When I am out and about in public, with varying degrees, I am aware that people look at me with disdain. I am aware that in some people's minds, I am ugly simply because I am fat. Such is the nature of stigma. Appreciation of the beauty of others is one of the few weapons we have against learning stigma.
I made a conscious decision at one point in my life about 10 years ago to begin to appreciate the beauty in others. It was the only way I knew to begin to appreciate the beauty in myself. I recall riding a bus in Gainesville, Florida, on my way to school one day and looking around at the people on the bus. Suddenly I began to see the beauty in the people there. Most of the people on the bus were considered ugly by others -- older, darker-skinned, disabled, poor, fat and so forth. But on that day, I noticed the character in those faces and bodies. I noticed a dignity I had never really appreciated before. I left the bus feeling warm and wonderful and at peace with the world and with msyelf.
I have dabbled some in photography. Photography is the art of light and shadow. When you learn to see as the camera sees, you learn to appreciate the ways in which human perception ignores so much light and shadow. You begin to appreciate how ignorant human perception is.
So, in the ten years or so that I've been practicing this consciencious appreciation of the beauty of others, I've come to be okay with my own body within my own skin. This is not uniformly so, but generally, I don't worry about the perception of others and whether someone thinks of me as ugly or not. I am aware that such a perception exists, but I don't live my life with that perception in mind. I wear clothes that are comfortable. I talk to people with a confidence that says I'm okay and should be here. I let the stares and funny looks fade away when I'm in public.
There are reminders that I don't belong -- seats that are too small for me and advertisements aimed to teach how ugly I am supposed to be are the most frequent reminders I encounter. But those reminders usually don't make me feel bad about myself as much as they anger me because I know the power of the stigma.
Yesterday, however, I got caught off-guard. At the pool, while attending my aquatherapy, I commented to an older, fatter woman that I liked her swim suit. It was quite stylish. The response I got was cattish. I think that even though she and I are similar in size, she was offended that I thought we might shop at the same stores and wear the same styles. It was apparent in her speech and her mannerisms that I had insulted her with my compliment and curiosity. The first encounter was familiar and one I could just let roll off of my back. It was in the dressing room. I smiled at her in return to her cattyness, bragged about my swim suit costing so little and went on my merry way. At first, it didn't bother me.
When I am in the pool, I love my body. Most of the pain of lupus and fibromyalgia disappear in the warm water and I move in ways I can't on land. I feel graceful and free in the water. So, when this catwoman caught up with me in this sacred place, it caught me off guard and was a sharper cut that usual. "You know," she whispered to me as she walked passed me in the pool. "The next time you buy a swimsuit, get one with a skirt. You'll look so much better." I was astounded that she had gone out of her way to do this. I am fully aware of all the symbology and history of fat women's swimsuits. I haven't felt uncomfortable in a swimsuit in long time, but I am aware of many women who refuse to exercise because they don't like what they look like in a swim suit. I knew the cultural and historical context of the comment, but what hurt me most is that I had to deal with this in my favourite space. I was so angry and hurt -- it almost felt like a mugging or a rape. She caught me off guard and violated something dear to me.
I reacted casually on the outside. I smiled and stated emphatically (and maybe with a catty edge myself) -- "Oh, I come here to enjoy my workout, not to make a fashion statement. I don't like skirts, they get in the way and make the exercise more difficult." I wanted to say, "You know I can still see your fat knees below that skirt" or something equally as catty, but I mostly hated myself for getting caught and for getting caught up in the cat fight. I swam away and made sure I wasn't anywhere near her the rest of the morning. But the damage was done. I was tense and antsy. I couldn't move easily in my beloved water and I was in more physical pain when I left the pool than when I started.
A second incident after I got of the pool also stung. Because I was in pain in the locker room, I was movinig slow. After my shower, the locker room filled up as a class got out. I was walking to the dressing rooms, ready to get a space where I could sit while dressing, honouring the pain I felt. Two women cut me off, rushing in front of me to grab a dressing room. I was apparently invisible because of my slowness. I was disabled and they took advantage in that I-don't-notice-you-exist sort of way. Any other day I would have probably fought back by making a comment or asserting my needs. Instead I cried. I got to a dressing room farther away and cried.
Appreciating the physical beauty of the world around me was a pleasant task and one that has formed new habits of relations for me with others and myself. But I find that the ugliness in human behaviour is more difficult to tolerate. All I wanted to do was say "my, what a pretty swim suit and don't you look festive in it. I love the colours and style of it all. I appreciate your beauty in it." What I got was the worst of female behaviour and a really bad Monday in return. Maybe someday I can keep the ugly people of the world from not ruining my day, but in the meantime, I hurt in more ways than one.