Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bariatric Betty Gets Touched

So last night I went swimming with my family.  I went over to do some laps and since all the lanes already had someone swimming, I waited until the guy in my lane was almost down to the other end and then started. We passed each other somewhere in the middle and he bumped into me briefly - pretty common, when you don't realize someone is sharing your lane until the last minute.  Then he reached out and grabbed my leg as I was swimming by.  WTH?  I stopped and stood up and he smiled and said "So, how do you want to do this?"  I was stunned for about 1 second while I processed the situation and then said "uh... well, we can circle swim or split the lane..." and he suggested we split it and we went back to swimming. 

What happened after that was interesting.  I felt overwhelmed.  Really emotional.  I finished swimming a few more laps and then went over to my husband and stayed with him for a while, and tried to put into words what I was feeling.  It was hard to convey. 

See, obese people are not used to being touched.  I mean our kids touch us, our spouses touch us, family members hug us.  And sometimes we get hugged by friends.  *I can see my friends reading this right now and starting to worry "Oh my gosh, did I hug her the last time I saw her?" - please don't worry, you probably did and if not it's NOT a problem, and I love you guys. 

What I mean is that casual acquaintances and strangers don't usually touch us.  Co-workers don't usually touch us.  We also don't usually put ourselves in situations where we are LIKELY to get touched.  Take the situation last night - how often do you run into an obese person swimming laps with you?  That's just about the only situation I can imagine a stranger surprising me by putting his hand on my bare leg right now. 

There are multiple reasons for this decrease in touching.  One is the obese person's choice:  Do we remove ourselves from touching situations because we want to avoid being touched?  Sometimes.  We don't usually feel comfortable drawing attention to our bodies - and touching does that.  It makes us aware of where our body stops at skin, and then the nerves let us know what parts were touched (like a muffin top) and what parts weren't (like our natural waist under the muffin top) and that can be interpreted into a sad realization that someone just touched a particularly fat part of our body. 

Another reason is that people choose NOT to touch us.  This might be because we are sweating - a common situation for the obese.  Who wants to touch someone else's sweat?  Nobody.  We would all rather touch a dry and deodorized loved one than a sweaty stinky one (not that we wouldn't do both).  But when it comes to strangers, sheen of sweat (or a "glistening" as my southern friends would say) can be quite off-putting. 

Yet another reason is that obese people are often ignored by others.  Whether it's because they are being sized up as a potential mate and being found unsuitable, or just not someone that seems "worthy" of social interaction as compared with the normal sized person next to them.  The fact is, we are very aware of every time someone looks at us and then looks away, or leaves extra space between us and them when they sit down, or worse yet - gets that momentary look of repulsion or disgust on their face after seeing us.  Nobody likes to be judged, but it happens to everyone.  It's fun when somebody's face breaks into a smile or a spontaneous "Hi!" but obese people are used to getting the same stares that kids give an amputee before being taught not to stare.  From adults.  It's better than the hurtful comments that some people make. 

Anyway, we don't get touched as much.  So, when this man grabbed me by my leg I was stunned.  It instantly brought up my memories of being grabbed by a man who tried to rape me, even though I simultaneously knew that this situation was completely different.  But it made me think about how I was touched a lot more when I was a healthy-weight teenager around the time I was attacked.  And about how afterwards I sometimes had panic attacks when somebody touched me innocently - taking my hand to look at my class ring, putting their hand on my shoulder from behind... Before the attack I assumed every touch was friendly.  After the attack, my fight-or-flight response was triggered a lot. 

As I got heavier, I was touched less.  And when I was touched, it was by people I knew well.  No panic attacks.  As I have gone to therapy and worked through issues related to my depression and obesity, I have long understood that I felt safer as an obese person - someone less likely to be attacked.  Of course, that "safer" feeling was entirely false - my body was becoming toxic, and I was killing myself slowly.  But I felt safer from "bad guys" - after all, less men would choose to rape a fat woman, right?  Last night I realized that I also removed myself from so many situations that caused panic attacks - being touched unexpectedly. 

Now that I have been losing weight I am putting myself OUT THERE more, and that means getting touched more.   I'm more active and outdoors more.  Meeting more new people.  Getting hugged by kindergartners every weekday as a school monitor.  Making new friends.  A lot of weight loss surgery patients talk about being talked to more, about being "noticed" more often.  Getting more compliments.  I just never realized it included being touched more until last night, and how big of a deal that is until last night.  I look forward to getting used to it.

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