They shape who we are, what we become, and they stay with us, hovering like nasty gnats, circling around our minds and our souls, like one of those cartoon air clouds. We can stick a pin in it and watch it burst like a balloon. We can put the words behind us, but, they can still linger, dormant. Out of nowhere, they can erupt in the pit of our stomachs, in a corner of our minds, in how we feel about ourselves, and in how we feel about others.
We all make mistakes, saying things we regret; sometimes as soon as the words escape our lips. We are humans, and humans err, especially the human writing these words on this cold, white page, but, we hope that we don’t make the same error again (and again, and again).
As the old adage goes, leopards don’t change their spots.
Either do serial shamers.
As a child, I was body shamed, every six months, by someone whose very oath of his profession, “do no harm”, should have halted his words. He was my pediatrician and his words have had a lasting effect on me. I will call him Dr. CJ. I have been thinking of him a great deal lately, through a campaign season that has been rocky, to say the least; one in which “body shaming” keeps showing its ugly head.
From my infancy until my medical check-up for college, Dr. C.J. was the physician who took care of me. He got me through measles and chicken pox, strep throat and polio vaccines. He made house calls and he referred me to specialists when the need arose.
He also humiliated me, every six months!
My earliest memories (and I remember well) go to back to the age of just shy of six years old and the memory doesn’t change for the next twelve years. EVERY office visit, I would be measured and weighed, then I would hide my tears, for I knew what was coming. C.J. would enter the examining room, sit down, and proceed to comment on my weight. His litany would include tirades to the tune of “five pounds in six months, ten pounds at the end of the year, twenty pounds next year. He would then proceed to write a list of all the things I should not eat. I remember the P’s, probably because I am Penny. “No pasta, peanuts, pretzels, popcorn . . . ” .
His lists were alphabetical. I still have one, in his own handwriting, on a half sheet of paper. His rambling tone was accusatory and it was belittling. He would go on to say other things, such as
“and none of the small powdery cookies your Greek grandmother makes“.
Interesting enough, my Yia Yia would send a tin of them to him every Christmas.
When my sister and I had our tonsils taken out one cold and blustery winter, a “two for one” sale if ever there was one, we were sitting with Ma in the formidable waiting area of what was then the Presbyterian Hospital. We were bundled up in coats and boots and scarfs. My throat was sore, I was drowsy, and we were waiting for my father to bring the car up to the door. Suddenly, there was C.J., looming over me, saying in what was, to me, a very loud voice,
” don’t think this means you can have all the ice cream you want!”.
As I readied myself for college, I needed a physical. I just wanted to get it over with, then go shopping for some new clothes for college. I was feeling good about myself, having been accepted at several universities, chosen the best one for me, and having slimmed down, grown long hair, and looking toward my future. Just this one appointment to keep.
“So, you’ve lost some weight, Penny. Well, don’t think that will get you boyfriends. You need to lose more.”
My life has been good, dear reader. It is as filled with wonder and joy as it is filled with requisite pain and loss that we all experience, but, these words, they have stayed with me, no matter how hard I shove them away, especially in this ugly season where shaming seems to be the norm.
Even now, I fret and get a knot in my stomach when a doctor’s appointment looms. It is sad and wrong and not at all adult, but, truth-be-told, what I fret about is what will the scale say about me, and I morph, if only for a few moments, into that belittled young girl.
I have had, by all accounts, led a good life with loving and decent family, friends, teachers, and doctors. I do not want you to feel sorry for me. What I do want is for all of us to be cognizant of words and their power, and how, the adults in the room – whether it be an office, a stage, a computer, a viewing screen – are mindful of how powerful and significant words can be, especially when those words are repeated, over and over and over again.
We do need to care about and monitor what our children eat – and what we eat as well – but we need to remember that words count as much, if not more, than calories, and we need to honor and respect each other, just the way we are.