I Second That Emotion

Last week work was marked by two emotional events.

The first was a mix of impatience, shame and boredom brought about by "team building exercises." Apparently playing the sort of games usually confined to parties, especially showers, builds teams in some managerial minds. They involved standing up while connected, hula hoops, little cardboard rafts the size of trade paperbacks, being TIED UP and blindfolds. I wouldn't have been surprised if "toilet paper brides" had been on the agenda. I blew out my right knee dancing during college, so I had to sit out several of the more physically challenging ones, thank God. Anyway, I suppose much of it was fun, but we all have work to do to meet impossible standards set by the people who sent us to play games. It was not all fun, though. First, sitting out reminded me of not being picked for teams in gym, which is not a place I yearn to revisit. Second, some of the games required uncomfortable close physical proximity. I'm not shy about touching, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was other people being forced to touch me when they would never choose to do so if permitted a choice. You see, I'm fat. Not "Oh Rubens would have painted you and considered you a perfect beauty." Not big boned or stocky or plump. I am Venus of Willendorf fat. And inevitably, given our culture's obsession with fat people as evil and ugly and unhealthy and disgusting, there were people who would not touch me and looked nauseated at the very thought. I was tied to one of these people for about twenty minutes. They leaned away from me and wouldn't make eye contact. It was the worst humiliation I have felt in a long time. Let me make it clear that I bathed and deoderized and perfumed lightly immediately before coming in. And brushed my teeth. I do not smell bad, and most people grabbed on and held tight when the games called for it with entirely positive vibes. I come by my weight not through excessive eating, but by heritage. My farmer great grandmothers in photographs appear fat and healthy from the hard physical labor they performed about eighteen hours a day for their entire lives. I am virtually never ashamed of my body, but I felt burning shame that day. Even though there is nothing to be ashamed of. Even though weight is more heritable than height (.80 correlation vs .70 among identical twins reared apart). Even though the softness of my body is a delight to most who have touched it, and I am beloved not despite but partly because of my body. I felt the shame and humiliation and embarrassment about my very self that white privilege usually shields me from. The war on obesity is too much waged as a war on fat people, and discrimination is ugly in any form. But I will not be ashamed of my shame, because that would deny just what my status is in this culture. As a fat activist, I need to point out that pariah effect and fight its causes. The snapshot of fat hatred I got shook me pretty badly though.

The second emotion was terror. I go about my job usually in blithe oblivion to the risks, which I am so used to that I take them for granted. Once I observed to Dear Husband that I would never, ever want to work with electrical wires, because it is too dangerous. His reaction was that most people would be scared to work with actively homicidal people on a regular if infrequent basis. Mentally ill people are no more violent than the general population when they are in treatment. But of course my job often involves people who have stopped treatment because of medication side effects or poverty or simple disbelief that they are ill and not really persecuted. I've treated violent, even homicidal, patients from time to time when they are actively coming into the agency. However, much the more frequent case involves going out to find and reach out to people who haven't come in or called or let us know if they're alive for a certain period of time. I've talked about the dangers of poverty in this population before, and one of the most pronounced dangers is that they cannot afford housing outside of extremely dangerous neighborhoods. Mostly if you keep to yourself and avoid eye contact you are not bothered by the often intoxicated and angry neighbors. Still, going into an apparently abandoned house in these neighborhoods you know what you could be up against, even if it doesn't come to your consciousness at the time. Picture standing in front of a dilapidated two flat with a "For Rent" sign and a slightly ajar outer door. Suddenly while climbing a pitch dark rickety, steep stair case with no banister, I felt blinding panic and realized I could die in this place in this instant if someone answered the door and gave me even a nudge. It was pure terror, and after knocking once I could not help running down the steps, out of the house and back to my car. I jumped in, and I believe I did not actually peal off, but that might not be true.


Kristen said...

Team building exercises. Huh. You would think that the powers that be would try to be sensitive to the fact that there might be people around who for some reason (previous trauma or otherwise) would rather not have people touching them and would be respectful of that. I'm sorry you had to go through that.