Untouchable in America
I learned about historical caste systems in 7th-grade social studies. The higher classes consisted of scholars, rulers, and merchants. The lower group were farmers and laborers. And the lowest group of all were the untouchables. If your school lesson was like mine it painted the picture of the caste system no longer being a part of modern society, a relic of days gone by. I think teachers must be the world’s most consistent optimists, either that or they are all Don Quixote wannabes, seeing the world as it ought to be rather than the way it is. Because I can tell you that there are still those who feel “untouchable” in our modern world, and specifically in America. And sadly, society accepts it. They believe it, they support it, and it has become one of the last forms of socially accepted bigotry.
Who are the American Untouchables?
The untouchable class in America is not specific to a religion or a region, they are found in every demographic, political party, and state of our country. You can see them in every age group, from infants to the elderly. Who are they?
The overweight. The obese. The chubby. The fat. The plump.
These are the untouchables in America.
They are the citizens who agonize over what they will wear out in public, knowing that by merely stepping outside their front door they are inviting commentary on their size, what their perceived lifestyle must be, what they choose to eat if they dare to eat in public, and open themselves to criticism for simply existing. They know if they wear shorts, dare to be seen in public, or buy groceries for their children they will hear whispered comments like “She should keep that covered”, “Wouldn’t you just stay home if you ever got that huge?”, “Oh. My. God. How can anyone be that fat and live?”
They are the ones who hesitate about going to the doctor because no matter what is wrong with them, from asthma to cancer, they will hear “well if you’d just drop 100 pounds this would all clear up.” It doesn’t seem to matter that they’ve been diabetic since they were a scrawny child, had asthma since they were a skinny teen, or hypertension runs in the family, even the skinny family members. If they’re overweight they know to expect that every problem they’ve ever had, physical, emotional, and mental is all because of that extra 50, 100, or 150 pounds. It makes the visit seem pointless and painful.
They are afraid to go to the gym and try to change their size and shape because they know they will be scoffed at and scorned. They will be the laughing-stock, the butt of the fat kid jokes they endured in elementary and middle school, so they stay home and exercise in the hidden, lonely recess of their own space.
They log onto social media and only show pictures of their faces, where they can crop, edit out, and Photoshop themselves to look as good as they feel they can. They can participate in conversations and debates without having their ideas ignored and dismissed because of their size. They have learned through experience that size has a direct, negative correlation with respect and credibility.
They’ve experienced what it’s like to accomplish something great “in spite of” or be handed excuses “because of” their size, and to never feel accepted for who they are without that thick layer of subcutaneous fat altering the perception and interaction of others.
They have learned that they are untouchable. As if obesity is a communicable disease. Though definitely not a sexually transmitted one, because who would ever want to make love to THAT? They are accustomed to being dehumanized in this way, being reduced to a thing, an object, something subhuman at best, or worse, a traitor to humanity for allowing themselves to become something so unpleasant. They are used to having people make brief eye contact and then look away because they are uncomfortable with seeing anyone of that size. They are familiar with being excluded from hugs, a hand on a shoulder, and handshakes. They move through life with a larger than life expanse of skin covering them and they are starving for the simplicity of human touch.
Unworthy of Being Touched
How do I know this? How do I know who the untouchables are and how they live?
I know because I’ve lived it. I’ve been the person who has heard those things from people I don’t know, people who shouldn’t matter to my heart and mind, but who do matter because I believed all those things about myself long before they said it out loud in a stage whisper behind me. I’m the mom who stays out of the pictures as often as humanly possible. I’m the one who hasn’t been to a doctor’s office for anything more than a rescue inhaler refill for over a decade. I’m the one who won’t wear shorts in summer, no matter how hot it is, as an act of public service because I don’t want anyone to be offended by my massive size.
So why, if staying hidden as much as possible is so important, am I sharing all of this so publicly now? Because this week I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and by doing it I came to realize what being “untouchable” has done to me.
You could say that I’ve done lots of hard things this week, and I’m going to tell you all of them so that I’ll have credibility with you, in spite of the fact that I’m overweight. I’m going to do what I always do in conversations, I’m going to offer you a reason to believe me so that you’ll be able to get past my size when I share my epiphany with you. I’m sorry, I know it’s insulting, but I want you to see just how much emotional energy goes into everything that an obese person does. It isn’t just the extra pounds they carry around that weigh them down. It’s the emotional trauma of being so despised in a body-centric society.
On Wednesday morning I swam 76 laps at the Aquatic Center, that’s 1.08 miles, but that wasn’t the most difficult thing.
On Monday morning I started a fitness routine that involved push-ups, a personal agony for me and my “almost always in pain” shoulders. But that wasn’t the most difficult thing either.
On Tuesday morning I ran a “Sprint” distance triathlon course: 0.5 mile swim, 12.4 mile bike ride, and 3.1 mile run, in just over 2 hours. That was a personal record for me, but it wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
I completed the triathlon on my own, at a time I knew the gym would be mostly empty, because I needed to prove to myself that I could do hard things. That I was strong enough to keep going when I wanted to quit.
I made myself do it Tuesday morning because on Tuesday evening I attended my first class of massage therapy school at Healing Mountain Massage School.
And THAT is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
In fact, I must rank it with the other two scariest things I’ve ever done: getting married and having children.
What do all three of those things have in common? The fear of being touched.
I remember lying awake the night before my wedding. I looked at the clock, it was 3:30 a.m., and I was thinking “What if this is a mistake? What if we get married and William doesn’t like what he finds under my veil and my dress?” I was terrified of not being someone else’s idea of perfection. My fear wasn’t in the person I was marrying, I knew William was the one for me and I loved him as much as I was capable of loving. My fear was completely rooted in my perception of myself. As a virgin bride at 21, 5’4” and 125 pounds, wearing a size 6 dress, I was absolutely, completely, and unquestionably convinced that I was so fat, so overweight and unappealing, that he would feel cheated when we finally made it to the honeymoon.
I was terrified that he wouldn’t want to touch me.
It didn’t matter that he had held me and kissed me countless times before. This was new, this was different. This was a giving and taking that I had never experienced and because I couldn’t believe that I was worthy of being loved, I struggled to believe that he could ever really want me.
I was obese in my brain long before it ever showed up in my body.
I remember the morning of my first prenatal appointment of my first pregnancy. I was terrified that the midwife I’d chosen to see was going to tell me how unwise it was for me to have a child. I was too fat to be a good parent. I was too overweight to have a healthy pregnancy. At 23, 5’4” and 135 pounds I was convinced that the midwife would be too disgusted by me to want to help me give birth to a child. As my pregnancy progressed and I struggled to know what to eat, how to take care of my changing body and the body of the baby inside me, I dreamed one night of a table filled with food, all of it delicious looking. I saw words appear in a casserole dish filled with rice pudding, they said “don’t eat sugar, it will kill your baby.” Two days later I bought a popsicle for my three-year-old niece while we were out shopping and I shared it with her on the way home.
I miscarried the next day.
I was numb with pain. It felt like proof that I was a horrible person, that my fat, my uncontrollable appetite, my enjoyment of sweets had killed my baby. I was ready to lay down and die. My mom drove me to the midwife’s that day and I was given medicine to clear my womb. On the way home, with the contractions feeling like they were tearing my body in half, I “gave birth” to what would have been my child in a graffiti covered bathroom in a small town in Missouri. I covered my mouth to keep the sobs from disturbing anyone else because I really felt that I was getting what I deserved. I wanted to have someone touch me in that moment. I wanted someone to hold me, to tell me that I was going to be okay. But I couldn’t ask for help. I believed I didn’t deserve it. I was afraid that if I asked someone to hold me they would turn away disgusted because it was my own fault. I was too fat, too unhealthy, to deserve a child.
That fear of being unworthy to be touched carried on through my next four pregnancies and births. I always felt that it was a tremendous act of service and compassion that my amazing doctor could bring himself to touch me long enough to help my children arrive safely.
Being a mother was the sweetest experience of my life. It was the one time as a person that I could believe that my touch was not just needed, but absolutely wanted and cherished. The feeling of holding my babies against my breast, feeding them, touching the soft hair on their heads, seeing them smile and gurgle when they looked up at me, filled up an emptiness in me that I didn’t even know was there.
Uncomfortable in My Skin
So, there I was Tuesday night, getting ready to drive to my class and embark on a new journey, and I was struck with anxiety and terror. William walked in the house to give me a hug and kiss goodbye, took one look at me, got a concerned look on his face and said, “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” He knew that I was nervous about beginning school, I’d tried to explain how terrified I was, but I think that was the first time he understood how desperately frightened of it I really was. “Are you sure this is the right thing?” he asked. “You don’t have to do this.” I knew it was the right thing for me to be doing, I’d already had a clear understanding of that, but knowing something is right doesn’t stop the fear. He held me close for a few minutes, put his hands on my head, and blessed me with peace of mind, and no fear.
It was a gift. I could feel that peace as I drove to class, met some wonderful new people, learned some things about what we would be studying, what will be required of us over the next 10 months, and finally came to the portion of massage school that caused my terror.
Practicing on each other.
Practicing massage on each other requires that I willingly uncover this body that is too large, and has felt too large for the past 30 years. I’m excited about practicing massage on someone else. I’m thrilled to be learning this skill and I’m not overly modest. It’s not the idea of exposing my skin so that someone else can learn the strokes, manipulations, and methods of massage that scares me to death, it’s that fact that there’s just SO MUCH of my skin to expose.
I stood there, feeling fatalistic about the whole thing. I signed up, I was damn well going to follow through, fat or not, embarrassed or not, humiliated or not. And then our campus director and teacher, Jeremy, spoke to us about practicing massage. He explained the necessity of being very professional about the whole thing, which helped a great deal, and then he said something that bounced around in my head for the rest of the night, all of yesterday, and all of today, and is why I’m writing this right now. He said, “We want you to learn to get comfortable in your own skin. There are all sorts of body types and sizes and you’ll probably have a chance to touch all of them. We want you to feel comfortable with who you are and with each other.”
“We want you to get comfortable in your own skin.”
Jeremy said those words and I had a perfectly clear memory of the very last time I felt comfortable in my own skin.
I was 11 years old, in 6th grade, in a physical education class. I was wearing my blue and white striped running shorts and a tank top with a number 10 on it. I had my white sneakers and white socks on and I could feel the breath moving in and out of my lungs, my ponytail brushing the back of my neck and shoulders, and my leg muscles burning as I ran our prescribed one-mile course. I loved the long-distance runs. I was a good sprinter, I had strong legs and I could usually win the races, but the long-distance run challenged me. It pushed me to run faster and longer than I thought I could. I remember crossing the finish line at 7 minutes and 46 seconds, the fastest I’d ever run the mile, and feeling that if I could run a little faster, and jump a little higher, I could fly.
That was the last time I felt comfortable in my skin.
Within months of that experience, as a 95 pound 12 year old, I was convinced that I was fat and unlovable just because I hit puberty and didn’t have a perfect body. So, I chose to become bulimic. It wasn’t a disease for me, it was a choice. I researched it. I studied my options. I spent time in the school library reading materials that were supposed to help girls with eating disorders to stop, trying to deduce from the information the best way to adopt an eating disorder instead of quitting one. I knew the consequences and the risks of binging and purging, but I didn’t care. It was better to die thin than to live fat. I couldn’t afford laxatives, and asking for them would be a little suspicious. Instead, I became good at making myself vomit.
No other accomplishment in my life made up for or conquered the fear of being fat and therefore ugly because of it. I started college at 14, but having a big brain didn’t matter when compared to how small my body should have been but wasn’t. Looking back I can see that I wasn’t overweight, not at all. But the fear that I might get fat was constantly in my mind and it reflected itself in my actions. There were dance and aerobics classes, long daily walks, weight training, and the nearly constant binging and purging.
Almost four years after the first time I stuck my finger down my throat to get the gagging reflex started, I found myself kneeling over a toilet bowl with dinner and copious amounts of blood in the water and a vision of my own mortality spun out in front of me.
What I hadn’t cared about when I started purging was finally happening: it was killing me. It made me face myself. I stood up and looked in the mirror for a long time. I didn’t know who I was anymore, but I realized that I didn’t want to die. I knew that life was more important to me than the size of my jeans.
I promised myself that I would never do it again, that I would take the consequences of whatever I ate, and not try to destroy myself that way. I’ve kept that promise, but though I gave up purging, I couldn’t give up binging as easily.
Pornography and Self-Perception
I look back at the 11 year old who loved to run and the 12 year old who was convinced she would never be loved and I’ve questioned what made the difference. The answer to that question is easy: pornography.
I was 11 and visiting at a friend’s house. Her parents worked in the afternoons and I often went to her home where we could just hang out and play without anyone around. I needed to use the bathroom but my friend was in the one I normally used, so she said “just use my parent’s bathroom” and I walked into their room and into the master bath.
It was one of those moments in life where everything pivots. Something small and simple happens to you and nothing is ever the same again. I just walked through a door and my life, my understanding of myself, my view of my own self-worth, and my perception of what beauty is changed.
The bathroom was filled, and I mean filled with pornographic magazines. Stacks of them against the wall, on the sides of the bathtub, on the back of the toilet, on a shelf hanging on the wall. There were probably hundreds of them there and quite a few were open to very, very graphic images.
I’d never seen pornography before. I knew what it was, but I’d never seen it, never wanted to see it, and had no idea how to deal with what I was seeing and what I was feeling. I thought that pornography was just for nasty boys and dirty old men. I didn’t think that it had any effect on girls and women.
I was wrong.
It was like touching an electric fence. It was a physical shock to my system. I didn’t understand what I was feeling by seeing those pictures, and just like sometimes happens when you grab hold of live electrical wire, I couldn’t let go or look away. With more experience and understanding I now know that what I was feeling was physical arousal, a normal and expected response to sexually explicit material. But at the time, I didn’t understand what I was feeling, and I was ashamed of it. I liked what I was feeling. It was powerful. But because I’d been taught that pornography was degrading to both women and men, and that it debased a physical relationship that was meant to be sacred and precious, and there I was feeling that current of power inside me because of it, I felt that I must be wicked. To see something that I knew was evil, and to find that I liked the way my body felt when I saw it, convinced me that there was something wrong with me. That my body must be my enemy.
That experience changed the way I perceived myself. Pornography took the locus of self-worth out of myself and put it in the hands of whoever was viewing me. I began to see myself in the way that other people would see me, the way they would if I were a model in a magazine. I began to wonder if I could ever be appealing in that way. I wondered if I would ever be desirable like that. And then I felt guilty for wondering. I felt ashamed that I would ever want someone to want me that way. It was an impossible situation and I felt like my spirit and my body were at war within me. I became convinced that the only women who were beautiful and desirable were the women who looked like they belonged on the centerfold pages. When I finally started developing breasts and hips it was wonderful and horrible at the same time. I was finally going to hit that definition of beautiful that I’d set, but I was sick in my heart, knowing that those women were being used just for their appearance, not for their heart or mind, and I was afraid of the advent of my own woman’s body. All of those thoughts were in my head, those feelings in my heart, but I didn’t know how to talk about it, I didn’t know who to talk about it to. I felt that to confess what I’d seen would take away my “good girl” status. It killed me every time a teacher or youth leader would say “We never worry about you, Vernie. You’re going to be just fine.” I wasn’t fine. I was dying inside. Wondering where my real worth was. In my heart? In my mind? In my body?
That question has plagued me all my life. It still plagues me. It is what led to my pre-class terror on Tuesday night and why I’ve found myself shaking again today as I was preparing to go to class again.
The Healing Power of Touch
After Jeremy invited us to get comfortable in our own skin, to be professional about our studies and to recognize the medical nature of what we are learning and doing, I was able to lay face down on that massage table with my shirt off. I knew I was doing the right thing, even though it was the hard thing. And then something amazing happened.
When the student I was partnering with put his hands on my back to practice his massage strokes I could feel his hands shaking and trembling. I could hear him breathe in and out nervously. Somehow, his nervousness at touching me eased my fear of being touched. He wasn’t thinking of my size making me unworthy of touch, he was worried about whether or not he would learn the skills properly. I don’t think he was disgusted by my largeness, he was probably thinking about what he had learned and how to apply it properly. Those were the things I’d been thinking when I had massaged him, why would he be any different?
I came away from my first class feeling stronger, more peaceful in my heart, and hopeful for the future. Tonight, at the end of my second class, those feelings have grown stronger. As I felt my partner’s hands learn the strokes to ease the tension in my back and shoulders I enjoyed hearing her questions and the answers from our teacher. I learned as much from being touched as I did from taking my turn working on her back. As my hands moved across her skin I kept thinking of how I wanted to ease her muscles, to reduce her worry, to make her more comfortable. The feelings of self-doubt and fear receded in the wake of the desire to serve.
I didn’t feel untouchable tonight. The more I am touched, whether for learning, friendship, or love, depending on the relationships I have, the more I feel the power of it to heal.
There should be no “untouchables” in our society. Touch is the one sense common to all people, no matter what their age, size, shape, or ability. We all feel, and without stimulation to that sense of touch, we lose a portion of ourselves and our ability to interact and integrate with the rest of the world. If it goes on long enough, we lose hope. The world needs hope more today than it ever has before.
Touch a friend today. A hug, a kiss, a pat on the back or just a touch on the hand can sometimes communicate more in a short moment than all the words in the world.
If a picture paints a thousand words then surely a touch conveys millions. Let’s tell the story of compassion and kindness with our hands.