Fat Talk: Fit-Modeling and Clothes-Shopping while Fat

My dear friend Lisa (who you can find at satsumabug.com) sent me a note about a shop looking for plus-sized fit models. I emailed back and forth with the shop and decided to take myself up there and try on their clothes.

It could be a fun thing to do, but mostly I was incredibly nervous. Did these women know anything about plus sizes? Did they know anything about being fat and what clothes shopping can be like for fat folks? Was their idea of “plus-sized” really not “plus” at all (I see all you, shops that have the audacity to call an 18 a 3X)? How would they address my body?

So many questions. So many things to worry about.

Clothes-shopping-while-fat can be fine. It can also be a nightmare. There are over-perky sales people who talk to you as if you’re painfully dim-witted as they try to tell you all the parts of your body you should be trying to hide, all the ways you shouldn’t show yourself in public. There are the sister-girl salespeople who think you need to be told you’re smoking hot every five seconds if you have any hope of feeling good about yourself. There are the clothes, abundant in sizes 14 to 20 … and then scarce, scarcer, scarcest the farther up the numbers you go. There are the clothes in your size that are always buried behind every other thing like undesirables that must be hidden.

There are the clothes-makers and their inability to understand body differences. There is a universal belief among manufacturers of clothes for us fatties: we all have the exact same shape. Depending on the company, the belief is that we are all shaped like Marilyn Monroe writ large, or we’re all shaped like fireplugs. Fireplugs win out most often.

Meanwhile, what is true is that none of us are shaped like fireplugs. And, even for those of us with hourglass figures, it’s not as simple as just sizing up from a thin hourglass. Also, we fat folk (hint: like all folk) come in more than two basic shapes. It is possible to be both tall and fat. It is possible to be fat and have a flat butt. It is possible to be fat and not need armholes that open to our waists. It is possible to be fat and have small breasts. It is, let me just say as plainly as I can, possible to be fat in MANY different ways. MANY. MANY.

And yet the clothes are made in basically two ways. I have no idea if non-fat people have this problem. It’s likely they do. It’s also likely, however, that it’s less pronounced because there are so many more places where non-fat people can find clothes in their size, so they have a better chance of finding things that will work for their bodies.

And then, of course, there are the prices. There is the obscenity of having to pay more – a lot more in some cases – for the same items non-fat people buy. Having to pay more for what are often poorly made clothes, for clothes that don’t fit us properly because they’re made for some version of a fat body that isn’t ours.

It’s a lot. Trust me that this is only the briefest description of what clothes shopping can be when your body doesn’t conform to society’s beauty standards.

_____

So I set off on my adventure and rode uptown. I walked into the shop and smiled at the beautiful young woman who smiled at and greeted me. And then at the young woman who came out from the back when she heard me say my name. They were both warm, and neither did a spit take at the sight of me, so I figured that might bode well for what the experience would be like. I took off my coat.

Young Woman #1 (YW1) was working with a customer, so she turned back to her. YW2 and I chatted for a moment: what size did I wear, where did I usually shop, do I have any favorite brands … And then she brought out the samples. One was green, the other red. To my great pleasure, she had me try on the red. Both were beautiful colors and patterns, but the red was just a little more stunning and fab, a little more yes-yes-a-thousand-times-yes than the green.

I slipped my arms in. I buttoned up. I turned to look in the full-wall mirror … and I loved it.

Oh, sure, there were little problems here and there. YW2 and I went through them in detail so she could understand how the pattern should be changed. We went through the flaws, but, even as I nit picked about one thing or another, all I could think was how much I loved the dress, how I could already see myself wearing it, how much I didn’t want to take it off and give it back.

We went over more details about the dress, and I kept loving everything about it. Finally we were done, and I slipped it off and handed it back to YW2.

This was definitely not a typical CSWF (clothes-shopping-while-fat) experience. I had talked easily and comfortably about my sizes and what parts of me are hardest to fit. I had let YW2 put her hands on me without tensing up or pulling away. YW2 had talked to me about the look and fit of the dress in a way that didn’t condescend or artificially inflate. No one – YW1, YW2, the other customer – behaved as if my looking good in the dress was shocking or anything other than entirely normal and expected.

That experience definitely ties for first place with the one other truly lovely CSWF experience I’ve had. Yes, that’s right: I am a middle-aged woman who’s been fat since early high school … and I’ve had exactly one great clothes-shopping experience before this fit-modelling moment. That is a true statement. That is how bad it can be out here in these sartorial streets for us fatties.

To be clear. This experience wasn’t great simply because I liked the dress and looked good in it, though that certainly helped. No. I find clothes I like and clothes that mostly fit me quite often. I’ve even had plenty of entirely wonderful clothing finds. (Do not get me started on the day I tried on my first Christian Siriano dress. Do NOT.) This experience was special because of how I was allowed to experience it, because of how I was treated, because of how I was seen and valued, because of how I was treated respectfully and not like someone’s dirty secret.

The experience was special because it was a reminder of how simple CSWF can be, of how easy it is to just treat people like people and provide quality service.

I’ve gotten good at CSWF. I can deflect unwanted sales help quickly and deftly. I am easily able to ask for whatever I need to make my shopping experience work well for me. I also do a fair amount of shopping online … for the convenience of having things I want show up at my door, and to spare myself CSWF foolishness.

While it’s true that designers of large-sized clothes need fat fit models so they can make their designs with actual women’s bodies in mind, they aren’t the only ones who would benefit from this service.

I want store staff to go through a training with a fat fit model, want them to have to work with that mock customer until they can get through a full sales process without fat-shaming, without saying one offensive or irksomely insincere, perky thing.

I would take on that fit-model job. Not because my skin is thick enough to handle the fat-phobic nonsense – although I think it is – but because I would enjoy getting to school people on all the ways they aren’t getting their pitch right.

“Let me stop you right there, Marny,” I can imagine myself saying. “You shouldn’t assume there is any part of my body that I want to hide. I’m fat, and however “slimming” or “camouflaging” you want to think this outfit is, everyone will see that I am fat. You need to talk to me about how well it fits, how comfortable and intelligently made it is, how good I look in it.”

“Hold up, Tiffany, it’s not at all helpful for you to bring me clothes that are a size too large. Wearing things that hand awkwardly off my body because they’re too big isn’t flattering, it’s annoying. You have clothes in sizes that fit me. Your job is to help me find them, not to try covering me in a tent.”

Of course, I am only one size and style of fat woman. I don’t want designers and stores to exchange one fat body idea for another. I want the idea of what is a fat body to diversify, to encompass as many types of bodies as we have. Yes, this sales training would need a whole team of willing fatties to really get the job done.

AS much as I love the idea, I’m pretty sure this program wouldn’t work, however, no matter how many fat shoppers were up for the challenge, no matter how many sales staff were trained. It would be about as successful as the single-day racial bias training Starbucks is gearing up for will be. Well-meaning, but one day of real talk can’t undo a lifetime of programming. Not about race and not about fatphobia.

_____

The almost-end of this story is that I took off the dress, YW1 and YW2 thanked me for helping them, and I left.

The real almost-end of this story is that I couldn’t stop thinking about the dress and emailed to suggest that I should be given said fabulous item, that it would be good for the store because I would get a lot of compliments and would talk up the shop every time that happened. It was a pretty brazen email. I don’t know who I was in that moment!

But it worked! I got a reply right away saying the dress was mine! As a friend said when I told her about it, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Can’t deny the truth there.

So, the actual-end to this story came yesterday, when I wore this lovely dress out in the world. The weather didn’t much cooperate before now, and then I had a big work event on my schedule, so I saved the debut for that. And here I am at the end of the day (photo cropped so you don’t see the stacks of still-unpacked boxes that are the primary décor in my apartment!), a totally happy camper:

Zuri dress

It’s as if I’m wearing a coral reef! And yes, it has pockets! The dress is from Zuri. I don’t think the plus sizes are out yet, but the smaller sizes are there for the having. Plus sizes — up to 3X — should be available late spring/early summer.



One in a series of essays inspired by Roxane Gay’s, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. You can find all of the essays in this series under the Fat Talk tab. Thank you.

GriotGrind Next Wave logo

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

original-slicer-girlgriot

Advertisements

Building Sanctuary

I have been following the progress of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice since the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) first announced plans to create it. America’s history with lynching is deep and ugly, rooted firmly and hidden from view, glossed over. We, as a country, turn our backs on this history … even as we nod and wink at the carnival spectacle of it.

I don’t know my family’s full history, have no idea if any one of my ancestors was lynched, but lynching is a power evil in my consciousness all the same. I learned about lynching when I was a child, was already aware of it by the time I made the mistake – at nine years old – of reading Uncle Tom’s Children. That collection of stories is a classic but  definitely not meant for fourth grade reading.

(Nine, of course, is years older than other children have had to learn about lynching. And they have learned through the experience of of dying because of it, of losing a family member to it, of being uprooted from their homes to flee it. I fully recognize the privilege in my own experience, in the fact that I didn’t grow up in a place where I needed, realistically, to worry about lynching. That didn’t eliminate the fear, but the fear never needed to be active, never needed to be daily. I am grateful for all of that.)

As a country, we act as though lynching wasn’t pervasive, wasn’t a tool used to punish, terrorize, and control communities of color. At the same time, we pretend not to see or understand the impact lynching had on communities and the ways that impact is still seen and felt today. And we pretend that we can’t see the way people use calling the police to “handle” Black people today as a proxy for rounding up a lynch mob.

In 2000, when James Allen’s photo exhibit, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America was touring, people expressed shock and horror at the images on display. That seemed, at best, pathetically disingenuous. Who did these people think they were kidding, acting as though they didn’t know about lynching, acting as though they hadn’t thought it was “that bad.” It continues to surprise me how surprised white people are when confronted with the facts of whiteness in this country.

The title of that exhibit and the book that followed referenced the painful truth that, even in death, lynching victims were mistreated – bodies mutilated or dressed, made up, and posed for photos. No sanctuary.

I thought about Allen’s work when I learned about EJI’s plans for the memorial. And part of what I thought – especially after I saw the artist’s rendering of the design last summer — was that finally there would be sanctuary. Finally, these murdered innocents would be held with dignity, with grace. Finally, they would be respected.

The design of the memorial is stunning and majestic. The concept of the double set of county markers is so bold and inspiring. I think about those duplicate markers, the ones that are meant to be taken away from the memorial and placed in the counties they document. The idea of having this way of bringing the monument home to the sites of the killings is so moving. But it will also be very telling. I will be surprised if more than a few of the more than 800 markers are claimed by their respective counties. Those few blank spaces at the memorial will tell a story, but the hundreds and hundreds of remaining markers will tell an even more significant one.

Of course, I want to be wrong. I want to be entirely wrong. I want each and every one of those localities to shock the mess out of me and collect their markers and put them on prominent display in the county seat. I want that more than I can say. It won’t actually mean we’ve turned a corner on race. There will still be decades and decades of work to do. But it will be meaningful all the same. I want that. But I’m not naïve enough to allow myself to expect it.

I was never able to see Allen’s photo exhibit. I waited in the block-long lines in the cold to get into the gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Waited three different times. I wasn’t deterred by the cold but by the knowledge that I couldn’t bear the photos. I knew myself well enough to know that, but still tried to force myself into the gallery. Three times. It was an exhibit that needed to be witnessed – by every white and non-Black/non-native person of color, but also by me.

Every time was the same: I’d get within half a dozen people of the gallery entrance – only twelve people were able to be in the gallery at a time – and I’d pull myself out of the line and head back to work.

Several years later, I bought the book. I came on it by chance in a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble. There was just one copy. I didn’t want it. I knew I’d never be able to look at it. But I couldn’t leave it on the shelf, either. Couldn’t leave it to be picked over, to be ignored. It felt wrong to pay for it, wrong to have money change hands over it the way professional photos of lynchings were sold as souvenirs. But I bought it. To this day, I have barely handled it, have only turned a few of it’s pages.

This history is so painful inside of me.

The closer today’s date came, the more news articles appeared about the memorial. I avoided most of them, read part way through a few, chose other articles for erasure poem source text as I worked through my National Poetry Month writing challenge.

But here we are, today, and I have to say something, write something.

I don’t believe I will ever be able to visit the memorial. Just as I can’t look at the pictures Allen collected, my heart and head wouldn’t do well at the Montgomery site. I’m not ruling out a visit, but it seems highly unlikely.

I won’t rule out a visit because the power in that space is undeniable. The weight and pressure in that pavilion horrifies me and calls me, too. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to under that display.

For now, I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, for the Equal Justice Initiative, for the design, realization, and opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is something every white person needs to see, every non-Black/non-native person of color needs to see, and however many Black folks choose to see. And, maybe one day, something for me to see.

The source text for today’s erasure poem is a Times editorial about the memorial.

Building Sanctuary
(An erasure of a Times editorial about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.)

Before you know it,
Hundreds surrounding you,
watching.
Lynchings carried out with impunity.
more than 4,400 killings,
racial terror
lasting more than seven decades.
An accounting
of those lost to history.
Devastating,
unreadable and unreachable.
A growing pressure
to include the role of racism
in American history.
Anyone in this country
has inherited a narrative
of racial difference,
a slow accumulation of evidence
leading to an inevitable conclusion:
America’s “reign of silence”
around slavery, lynching,
racial subjugation.

Deliberativeness,
attention to detail —
only lynchings that could be verified
by two contemporaneous accounts.
Such a damning exhibit,
a kind of liberation,
a kind of redemption.

To face up
to America’s brutal, racist past
with open eyes,
to understand how it lives on today.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Comrades in Arms

I once had an only date with a small, anxious man. He was nervous and … ferret-y: fidgety like the way ferrets move. He was a few years older than me, an inch or two taller, very slender, white. We went to dinner at a Burmese place in the East Village. Then we walked around for a bit then said our goodbyes at the subway.

I knew in the first five minutes that we weren’t a match, that we wouldn’t see each other again. I imagine that he knew it, too.

At one point after dinner, as we walked up First Avenue, several young men ran past us. There were maybe six or seven of them, and they ran on either side of us. They were fast but seemed aimless, as if they were running just to be running.

I found them beautiful to watch, like gazelles, so effortless and full of energy. But they spooked my date. And it’s understandable that someone would be alarmed by having a group of people run up on them at night. Sure. It’s more surprising that I wasn’t alarmed. But my date stayed freaked out long after the young men had flown past us. His state of alert was so high, it began to make me nervous.

Finally, he stopped walking and, when I turned to look at him, said: “If there’s any trouble, I can’t protect you or fight for you. I’ll just run.”

I remember being surprised, amused, and pitying. There’s so much wrapped up in a pronouncement like that. Over time I’ve come to realize how wrong and unfair my reaction to him was. At the time, all I could think was – welp, if there had been even the thinnest chance of a second date, or even a curiosity kiss to end this date, it just shriveled up and died on the vine.

I certainly don’t ever expect my dates to step up with sword and shield or dive in front of blows or bullets if something awful goes down when we’re together. And mostly that is because I don’t think about things going that kind of sour. That isn’t a way my life has ever played out. But even with men I’ve been in relationships with, I have never assumed that they would physically protect me. I mean, if something happened I’d be right there, so I’d expect that I’d defend myself. I’d expect us to fight together against whatever.

That said, for you to tell me you’d run away, that you’d flee to save yourself and abandon me? Um, no. Just no.

Of course, my response to his honesty was based on stereotypes about what it means to “be a man,” to behave in a “manly” way. The shriveling up and dying of any hint of desire I might have felt for this man was caused entirely by the fact that I was trained to expect the man by my side to play the role of knight in shining armor.

I barely knew the man I was on that date with. He could have had any number of past traumatic experiences that made the idea of a street fight so petrifying that he couldn’t keep walking without letting me know that he wouldn’t be putting himself in such a situation.

I told this story to my sister not long ago, and she burst out laughing. I mean, yes. That’s my response, too. Even now, I’m sad to admit. Because our conditioning means that it’s a funny story. Even today. Even with everything we know. Because who says that? But still. Our laughter also tells me how much work I still have to do, how far I haven’t come.

How stunting is it that we don’t allow men to feel things it is entirely natural and human to feel? What do we do to men – and to the women and children around them – when we don’t allow them to be vulnerable, to be afraid, to not want to be fighters? I think we see the answer to that question over and over again – Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, James Holmes. Sadly, that list is so very much longer.

I want, also, to be clear that I am not a fighter. I am not anything at all like a fighter. If someone had attacked my date and me on the street that night, I would surely have faced the attack with bewilderment. I would have said, “Hey!” because I’d have been surprised that something awful was happening to me, and “hey” is my go-to exclamation. And then I’d have said, “Hey!” again, I guess, as I saw my date take off. That date was years before the accident that messed up my knees, so it’s possible that I would have run, too. But it’s more likely that my surprise and shock would have stalled me long enough that my attacker would have gotten whatever they’d come for – my purse, my life, whatever.

I am not anything at all like a fighter. And I’m lucky because I’ve never had to be one – or, only just a couple of times – and, too, society doesn’t expect me to be one. Even with my height and size, I can “play the girl” and not have to know how to throw or block a punch.

I could learn how to fight, could learn how to defend myself. And society makes room for that. As a woman, I have the room for that. Men don’t get the same degree of space.

What do we think we’re gaining as a society by depriving men of the right to their feelings, of the ability to be comfortable with their fears? When will we see that whatever we gain is significantly outweighed by everything we lose?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

______ while Black, Pt. 2

In a video he posted this morning, Kevin Fredericks (Kev on Stage) talked about the Starbucks “incident.”* He does a great job saying so many of the things I’ve been thinking. But his description of the calculus he has to do as a Black man isn’t only the way Black men have to be in the world. This is a necessary thought process for Black people — how do I make sure these random white folks around me don’t think I’m a threat? I have this conversation with myself all the time.

In 2015, the first year I did the 24 Hour Project, part of my worry about being out all night was that someone would see me walking around and think I was trouble. To fight against that, to make myself look more harmless, I actually dressed up — wore. a. dress. and tried to look more “girlie” — in the hope that looking cute would keep me from being perceived as a criminal. I made myself look more like a possible target for an actual criminal in an effort to protect myself from racial profiling.

People told me I was silly to do that, that I was spoiling my own good time. They don’t see the looks I see on people’s faces when they see me approaching, don’t see the way white women pull into themselves when I step into the elevator with them, don’t see the way store clerks watch me when I’m trying to shop, don’t see all the ways I am told over and over that I don’t belong in a space, that I look like danger, that I am feared for simply existing in my skin.

Do Black men have this worse that women? Yes, I believe that. I believe it because I see the constant encouragement provided in the news, the encouragement to see Black men and boys as beasts, as super-powered monsters driven by bloodlust. I believe it because I have seen that some of the people who respond to me with fear and suspicion adjust their racism once they see me and realize that I’m a woman — my height and size often confuse people, keep them from seeing the obvious ways in which I don’t present as a man.

Yes, Black men and boys have to find ways to navigate these situations just so, and have to do it on a many-times-a-day basis. But Black women — including those who are perceived as women from the first moment — are targeted and killed for being Black in numbers as horrifying as the numbers for our brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, etc.

Kevin talks about the things he does to help white people see that he is “safe” — meaning, not a danger to them. This is a inner monologue all people of color have to have in relationship to white people … and, sadly, one that Black folks need to have in relationship to anyone who isn’t Black.  Because our racist society has conditioned non-Black POC to align themselves with racism, to look at me and see someone who plans to shoplift or be loud and angry or make trouble for them in some way.

As I wrote last night and have written many times, I am tired. Not just tired of these incidents, of seeing police menacing Black folks who aren’t doing anything other than trying to live their lives. I’m tired of the ease with which white folks call the police when they know full well what calling the police can mean. The Starbucks statement said the store manager never wanted those men to be arrested. I call absolute bullshit. You don’t call the police in that situation because you are looking to de-escalate something, because you want to make sure everything stays calm and quiet. You call the police because you are afraid of Black people and you want the cops to come and take care of them for you. If that means an arrest, you’re fine with that. If that means a beating, you’re fine with that, too. If that means one or both of those Black men gets shot, gets killed, well, so be it.

I am so. damn. tired. Why can’t we just live? Why is it so hard to just let us live?

There is so much work to do in this country, so far we still have to go. But this right here — this comfort white folks feel unleashing law enforcement on Black and brown folks — this has to stop now. Today.

__________

* I put that in quotes because Starbucks released it’s lame apology, the horror show in their Rittenhouse Square store was referred to as an “incident.” I want to be crystal clear: there was no incident until Starbucks staff created one. Nothing at all was happening in that coffee shop. A racist employee made the decision to turn a nothing day into one that had the potential for violence and death.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Human Touch

In physical therapy, as I’ve written about a few times in the past, you have people handling your body, rubbing, patting, stroking your body. It’s a constantly strange truth.

I imagine that, for some people, it isn’t strange at all. For people who have been allowed to grow up without any unwanted, uninvited touch, without any body shaming, without any violence, the intense, intimate touching of PT must just feel … harmless? Helpful? It must feel like what it is: therapy to help you recover from an injury. I have no idea what that could feel like, to be able to let someone touch you so freely, so thoroughly, without flinching away or drawing into yourself. I still fight against my therapists’ hands, still fight my startle response and my inclination to jerk back, harden myself against that touch.

*

In Jamaica, in the town where I like to stay, there is an American massage therapist. I had my first massage with him in the summer of 2005. It was much more intimate than what happens in PT. I was covered with a sheet, but under that … nothing but panties. Before I got undressed that first time, we had about three minutes of conversation about what kind of body work he would be doing, about any particular aches or irregularities I might be feeling, about any health concerns he should know about. Then he left me alone to disrobe and secret myself under the sheet. And then we got started.

And it was entirely fine. Somehow, it was entirely fine. It’s a truth that makes no sense. I didn’t fight him, didn’t flinch away, didn’t stiffen my body in protective protest.

Why not? Why on earth was that possible? And possible each of the additional five times I’ve had a massage with him? How? What does my mind see as the difference between massage touch and PT touch?

And how is massage touch received by people who don’t struggle with PT touch? Does it really just dissolve them into a goopy mass of pleasure sensation? What must that be like?

*

One morning in PT, Jeremy took hold of my arm. I’d been telling him about the pain I’m having in my bicep and along the back upper ridge of my shoulder. I’d been doing some stretches before heading over to his table. I was feeling pretty good, relaxed, happy to see improvement in some of the tougher exercises, pleased to have graduated to muscle-building work.

Jeremy took hold of my arm and tried to stretch it out. My resistance was instant and intense. “It’s me,” he said, patting my bicep gently. “Me, your old friend. Relax. Relax.”

I’m all one step forward, a dozen and a half back. So tense, I could feel my bicep flexing against him. And for the rest of the session, I felt my body resisting him, refusing to go limp again and again and again.

Jeremy – aside from the fact that he’s a little too big and loud, a little too — as I’ve said — BMOC jock dude-bro – could easily be a massage therapist. When he has massaged my shoulder, it’s felt as good as my Jamaican massages. And yet I stay wound tight. And the same is true with all of my therapists – Yu-Lan still exclaims in wonder on those rare occasions when she feels my arm go limp.

I want to say that it’s my body steeling itself against pain. Moving in the ways the therapists try to move me usually means pain. PT these days usually means pain. Isn’t it only natural that I’d flinch away from that? But I know better. I don’t love pain, but fear of it isn’t chief among the reasons for my response to PT touch.

So what do I do with any of this? It’s interesting to realize that I perceive different types of intimate touch so very differently. And it’s interesting to realize that, because no everyone has a history like my history, there are people in the world who don’t have a problem with intimate touch at all. And … what? What’s next? Where do I go with this?

Yes, obviously, to a therapist’s office, but I want something more, something this minute. Yes, a magic bullet that will allow me to relax in PT … but also just a clear conclusion to this mental meandering.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe just recognizing this different perception is enough for now. Maybe I need to sit with it a while before I can start to process it. Maybe.

I am coming to the end of what I hope is just my first set of PT visits for my shoulder. My arm is starting to feel better. I have some of my range of motion back. I am no longer sleeping sitting up. I have moved from the tiny one-pound weight to the less-tiny two-pounder. Progress! But I’m not ready to be finished yet. My arm has a long way to go, and so does my thought process. The things I’ve learned about myself in PT have begun to get deeper. Not sure this is the argument to use with my insurance to get a second round of PT approved!

I’m glad to feel my body getting stronger, working back toward health. I have a very long way to go, but it feels good. For the first time in years, I am out and about without a cane, and I’ no longer wearing my arm in a sling. I’d forgotten how it felt to be so free. It’s scary but also excellent. Just like all the things Yu-Lan and Jeremy are teaching me about my response to touch and my ability to trust. A VERY long way to go. Glad to be on the way.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

See me, feel me, touch me heal me.

I had surgery a few weeks ago to fix a torn rotator cuff and shave down my apparently-wonky-shaped acromium bone. As a result, I’m back in physical therapy, and the Tommy line of my title is a perfect descriptor of that experience.

Yu-Lan worked hard on my shoulder, arm, and neck this morning — pulling, stretching, rolling — and then I did some work on my own to coax a little more range of motion into my very resistent shoulder.

Being forced to slow down, to make these small moves, these tiniest of incremental shifts … it’s frustrating, sobering, humbling.

The intimacy of physical therapy fascinates me. Physical therapists touch you in ways only a lover should. And you let them because it’s good for you, because they are reminding your body how it’s supposed to be able to move on its own … and because sometimes it just feels really good. (Yes, sometimes it hurts like %/*&@!, but there are those other times.)

Part of the intimacy of physical therapy is in the fact that you cannot hide from your therapist. They can tell when you’ve stopped doing your home exercises. They can see how you’re feeling just by watching you walk into the gym — how you’re favoring your arm, are you limping more or less than the last time you came, is your back in spasm. They see you in a way most people don’t have the first clue how to look at you, literally past your outer trappings and straight under your skin.

And then there’s the laying on of hands aspect. Another person using their hands and body to manipulate your body, to help your body relearn comfort, ease, capability.

The last time I wrote about PT, I wrote about discovering how hard it is for me to fully relax in my therapists’ hands. And there’s still a fair amount of that, but today I was able to focus more on how it feels to be so thoroughly handled by another person. And, as much as that’s a little alarming, there’s also something soothing about it. There were several moments during today’s session when I felt myself let go, felt myself stop resisting and be limp in Yu-Lan’s hands. She noticed immediately, of course, because she is entirely focused on what’s happening with my body.

Finally,” she said the first time it happened. I laughed, and she said, “Well, you know how you are. But you relaxed. Like for real.”

Yes, like for real. It’s a start, maybe the smallest of signs that this laying on of hands is healing more than my shoulder.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

The Trouble with Columbus

Still playing catch-up, posting things I’ve written over the last few weeks but couldn’t post because of my internet-less home. I’m mobile hotspotting it tonight, so I’m taking advantage and trying to catch up with my essay count for the year. This essay is one I wrote after a trip back to Crown Heights near the end of January. I went to see my old landlords and collect the last of my things from the old apartment.


I know a fair amount of white people. And I like and even love a sizable subset of those people. They are coworkers, friends, made family. They are people I would trust — have trusted — with my health, my safety. They are people I’ve turned to for emotional and financial support. When I say, “some of my best friends are white,” it makes me laugh, but it’s also true.

But white people — the monolithic grindstone that is white people — break my heart daily, enrage me daily. white people force me, daily, to wonder how it is I am able to maintain relationships with any of their number.

I spent my Saturday in Crown Heights, my old neighborhood, the community I left a few weeks ago. The particular part of Crown Heights where I lived is one of the places in the city that has gentrified at breakneck speed. In the ten years I was there, the rapid-fire turnover of residents from mostly Black to more and more and more white was shocking and distressing to watch. When my landlords told me in the fall that I’d have to move, I knew that staying in the area would be a near impossibility.

Because, of course, with white people come higher and higher rents. And in my ten years of tenancy, rents had raced to dizzying highs well beyond what I was paying for my gorgeous, large, storage-rich apartment with washer and dryer and back garden.

And when I looked at apartments in the neighborhood in my price range they were a) half the size of my place (or smaller), b) badly kept up and clearly not as livable as my place, c) devoid of closets or cooking space or both, d) cut into strange shapes to carve as many apartments out of a formerly single-family home as possible, or e) all or a combination of the above. So it’s no surprise that my new apartment is not in Crown Heights.

Walking around the neighborhood on Saturday, I passed the new Nagle’s Bagels on Nostrand and Dean, saw an even newer Tribeca Pediatrics office on Nostrand and Bergen. There’s a lot of new on and around Nostrand — cute bars, over-priced sandwich shops, gourmet markets.

There are still plenty of Black businesses in the neighborhood, still plenty of Black folks in the neighborhood, but for how long? How many of those businesses will be able to meet the rent demands of landlords who want to cash in on the neighborhood’s new, white popularity? How many of those Black residents, like me, will be pushed out when the need to move arises and the rents around them are so much higher than they’ve been paying that they can’t afford to stay?

There are a lot of reasons why neighborhoods gentrify. Crown Heights was surely an easy target because it has amazing housing stock and it’s beautiful: well-kept brownstones, ornate apartment buildings with courtyards and gardens, small pretty parks, close to major subway lines. And the bonuses: a good number of older homeowners looking to leave the city who don’t have family to come and take on a large home in Brooklyn, and a lot of lower-middle income and low-income renters who could be swapped out for folks able to pay more.

I’m not surprised that white people started moving to Crown Heights. I just question why white people have to live everywhere. Yes, a neighborhood may be nice. Does that mean it needs to be overtaken by white folks? There are plenty of nice neighborhoods that are already full of white folks. Yes, they’re more costly than the majority brown and Black communities, but that makes sense as Black and brown folks, on average, earn far less and therefore have less money than white folks.

Can we just live? Can we just have nice neighborhoods in which we can continue to live and thrive? Why do white people have to live every-damn-where? Why do brown and Black folks have to be pushed out of every place we’ve called home?

My old neighborhood is beautiful … because the Black folks who’ve lived there for decades made it beautiful, kept it beautiful, valued living in a beautiful community. No one was feeling house-proud with the hope that one day white people would move in and make the neighborhood “worth” something. The neighborhood was already worth something. It was home. And it was lovely.

Yes, I sound bitter. I am bitter. Gentrification has driven me out of nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in since moving to New York 30 years ago.

I am lucky. I know that. I am lucky because a) I make a decent salary and b) I have only myself to take care of. Yes, I have my mountain of baby-making debt, but even with that, I am able to have some options when it comes to choosing where I live. But even though I am lucky, my options were still too slim to enable me to stay in Crown Heights or any of the neighborhoods that came before Crown Heights: Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene. I am lucky, and still the white tide has once again swept me out of my home. How much worse is this situation for people with children, for people with lower salaries than mine?

I am still lucky. I was able to move into a majority-brown neighborhood. My rent is higher than what I was paying, but I will be able to make it work (please God!). I am further away from some of the comforts I’d grown accustomed to — a good grocery store, for one. But I have a beautiful apartment that already makes me happy and into which I am (slowly) unpacking and settling. I am lucky.

But for how long? Gentrification has already begun here — which is why my rent is so high. There are already plenty of white folks living here, and it’s surely only a matter of time before a Connecticut Muffin opens somewhere nearby, ringing the death knell for my tenure here.

And I just have to ask why, white people, why? Why can’t you leave some parts of the city alone, leave them for the folks you’ve already priced out of the rest of the city? Why do you have to live everywhere?

 

As I do for so many things, I blame Columbus, the first gentrifier, the man I hold responsible for planting the idea that white folks get to claim whatever land they see if they like it. Never mind that someone else is living there. Never mind that someone else has cultivated that land and made it a desirable spot. If white folks see something they covet, they simply claim it. And to hell with anyone else and their pre-existing claim.

The trouble with Columbus is that white folks have never stopped being Columbus. And the structures at the foundation of this society, the structures that continue to be strengthened every day, ensure that there will always be white folks with the means to Columbus whatever they covet, ensure that it will always be difficult if not impossible for someone like me to hold her ground. I have no ground, nothing to hold. I live wherever I live at the pleasure of white people. The moment they begin to covet what I have, I’ll have to be looking for the next place because I don’t have any ability to compete.

There was a moment in the late 90s when I was maybe in a position to buy an apartment. I didn’t know enough about money, credit, or real estate to recognize that moment, however, and it passed. Without my fertility debt, I’d be in a position to buy something now, but that’s not where I am, and this could be the last moment or one of the last. And realizing that makes me feel even more strongly the fetid, Columbusing breath of gentrification on the back of my neck. Makes Arrested Development’s lyrics play that much more loudly in the back of my head.

Got land to stand on, then you can stand up
stand up for your rights — as a woman, as a man.
Man, oh man, my choices expand
ain’t got me no money, but I got me some land.

Got some land to stand on
no more achin’ for the acres
no beggin’ for leftovers
got some space of my own.
Got some grounds to raise on
no more achin’ for the acres
no givin’ to the takers
got some land to leave on.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.