“Wow!” the exclamation slips out almost before the doctor realizes she’s said it. She side-eyes me then looks back down at the paperwork. “You’ve gained a lot of weight this year.”
I feel a squirming in my stomach. Even though I’m not unaware of the fact that the scale has climbed a good 25 pounds (and I’ve complained about it to the doctors who have been working with me on my iron levels), this is the first time that a doctor has actually commented on it.
Perhaps in response to something on my face, she hastens on, “You’re not overweight yet. You’re at the top range of your BMI. But it’s a significant change, and if you gain anymore you will be overweight.”
Shame. Internally, I realize I couldn’t have prevented the weight gain and that gaining weight doesn’t necessarily make me unhealthy, nevertheless I feel the burning of her judgment. She accepts my explanation of my health challenges and drops the topic, but I leave the office with a new burden. Time to lose weight, I guess.
Rewind back six months ago. I’m sitting in a guest lecture on a topic about which I’m passionate. The lecturer asks a question, and I eagerly raise my hand. She calls on me, and I chatter away happily as I’ve grown accustomed to doing in my other classes.
A few minutes later, I raise my hand again for a question, but the lecturer looks over me. When she poses another question, I hesitate but offer my hand when no one else does.
“Anyone else other than her?” the lecturer quips.
I quickly put my hand down, fighting off the shame by telling myself she probably just wants more involvement from others.
A few minutes later, she poses another question. I don’t raise my hand. Nevertheless, she makes the same joking comment about anyone other than me answering.
Shame. I feel myself entirely shut down.
Fast forward back to the present. Many of my classes are smaller this semester, and I’m without a doubt the most vocal person there. Similarly at my internship, my co-intern is a very quiet person.
I feel huge, as a personality and as a person. It conflicts with my sense of self, which I perceive as a curious, exploratory, opinionated, passionate, and creative, but never overpowering or domineering.
But as my therapist pointed out, those are strong yet inaccurate word choices. I’m not walking around shoving people into lockers or telling them what they should believe or do. I’m not trying to control anyone or take away their ability to contribute to a discussion.
So what is it I’m feeling?
And I hate it.
I relish vocalizing my opinion in a setting where that is met by interested discussion from others—when the center of attention is on the ideas.
But when the attention is drawn to me, either because someone calls it to me as the lecturer did or because no one else is matching my energy, then I feel inappropriately…big.
Some of the traditional criticism of the unhealthy body ideals pushed at women touches on the idea that women are pressured to take up as little space as possible, and I feel that pressure on an intellectual as well as a physical level.
After struggling with the pressure to lose weight for my doctor’s approval for about a week, I chose to release the obligation. I chose to allow myself to be larger than others determined I “should” be during this year of my graduate school. I don’t want to be obsessed with a number on a scale or a BMI range that is arbitrary anyway. I want to be focused on being healthy, but I already am doing that. I don’t need to lose weight to do that.
It felt like a rebellious move to some extent. It’s one thing to feel like I am gaining weight and can’t control it, but would if I could.
It’s an entirely different thing to decide that I don’t care, that others don’t get to determine what my body should look like, and that I’m okay just the way I am.
I’ve been on an exploration of the meaning of power, and I realize that I’ve been holding myself back–withholding permission to take up space, trying to maintain the ability to be invisible when others don’t want to have to see me.
I am a strong personality. There are other words that come to mind to describe that, words that carry the connotation that being a strong personality–being visible–is bad. I refuse to use those words anymore though.