I skate on my local roller derby team. This is my second season. Roller derby changed my life, broke my old feelings of dislike for physical activity and realigned my belief system: I now equate exercise with pleasure and have learned to enjoy the satisfaction of working through pain and overcoming exhaustion and pushing myself a little further than I’ve ever gone, a little at a time until I’ve accomplished things beyond anything I ever dreamed I could do. I have the best friends of my life. I have taken many proactive steps to empower myself, from finally getting fitted for the right size bra (34GG/H instead of buying 38DDs and wondering what was wrong with me) to quitting a job I hated and beginning to get serious about all the dreams of being a writer I had never truly had the courage to pursue. I started skating in July of ’06 and have never regretted any of it for a second.
In March of ’07, I had a waitressing job. I was on my feet a full 40 hours a week, carrying heavy trays and literally running for hours, it would get so busy. The floors were awful, hard and slippery, and several of the other bar staff had leg/foot/joint problems. On top of that, I was skating, hitting, blocking and falling between 10 and 15 hours a week; it was our first bouting season and we were all completely overzealous.
My knees began to bother me, to the point that I had serious trouble with my normal 8-hour-shift straight to 2-hour skate practice routine. I would rather have died than given up skating, or even cut down on it, so I bought knee braces and tried to “work through it”, but finally it just hampered me so much I was driven to go to the doctor. I’ve never liked doctors much, but my team was worth it.
I went and had a decent visit. The doctor looked my knees over, commented on how muscular my legs were, said it sounded like I really was exercising far too much. She recommended the basic things. Drink more water, rest when there’s pain, stretch thoroughly; get new sneakers, try some ibuprofen to keep possible swelling down, and she also recommended I get X-rays to rule out any joint deformities or bone spurs. Fine.
The problem came at the end of the visit. She glanced over my chart just to see if she’d missed anything. And her eyes stopped on my weight.
“190,” she said. She looked up at me, frowning. I had no idea what was coming, because I was in the best shape of my life at this point and even my lifelong worst critic, my mother, had laid off me for once. “How tall are you?” she asked.
“Five-seven,” I said, puzzled. It was in the chart; the somewhat cavalier nurse had actually marked me down at five eight.
“You’re dangerously obese!” she exclaimed.
“You must diet and exercise,” she said. “This is terrible. You must know you are at risk for diabetes, liver failure, and heart disease, even a stroke. You must get your weight down– you should lose thirty or forty pounds to start with. You must exercise more!”
“But,” I said bewilderedly, utterly blindsided, “I already, you just– you just told me to exercise less. And I– I have an excellent diet, we talked about that already.”
“Well,” she snapped, “cut down on your carbs, then. And exercise more.”
I went, utterly confused, and got my X-ray. I came back dutifully three weeks later for my general physical, which I had scheduled along with the followup on the X-rays because I hadn’t had a physical in three years. I’d come in, in the interim, to get blood drawn for routine physical tests.
I asked about the tests. “They’re fine,” she said dismissively. When pressed, she gave reluctant details: “Good blood sugar, excellent liver function, low cholesterol.” I also had excellent blood pressure and a nice low resting heart rate.
I asked about the X-rays. She waved them off. “They’re fine,” she said.
“But my knees hurt,” I said.
I know you’re all expecting her to claim that my knees hurt because I was fat. I was kind of expecting it, too. I probably wouldn’t be telling this story if she had, because at least a diagnosis, however poor, would’ve done something to help me, or given me some ideas to work with even if I still had to treat it on my own. But she didn’t even try to make the connection. That would have meant acknowledging that I had a body, or that anything existed besides those numbers on my chart. 190. Five feet seven.
That’s a BMI of 29.8. It’s just shy of obese. With comment-worthily-overmuscled legs. And 34GG/H breasts. Broad shoulders and a wide pelvis. An hourglass figure (not to be vain or defensive, but my waist is very defined, and waist/hip ratio is the #1 risk factor for heart disease). And I can skate hard for 3 hours at a stretch and like it. But she kept using two phrases, “dangerously obese” and “grossly obese”.
It’s all she talked about, how I needed to diet and get some exercise. She seemed disgusted that I existed, and never looked into my face, which she had done frequently early in the first visit. She seemed angry that I was even there. So I never went back. (This is probably only tangentially relevant, but she was not exactly willowy herself. Not to knock it– who am I to judge, given my dangerous obesity?– but it made the irony slightly more bitter.)
Almost a year has gone by. I’ve continued to skate. The knee pain eased after I quit my waitressing job (and took a 50% pay cut for a sit-down office job), but it’s come back this season, aggravated by a boneheaded attempt at doing a few warmup laps without kneepads (and, of course, a hard landing). Today (February ’08) I finally sucked it up and went to see another medical professional– but this one is a physical therapist who is a friend of one of the employees of our skating rink. He’s come to our practices and seen what we do. He immediately said “That sounds like patellar tendonitis.” He did not weigh me or measure me, he just looked at my knees, in great detail. He spotted that I have a problem with my posture, possibly related to the uneven overdevelopment of some of my leg muscles; I stand with my knees bending inward, slightly knock-kneed, and I most likely skate this way too. This would cause the problem, in conjunction with the wrong sort of exercise. He also suspected that the prolonged irritation had roughened the cartilage behind my kneecaps, but seeing as I am only 28 it was unlikely to be serious yet.
He made pads for me to put in my shoes and gave me theraputic exercises to do daily. He complimented me on how hard he could see the team was working, and how impressive the sport was. The only comment he made about my weight was when I told the story of the doctor who had consigned me to nearly 12 more months of this pain from a condition I could have been correcting. “Well,” he said, “higher weight never really helps joint problems, but it’s hardly the only risk factor.”
Now, I can take some of the sting from her awful words and make myself feel better [for whatever that’s worth] by saying, “By her own chart, I’m not obese, so she’s wrong,” but that’s not remotely the point. That’s just transferring fat-shame, and is almost as bad as the original offense. The real point I am making with this story is that my weight became the only issue she could see. She did not even make the bad excuse of blaming my condition on my weight; she simply ceased to care that I had a condition at all. I disgusted her, and she was simply not interested anymore in my health. Even though by her own chart I did not meet the arbitrary criteria she was going by, the fact that I was even near it was unacceptable. I can only imagine what she’d be like with someone who was actually in the obese BMI category.
Interestingly, telling this story at practice brought all sorts of unexpected size-positivist solidarity out of the woodwork. I want to do my own version of Kate Harding’s BMI project with my roller derby league, as besides the expected (and awesome) badass big girls there are a lot of extremely athletic and slender girls who have been told they’re “overweight”. And, for the record, joint and recurring-injury problems seem to be distributed fairly evenly across the size spectrum, not clustered around the higher-BMI girls. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, sure, but they’re also a lot harder to knock down in the first place.
Love the blog, am hugely inspired by reading it, and think you are doing a tremendous service here.
#17 Nickel City Knockouts, Queen City Roller Girls, Buffalo NY