Note: If you have been missing the vast quantities of swearing of which I am capable, desperately longing for me to drop an f-bomb or two (or, um...10? I'm afraid to count), then this is the post for you. If you have somehow been living under a rock and don't know that I curse like the love child of a long-haul trucker and a sailor, and will somehow be offended by that, then this is probably not the post for you. Fair warning, people.
So. I apparently used to be invisible. I didn't realize this at the time—and I'm not sure how, exactly, a 5'8", 300 pound woman is supposed to be invisible, but I'm being confronted with more and more evidence that this was, in fact, the case. Here is how I know: when I'm running, people see me.
I mean, a lot of people. A lot. Pretty much everyone I pass says good morning to me (other runners sometimes just wave or nod—I'm counting that, too). About a week ago, a woman in a pickup truck beeped and gave me a thumbs-up as I was doing my speed work. I was working hard, but not so hard that I thought I needed a boost. Turns out, a boost is great, whether you need it or not. The other day, on an easy jog, I passed a man who said, "Way to go!" It didn't seem like he was being creepy or overtly, um, overt—and I have to say it bothers me that we still live in a world where this is even a consideration—he was just being supportive to a stranger who was running past him.
Pretty much every time I go out for a run or a walk, people talk to me. I have, I should note, always been the person that the really short old ladies turn to in the grocery store when the tiny cans of tuna fish or beans or whatever have been placed too high (note to grocery store owners everywhere: take pity on the short older people of the world and put those things within reach, would ya? I know you're not going to do that, because eye-level is prime real estate and elderly shoppers are not your prime customers, but I also know that sucks). I sometimes joke that I have "Please talk to me" written on my forehead in ink that only crazy people and the elderly can see, but I think the reality is that I am the one who sees them, and sees them as full and complete people, something that often doesn't happen, and they recognize that somehow and respond to it. So I guess I should rephrase: I am used to being invisible unless someone needs something from me.
When you're obese, there are people who will treat you as if you are not human. They talk to you the same way they would talk to the television, say. That is, they recognize you as being basically humanoid, but they do not register you as an actual person. If they did, they wouldn't dream of saying the things that people have said to me (generally from a safe distance, like from a moving vehicle, which means that they do, on some level, understand that what they're doing is abhorrent. Which it is). I don't dwell on that stuff, and if pushed for details, I can only come up with two examples, although those examples are the reason I started walking with ear buds in several years ago.
These people, however, are in the minority. The vast majority of people will not recognize your existence. Or at least, they didn't recognize mine. I regularly said "Good morning" to people on the street, only to be completely ignored. I did not, generally, have to worry about men displaying a frightening level of familiarity with me—and when it did happen, if I told someone about it, they reacted with skepticism because, well, I was obese—why the hell would a man be interested in me sexually? Much of the skepticism came from people who love me, and from people who think that they are enigmas but who actually broadcast every thought they have across their faces. People who forget that I'm a writer and tune into these kinds of cues. People who, by their reaction, showed me that I was, in fact, worthy of being ignored.
The thing is, being invisible has its advantages. I'm a poet—one of the most invisible of artists—and that invisibility allows me to be fairly honest in the work I do, even when I'm making pretty much everything up (which I do, sometimes, kids. Poetry is not journalism). Knowing that plenty of poets don't even read poetry besides their own can free you up to write whatever you want because hell, if poets don't consistently read poetry, who does (I'm looking at you, accountants)? I also didn't usually have to deal with the kind of harassment that women, as a group, face every day. I didn't have to get into arguments about whether a wolf whistle from a stranger is a compliment (here's a hint, guys: it's fucking well not) or whether an uninvited hand on my thigh was someone just being playful (it's not) or any of the other issues that women argue about among themselves, never mind among men. I didn't have to worry about why the people who chose to be around me did so—they clearly wanted to be with me, the person, instead of me, the body. Being invisible does let people—men and women—appreciate your brain. Which I have. And your mind, which I also have (not everyone has both, it seems). It also means that people are regularly underestimating you, which I have often found helpful.
So it's a little weird, being seen again—not just as a woman, but as a human being. It's a little frightening. If friends are noticing that I've got amazing calf muscles (which I do, thank you very much), then it's a good bet that some stranger somewhere is noticing it, too, and that's just weird. (Stop staring at my calves, stranger! Stop it, right now! Go back to your accounting!) I am more self-conscious now than I was 100+ pounds ago, not less. For example, I am much less likely to leave the house without makeup (although I still don't wear a lot) or some kind of jewelry. And I think the tendency is for people to assume that it's because I've begun to care about myself, but that's not it at all. Instead, I've begun to care about what other people think. Which is really, really weird. And I do still believe that we would care far less about what other people think of us if we realized how very infrequently they do so. For the record. But I can't seem to help myself.
I get called brave on a fairly regular basis, which I think is kind of hilarious. The kinds of things people are talking about when they say this are not brave. I started running because I had a choice between running and dying, and I decided not to die (you're welcome). It wasn't as cut-and-dried as that, or even a deliberate decision, but that's basically what it boils down to: I needed control somewhere, and I took control in this particular aspect of my life. That's not brave; that's self-preservation. Continuing to run isn't brave, either. It's just running (I want to type, "It's just salvation"). Being willing to talk about it isn't brave, either. Plenty of people talk about this stuff. There are 170 million blogs—a statistic you can believe because I just made it up and I'm very, very trustworthy—about this kind of thing online. Bravery involves two things: fear and the willingness to carry on despite it. If either one of those aspects is missing, so is bravery. Bravery is not a lack of fear. It's just not. And even if you want to believe that I'm brave—and I can't stop you—I'd suggest that perhaps you might want to focus on people who are running into burning buildings or jumping onto train tracks to save someone else or defusing bombs or something. What I am is a hell of a lot closer to stubborn than brave.
Stubbornness, for me, has arisen in how difficult it has been to learn how to accept a compliment. Stubbornness has, for years, prevented me from cutting myself off at "Thank you." Stubbornness has stood in the way of me allowing myself to realize that external changes are not, in fact, of less value than internal ones and that recognizing them doesn't make me shallow, and neither does appreciating them. The changes come together, whether I want them to or not.
But it's not all bad, because stubbornness has served me well in other areas. Talking to a friend yesterday, I described it as "a healthy dose of fuck you," and having that attitude has, on many occasions, given me the strength to get through difficult times. That dose of fuck you is how I turn negatives into positives in a lot of ways. For example, when faced with the choice years ago between continuing to walk or stopping because I was hurt by something a stranger had yelled at me from a car, it was my healthy dose of fuck you that got me to put in ear buds the next day, turn the music up, and head out the door. And it's important to note that, like stubbornness, the fuck you is not necessarily directed at anyone in particular (although it certainly can be—and it was in the example above). If anything, it's mostly directed at myself. Fuck you, I'm going to walk. Fuck you, I'm going to accept this compliment without backpedaling or otherwise making it conditional, and fuck you some more because I'm going to leave my response at "Thank you" (or my personal favorite: "Thank you. I feel great"). Fuck you, yeah, I enjoy the fact that I'm looking strong and healthy and all that and while we're at it, fuck you because I do know what this means for my development as a human being. Fuck you, I'm no longer invisible and I'm going out there anyway.
I advise you—not that you asked—to generate your own dose of fuck you, in whatever aspect of your life seems to need it. If you feel like no one is standing up for you. If you feel like you're being forced into doing something you dread. If—maybe especially—that force is coming by way of some sort of guilt trip, implying that you are somehow not enough if you don't do A, B, or C. If you are worried about what "they" will think. If you are afraid you can't. Find the place in your life where you need a little stubbornness and cultivate the hell out of it. Because awesome calves don't make themselves, my friends.