• Catherine Hansen MD, MPH

The fat lady made me cry

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

I sat across from a fat lady on the airplane. She was massive, flowing over the seat on both sides, discretely asking for a seatbelt extension and not able to put either arm rest down. She hadn’t paid for a second seat, intentionally working to stay on her side, almost trying to prove that she would fit.

She didn’t.

I watched as people boarded and felt quietly sorry for anyone who would be seated with her. Glad it wasn’t me.

I noted, as with most obese people, that she had other chronic conditions. Her skin was ruddy, she had eczema on both arms, she was breathing heavily as she tried to move around in her seat, her mobility was severely restricted. I was flabbergasted!

But I wasn’t astonished because of her. I was shocked at my judgement of her.

I was amazed at the rapidity with which I drew conclusions about her. She was lazy. She was insecure. She must be embarrassed. I noted she was playing a card game on her phone and, immediately, I thought, “yeah, most fat people waste time on video games on their phone, otherwise, they would be doing something to self-improve and they wouldn’t be fat”. Wow! Was that my voice inside my head?

I pride myself on being accepting and non-judgmental. I deeply care about people. I feel more connected to my patients than most physicians ever allow themselves to be. So, whose voice was that? And why was I hearing it so loud for the first time?

I reference a beautiful book by Charles Eisenstein, “The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible”. It’s long, deep and quite complex. It’s not one I would recommend to the faint at heart. It’s eye-opening and perspective-blowing and, almost, makes one feel hopeless and ashamed of the world we have created.

But, as with everything in my life, this book was placed in my hands at exactly the right time. I was ready to hear what Charles was saying and to critically evaluate which parts of his analysis I would integrate into my life. While I have been consciously aware of my thoughts, in touch with my feelings and tempered in my responses for a long time, I believe I have just taken a new step forward in my approach to people.

In his book, he reminds us about “situationism”, a social psychological term for the concept that, given the exact same set of circumstances, I would do just as the fat lady does. If I had lived the same life, had the same childhood, experienced the same responses from people around me, had the same jobs, same cars, same partners (you get it) – I, too, would be flowing over the seat on the airplane. At first, I couldn’t believe it. Not me. I’m healthy. I’m disciplined. I eat right and work out. But, as I began to consider the human side of the situation; all the numerous, multifaceted life experiences she has had that I can’t know (I didn’t even talk to her), I understood and I felt nauseous for all the years I had lost to not understanding.

It made me want to cry with self-awareness.

We are simply a product of our environment with a light sprinkling of ancestry. Understated but true. We are born with some genetic predispositions but many twin studies have proven that, given nature versus nurture, nurture wins almost every time. That’s why we all need psychological help to work through issues with our upbringing, my kids will too.

We come to this world like play-doh and the molding and forming of our “self” starts when the doctor delivers us. My under-developed genome waits to see whether the doctor lays me on my Mom’s belly or takes me to the nursery. Turns out that I didn’t see my Mom for several hours. She had to send my Dad to make sure there was actually a baby after she awoke from her first C-section.

Solid, emerging, scientific evidence now reports that babies who experience skin-to-skin contact immediately after delivery have different genes to pass along to their children; genes resistant to diabetes, obesity, chronic disease and autoimmune dysfunction. Babies who suckle soon after birth have higher IQ scores, less infections, fewer health challenges as adults. The sculpting starts from the second we are born and continues, instant by instant, to shape us into who we are today.

Starting with a big, formless lump of clay, the outline is shaped by genetics, affected by discipline, education adds structure, lifestyle habits whittle away, environment manipulates, emotions contour, relationships smooth and unique indents and distinctive impressions create a glorious, beautiful statue that expresses the sum of your parts; a monument of your life’s experiences.

While I am eager to admit that I’m critical of myself and, somehow, it’s a virtue to be so disparaging, I am learning that self-judgement is just another form of other-judgement. Being unsympathetic toward others embeds our separateness from them and entrenches, in our culture, an isolation that keeps us from connecting with the lady on the plane.

It’s impossible to be judgmental of the self without being judgmental of others and vice versa.

In fact, without knowing it, we judge others to uplift ourselves. By comparison, we must be “better” than them. We watch dramatic, reality TV or submerse ourselves in Facebook so we can feel good about our relative goodness. Thinking, “I am not like them. What is wrong with them? What is wrong with our world?”. It elevates us so we can love ourselves more.

As I awakened to and made conscious my instantaneous judgments of the fat lady, I felt somehow easier about myself. As I energetically extended love and self-compassion to her, I felt more love and compassion for myself. Sadly, we are not, yet, living in a world where I could outwardly express my love and acknowledgement of her, celebrate her for her strength or show empathy for challenges that she, as all of us, must have had to overcome. Or maybe I was just afraid.

Ah-ha! My thoughts piped up again, “I’m a slow learner. I finally get it! Love your neighbor as yourself. It all makes sense.”

It just took sitting next to a fat lady on the airplane to catalyze my clarity. Life is amazing!

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