing a good bra and new shoes that suit my funny narrow feet. And I wasn’t not in pain–the weather was changing, and we had a hell of a storm last night, both of which tend to bring out the odd twinges and aches.

No, I just felt beautiful in precisely this body. I still do today. I’m chalking it up to Midsummer magic. Today’s the solstice, and this is a holiday for many pagans that rejoices in the full embrace of the physical world and all its joys: strong, growing things; bright sun and warm winds; lust and passion and pleasure. I don’t know if this feeling will last after the power of the holiday has past, but I want to wallow in it now and share some uncommon thoughts.

I’m fatter now than I ever have been, though my 11-year-old son says it’s not fat, it’s Flubber, which is good. I’m 38 and I’m the mother of two. My unpredictable pain condition keeps me from exercising as much or as rigorously as I’d like to. I should stop drinking soda.

But I am a soft, voluptuous, powerful goddess. I am strong and graceful, and that strength doesn’t appear with ropey, flexing showiness; it’s hidden by smooth, rounded skin. I brace and balance, swing and glide, all without changing my outward shape. My body moves with me, not against me.

And sexy? Like you wouldn’t believe. Every curve nature ever intended graces my body: breast, hip, waist, thigh. I am made for comfort and love. I cushion soft bones. I envelop. I engulf. I protect like wings. I am full up.

I know, in the days to come, I’ll struggle again with feeling like the world wasn’t made to fit me. I’ll read the tightness and discomfort as a judgment on my size and beauty. Clothes and chairs, straps and seams will mark my skin, dent my flesh. But if I can hang onto just a bit of this Midsummer magic, I can remember that it’s not me who doesn’t fit the world; it’s what people have built onto the world that doesn’t fit beautiful, gracious, giving, comfortable me.

Mar 13, 2013 - Physical Ed, Psychology    1 Comment

Darkness, My Old Friend

The house is so quiet, the ticking clock sounds like drumbeats. Darling Husband is blessed with sleep when and where he wants it. The boys are sleeping again after a mumbled request for help getting the blankets resituated. Even the cat is asleep peacefully in the lining of my motorcycle jacket.

But I’m awake. This is the third night in a row I’ve failed to sleep past 3:00 a.m..

I wish it were unusual.

Sleep and I have a complicated relationship. I remember being insomniac as young as nine years old, so there’s something very deeply rooted in me that conflicts with sleep. In terms of basic biology, my fibromyalgia both requires more sleep to prevent pain and provides pain which prevents me from getting more sleep. The less sleep I get, the more I hurt–it’s as simple as that. I’ve also had a sleep study done, and was told I have the worst sleep architecture the tech had ever seen. At various points, I averaged only 20 minutes a night in REM sleep, which is where restoration takes place. It feels like a well that never refills.

I have a feeling my sleep architecture looks something like the top one.

No fewer than two dozen doctors have told me how important “sleep hygiene” is to beating insomnia. I’ve looked at them with flat eyes and nodded grimly. They don’t understand this at all. I have a bedtime routine, mostly built around a few minutes reading a trashy romance. The easy-to-understand story and comforting predictability help me downshift from my brain’s day speed to one where I can finally fall asleep. I need dark, the white noise of a fan, covers (no matter how hot it is, I can’t sleep without the pressure of at least a sheet or afghan), and luck. None of this is uncommon to autistics, as I understand.

I’m faced with the oceanic expanse of unfilled hours more frequently than I’d like. As many before me have joked, the one thing we really need are more hours of the day to consider all the choices we’ve made in our lives. But I’m fairly happy with the choices I’ve made, so it’s memories that play in my head when the world has put its many stimuli to sleep for the night. I fill that space with books and documentaries. Sometimes I write, or stitch, or crochet, or visit with friends who are also awake. I trying to teach myself not to fear I’ll wake up even more fully. Some theories even say a broken night’s sleep is historically A Thing.

At the root of my problem with sleep and the dark, still hours is this: I listen. Constantly. Hypervigilance is real, and very difficult to control. I listen for children’s cries–even those of babies long since grown. I listen for creaks and shudders, and the hollow sound of a door or window sliding open, even though I know they’re firmly locked. I listen for the crackle of fire, or the sudden crash of disaster, always ready to spring into action. I listen for the faint whine of the TV that tells me Connor’s awake in the night too, perpetuating the cycle of insomnia for another generation. I listen for the phone, and count the souls in peril–physical or mental–and ward against a fateful call.

Right now, I can’t sleep because it’s been exactly one year since Connor was actively suicidal. I lived the months of February and March last year constantly waiting, listening, and wondering this: “Could I get to him fast enough to save him?” This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of his entry into the partial hospitalization program that saved his life. He’s been at the highest behavior level at school for 21 straight school days. Things couldn’t be more different this March than they were last March.

But my body doesn’t know that. My body remembers that, when the last snows come and go, and the ground and air are saturated with moisture and possibility, I must remain alert. I can’t afford to sleep, the memories embedded in my bones say. This is the time you need to watch, listen, wait. Fear. Hope. Pray. I have other memories seated deeply in my body too, ones that make me tense in May more than 20 years after my sexual assault, or the tension that rides me on and off in the summer, when the heat triggers memories of my helpless, hopeless season a few years back. My mind can fold things away, but my bones and flesh remember.

So sleep and I are more sparring partners than friends, but I’m okay with that. I don’t get much solitude in my life, and insomnia certainly provides that in abundance. And maybe the lesson is that it’s not worth fighting with stubbornness and medication and “sleep hygiene.” This is me, and I don’t sleep like normal people. What do I get for it? Memories long buried, the surety that everyone I love is safe for tonight, and the intimate knowledge of the heart-deep chambers of night’s darkness.

Jan 23, 2013 - Physical Ed, Uncategorized    5 Comments

Freedom of Choice

My mom could have legally aborted me.

Not that she did, obviously. She didn’t even want to. I was her first child, conceived in wedlock at a perfectly reasonable childbearing age.

But I just turned 38 in December, which means that about a year and three months before I was conceived, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Roe v. Wade and declared that American women had a Constitutionally protected right to seek an abortion for whatever reason they saw fit. And when my mom discovered she was pregnant in the spring of 1974, she had more options than she had only fifteen months earlier.

The historian in me watches the observance of Roe v. Wade‘s 40th anniversary with a mixture of gratitude, dismay, and bemusement. I’m grateful to have lived my whole life in an America where the highest court of the land could write such a powerful statement of trust in women’s wisdom about their own reproductive rights. I’m dismayed that, in the intervening time, people who don’t trust women with such power have been so successful in circumventing this fundamental, adjudicated right.

And I’m utterly bemused by the multiple levels of collective amnesia surrounding the real history of abortion, fraught as it is. The surveys released this week that showed how few women under 30 actually know that Roe v. Wade was about abortion have conjured a great deal of justified facepalming. But I’d like to see a little acknowledgement that abortion is as old as civilization, and that for most of that time, women had control over those decisions. It wasn’t considered a conflict with one’s religious beliefs; every medieval woman knew how to make tea from rue, tansy, bayberry, or pennyroyal to “bring on late menses.” Only with the  pathologizing of reproduction, with male doctors in charge, did abortion become a battleground and women the most unreliable judges of their own best interests.

I’ve said for a long time that I’m unequivocally pro-choice. I turned out for the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C.. I march at Planned Parenthood on Good Friday, as a visible contradiction to the crowds of abortion opponents who clog the sidewalks to shame and condemn the workers inside, despite the lifesaving work (overwhelmingly above and beyond abortion) they do for our communities’ most vulnerable women.

But I’ve always said that, while I’ll gladly fight for every other woman’s choice, I couldn’t choose that for myself. I’m a living, breathing paradox: an anti-abortion, pro-child,  pro-choice American woman. And I am far from alone in this slippery category. In fact, I have a feeling that we’re the silent majority.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have chosen when and how many times I became pregnant, and that I was able to carry those pregnancies to term. That said, my pregnancies were absolute hell. I was nauseated and vomiting 20 hours a day for 5 1/2 months with the first one, 24 hours a day for 7 1/2 months with the second, which contributed to the most excruciating, interminable flares of fibromyalgia in my entire life with the disorder. And as much as I love and prize my amazing, energetic, hilarious, brilliant, gorgeous sons, they both have special needs that make parenting an exhausting challenge on the best of days. As my husband and I age, the chances of another child bearing those same conditions only rise.

So I need to be perfectly honest: if I became pregnant again, I don’t know that abortion would seem as impossible as it once did. My health would suffer immeasurably, leaving me unable to work, so our family’s finances would strain to the breaking point. The upheaval would have a massive impact on the equilibrium and routine that help our sons function, with unimaginable consequences. It’s said that all a child needs from its family is love, but diapers and an active mom help too.

And before someone suggests that I’m too educated and self-aware to face an unplanned pregnancy, let’s be honest: education doesn’t magically repel sperm anymore than a lack of consent. While our kids are a phenomenally effective form of birth control, like any other form, they are not 100 percent foolproof. By age 45, over half of American women will experience at least one accidental pregnancy. And 61 percent of women seeking abortions are already mothers; more than three-quarters of them cite the impact of another child on their precarious balance of responsibilities. (All statistics are from a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute.)

I don’t have a story to tell about how abortion has impacted my life. I don’t have an important point to make on this anniversary of a landmark declaration of rights that are in some ways more difficult and dangerous to exercise today than 40 years ago. I don’t even have a deeper analysis of the shift in my feelings on my own holistic, reproductive health.

What I do have, though, thanks to Roe v. Wade, is a choice.

The least of these, my children

So, you might’ve heard a little something about the Supreme Court today. In fact, you’re probably sick of it by now.

Me, I’ve been waiting on Monday and Thursday mornings for almost three weeks for this ruling. With the state of my health and my son’s, our total family income, and my husband’s job, it’s pretty clear why I would be in favor of the Affordable Care Act (the real name for Obamacare, in case you’ve forgotten). We’re already beneficiaries of state-funded healthcare, and I’ve elaborated at length on why it’s so critical for me and my family.

I’m not going to go into detail today about the other mothers, college students, workers, grandparents, and desperate people for whom this ruling is the first ray of hope in a long, bad time. Instead, I’m going to show you the one reason I’ll sleep better tonight.

This is Griffin. He turned six in April. You can see that he just lost his first tooth. I don’t write about him as much as his older brother, but that’s my failing, not his. He’s weird, he’s wonderful, he’s so adorable it makes me spit.

And he’s perfectly healthy.

But because his mother has a history of fibromyalgia, Asperger’s, and depression, his brother also has Asperger’s, and his father has genetically high cholesterol and needs hella-strong glasses, I’ve worried every day of his life that, when the time came for him to go out into the world on his own strong legs and his own mighty soul, he wouldn’t be able to get health insurance. Despite his own good health, despite his own boundless energy, my own limitations might deprive him of that security.

And today, I don’t have to worry anymore. That’s what this decision means to me. That’s why I danced and cried in my living room at 9:15 a.m. CDT as the tweets scrolled up my screen and reporters scrambled on the steps of that majestic building.

If you don’t like this decision, if you feel it lessens your freedom, I frankly don’t care. Because tonight I’ll sleep sounder knowing that both my boys will have access to the care and security that good, steady healthcare brings.

Apr 29, 2012 - Physical Ed    13 Comments

For shame

I’m of two minds about shopping. I love seeing pretty, cool, interesting new things. Some of them, I even enjoy trying on or, if the stars are right, buying them. I also love seeing what Nightmares of Fashion Past are currently visiting themselves upon kids too young to have suffered them the first time.

On the other hand, we’re a lower-middle class, half-Aspergian family. We have young sons with voices that can shatter glass and the combined attention span of a brain-damaged goldfish. Big-box stores and malls not only stress the hell out of me, they often hurt me physically–cement floors are the bane of my existence.

And then there’s the fact that I’m fat. Clothes shopping is an exercise in frustration and self-loathing. Women’s sizes are frequently not available in stores, and when they are, those stores seem to think that plus-sized women are both color- and pattern-blind, and happy to spend another $10-15 for the same design in one size larger than the range they’ve decided is “normal.” My particular body shape further complicates things by being both tall and hourglass-shaped. Consequently, I’m forced to buy shirts a size bigger than I actually need them if I want them to button, and I’ve never once owned a pair of jeans that fit well at waist, hip, and length.

My boys at the Mall of America LEGO store last summer. The mech and helicopter behind them? Made of LEGO.

In any case, the underwire on my next-to-last bra broke suddenly this week, leaving me with one, count ‘em, one bra to wear. This is not an Acceptable Situation. Since we’d already promised Connor he could pick out a new LEGO set as a reward for a week of good, steady progress in his program, and they didn’t have the Marvel Super Heroes LEGO at the local stores, we committed to making the pilgrimage to the Mall of America’s LEGO store. It’s pretty epic, and with a budget firmly established in advance, it’s a bunch of fun for all of us. I figured I’d make my own quick trip to Nordstrom, which is widely regarded as the best place to get fitted properly for a bra, and actually find one in irregular sizes like mine.

While the thought of a new bra or two appeals greatly, for practicality and pleasure, the thought of submitting to the handling and scrutiny of my gigantic bosom and scarred, lumpy midsection by a stranger with a measuring device appeals not at all. But I’d worked my heart and mind up to a place where I could tolerate the humiliation and inevitable revulsion I would face in that dressing room. I’d taken some Xanax to dull the psychic trauma of being in a place with so much ambient noise and stress. And I’d settled the boys comfortably, post-LEGO acquisition, so I wouldn’t have to take them into the highbrow hush of Nordstrom.

I went up to the the Lingerie section and spent a few minutes admiring both the lovely underthings and the signs that said “Sizes up to 44H.” A saleslady approached me and asked if she could help. I asked the general price range of their bras. She responded, “They go up to $200.” I nodded, more nonchalant than I felt, and asked again, “But the average price? Around $30 or 40?”

She laughed at me, a sniffy sound of disbelief. “Ah ha ha, um, no. They average around $60.” I thanked her for the information, and left with as much speed and dignity as I could muster.

Let me say that again: The Nordstrom saleswoman laughed at me.

I’d gone in there, ready to face shaming for my size and shape. I wasn’t ready to be shamed for my income before I’d even taken off a stitch of clothing. It was more than I could bear, and there were tears welling in the rim of my glasses before I even got back to the table where my boys were sitting. I didn’t trust myself to say out loud what had happened, so I typed it quickly on my phone so my Darling Husband would know: “Ever walk into a place and immediately feel like you’re not welcome, that you’re not good enough to be there and everyone knows it? She laughed at me when I asked if there were any bras in the $30 range.”

My sons saw the tears rolling silently down my face, and not knowing why, they still rose to press tiny, tight hugs around me. My Darling Husband, whom anyone who knows him is not quick to anger, got that tight set to his jaw, and walked silently into the store. When he came back, he told me he’d found the saleswoman and asked for her manager.  The woman’s response to the confrontation was that she certainly hadn’t intended it that way; he informed her that, when the effect was so horrendous, her intentions weren’t worth a damn. We both worked in retail for a long time, coming up, so he knew precisely the right words to invoke. He told them both that, in humiliating his wife, they had both failed utterly at customer service and managed to permanently lose at least two customers.

But I was wrecked, and the only passive-aggressive revenge I could manage at the time was to tweet my grief and horror. And as I told the friends on Twitter and Facebook who immediately rallied to me and suggested both solutions and unspeakable tortures upon the saleswoman, if I could find a bra as supportive as all those wonderful people, I’d be set for life. It wasn’t until today that I realized I have a teeny tiny platform of my own.

So let me say this. The difference between the haves and the have-nots has rarely been greater in this country. This divide isn’t just social or economic–it’s also geographic. There are places where people who don’t have much money are not only not welcomed, but where they will be humiliated for even daring to darken the doorstep. Don’t even breathe on the merchandise–your poorness might be catching, and we wouldn’t want that. I’ve already learned that, the fewer pieces of merchandise in a store, the less likely it is someone like me could afford anything in there. And if there are no price tags, don’t even bother asking–it’s out of your range.

The people who staff these places make snap judgments on the fitness of a patron in a split second, on purely superficial impressions, the very least reliable kind. That scene from Pretty Woman? It doesn’t only happen on Rodeo Drive. Apparently it happens in a Minnesota department store, too.

Want to know the saddest thing? Nordstrom has a discount sister store, Nordstrom Rack. I’ve bought clothes with retail prices in the hundreds of dollars for $20 or less at Nordstrom Rack. There is even, in fact, a Nordstrom Rack in the Mall of America (something I didn’t know yesterday). If that saleswoman was serious about the customer service reputation and/or the bottom line of Nordstrom, Inc., she could have easily directed me to that location for bras in my price range, and I would’ve left a happy customer likely to spend my hard-earned money on their merchandise. I might even have tweeted how pleased I was by the service I’d received.

But she didn’t. So I left her workplace feeling like dirt for daring to step outside Walmart with my grubby, contagious, working-class, overweight self.

So here’s what I have to say. Even if you’ve got the money to spend at Nordstrom–maybe even especially if you do–don’t. Unless you like that atmosphere that judges people, that says there’s a different America for those who don’t look right or make their money the right way. Give your money to the places that wait to see that your money’s as green as anyone else’s, or better yet, the ones that see a person first, instead of a class.

Mar 20, 2012 - Physical Ed    7 Comments

One Size Fits Most

It is, quite abruptly, spring here in Minnesota. It’s been that way for about a week now, and it’s utterly unsettling. Between the unseasonably warm weather, and the early Daylight Savings Time change, I don’t think we’ve eaten supper before 7pm in the last seven days. My boys have already collected a whole spring’s worth of scrapes and bruises–it looks like we’ve been beating them from knee to ankle.

It’s hard to complain about such beautiful weather, but I’m one of many people (especially women) for whom hot weather is an uncomfortable season to be dreaded.

See, I’m fat.

Not morbidly obese, but not just a little pudgy either. I’m tall (5’9″), but that only helps so much. I’ve got a classic hourglass figure, but they don’t really make jeans or shirts for that shape anymore. I can wear a 16, but I’m more comfortable in an 18. Most of my T-shirts are XL. My bra size is officially Not Small.

The best thing that can be said about this condition is that my kids like to snuggle with me because I’m cushy. Also, I’m perfectly healthy for my weight–blood pressure and sugars are normal. Certainly the extra weight doesn’t help my fibromyalgia, but I’ve been thinner and the pain wasn’t measurably better.

But when it gets warm, I sweat. A lot. I can’t wear a skirt comfortably without Spanx because my inner thighs get raw from chafing; along the underwire line of my bra, too. I like to swim, but between my year-long pallor and the rolls and ridges, I don’t just sit around in my swimsuit–I’m either in the water, or I’m covered up.

And then there’s the psychological side. My self-esteem has never been particularly strong. My mom used to bemoan the fact that, despite the lavish praise and compliments she used to shower on her kids, my sister and I both ended up with self-esteem as bad as hers. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I realized that it didn’t matter what she said about us–it was the fact that she never had a nice word for herself that got handed down to her children. Sexual assault didn’t help either. He was the first guy I’d ever let see my naked body. He looked, crossed the room, and turned out the light. That left a deep mark.

Sometimes, I think it’s not so bad, that I carry the extra weight well enough, that I’m pretty enough in other ways to let that slide. But what I see in the mirror doesn’t match what I see if I’m unlucky enough to get caught in a picture. Sometimes, I don’t even recognize myself–I squint at the fat person on film, until my breath catches and I realize that’s me. That my mirror is a funhouse mirror after all, but the kind that fools you into thinking things are better than they actually are.

And the culture finds all sorts of ways to remind plus-size women that they’re less than. Affordable plus-size clothes are made of cheap fabrics and rejected patterns that would never be found in the juniors or misses racks. It gets even worse if you need maternity clothes. Sure, companies like j.jill make nice, classic clothes from quality fabrics in “women’s” sizes, but they don’t carry them in stores where those women can actually try them on–we’re left with catalog roulette. And pretty lingerie? Only Frederick’s of Hollywood carries plus-size “sexy” underwear in their stores, and the fabrics are all tasteless and harsh against the skin.

Don’t even get me started on all the other ways fat people are shamed everywhere they go. The seats in airplanes and movie theaters. Booths at restaurants. Hospital gowns. Baby Bjorns and Boppys. The mean, greedy, gluttonous fat women in movies, TV, even comic books. The stares if you dare to wear something revealing for a date, or scamper around with your kids in your swimsuit, or dare to order dessert. I’ve left the house feeling pretty and sexy and appreciated by my Darling Husband, and come home so ashamed and unattractive that I change into dumpy pajamas in the bathroom, away from even his gaze.

I enjoy the feel of sunlight and warm air on my skin. I like to run and play with my kids, on the days the fibro lets me. I like silk and linen and soft, thin cottons. I like elegant dresses and swirly skirts and pretty tops.

Courage shouldn’t be a necessary accessory. It’s almost impossible to find in my size.

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