I work part time in a department store. In an effort to protect the innocent (and my job), I’ll call that store XYZ instead of its real name. In some ways, that job demands more of me than any of the high-powered, fancy-schmancy jobs I’ve had in the past 30 years. Diplomacy is a major challenge in a setting that involves helping women find clothing that both fits and flatters. You’d think that I, formerly a devotee of Lane Giant, would be expert in that area, but you’d be wrong. It’s still a learn-as-you-go process, with as many permutations as there are unique female humans on this planet.
One day, I was happily straightening the XYZ lingerie department, restoring it to neatness in the way only I can (and only I care about), when an obese, middle-aged female customer stomped up to me and demanded, “Show me your fat girl bras.”
Fat girl? I thought. FAT girl?
Those two little words pressed my own fat girl button, and a storm cloud of unhappy memories instantly appeared in my overcrowded brain. Memories of being a fat girl, out in places where my humiliation played out on an all too public stage. Children pointing at me and giggling. Elevator occupants looking at me in dismay as I tried to squeeze myself into the crowded space. Walking sideways down the aisle of a jumbo jet airplane while my body brushed against the shoulders of other passengers.
My inner fatty didn’t care that this customer was describing herself, not me, as a fat girl. She didn’t care that I used to be 100+ pounds heavier. She couldn’t seem to remember my success at losing those excess pounds. All she could focus on was the term “fat girl” and how hurtful it was, years and years past my days as a fat girl.
So I’ll blame Fat Jean for what I said to that customer. I said huffily, “We don’t use the term fat girl in this store.”
Her look of astonishment clued me to the fact that I might have sounded a bit condescending. Or even…very condescending. For a moment I wondered if I’d somehow gone over to the other side – to the land of skinny people who have no clue what obesity is like, and don’t even care to understand. Then I recovered enough to say, “If you tell me what size and features….”
I didn’t get to finish the sentence. The customer said angrily, “You don’t have any fat girl bras, do you? I don’t know what’s happened to XYZ. I used to be able to get good bras here. Not any more. Now you’ve lost a customer.” And she stomped off towards the exit.
I told myself that she had an attitude problem and I’d done my best to help her, but inside I knew that wasn’t true. Part of the reason I hadn’t helped her was that my own emotional baggage had gotten in the way, and XYZ had lost a customer because I’d let my hurt and defensive fat girl take over the conversation.
I had frustrated and angered someone for whom I actually did feel compassion…someone dealing with a weight problem that probably wasn’t a whole lot different from my own. Despite my size 4 clothing, I really did understand her frustration in searching for clothing for an obese body. I wished I could run after her and say, “I wasn’t always skinny!” but that was my baggage to carry, not hers.
That unhappy encounter reminded me of how far I’ve come, and how far I have to go. Even now, over seven years after reaching my goal weight, I’m carrying baggage that’s stuffed to overflowing with the lessons I still must learn in order to spend the rest of my life as a skinny person. It reminded me that losing excess weight is only part of the work now. Learning to live without it is another.