“Wait John!” I tried to catch my husband’s attention but given the vast number of people swarming the ground floor of the Louvre in Paris, my shout was instantly absorbed by the noise of the crowd. A few moments prior, John had run back to find our friends Johanna and Pepe and their two kids from whom we had unexpectedly been separated. Before dashing off to find them, John quickly directed me and our three children to join the long line to purchase tickets. I felt my stomach quickly tighten. It’s not that I minded being alone with the kids in the stressful environment, but I had no cell, had brought no money, and remembered none of the French I first learned in Cairo American College in1982.
“C’mon, let’s go kids.” I motioned to Ethan, Charlie and Savanna to follow with me as the line progressed toward the ticket window, quietly cursing myself that I hadn’t bothered purchasing our tickets online before the trip. All three blindly followed me and I felt the weight of their dependency. But like any responsible parent, I refused to reveal my stress. As the line continued to move forward, I continually stretched my neck to see if I could see John or our friends. Glancing back, I saw our oldest, Ethan, but not the other two. My heart skipped a beat until I saw them both, a few feet behind us. “Savanna! Charlie!” I stretched my (shortened) arm as long as it would reach—but the two younger children began to play together rather than staying on line.
“Excuse et moi.” It was the Louvre guard, motioning for us to come with him. “Bonjour,” I replied, very confused and hoping he spoke English. “Is there something wrong?” “Mademoiselle, you and your children do not need to stand in this line or even buy tickets.” When I offered a confused reaction, he glanced at my hands, then at Ethan and Charlie’s too. “But my husband will be right back and we are also with friends anyway.” “They can come with you, no charge. Please go to guard on the right of the public line, and you can all go in the Louvre directly.” Our conversation was unexpectedly interrupted. “Honey, we got the tickets in another area of the museum that had a shorter line.” John had finally arrived.
I have a question. If given the choice, out of say one hundred people, how many would choose a life being extremely overweight over being thin but only having one finger on each hand and toe on each foot? I suspect I know the answer for most. But, before you respond, allow me to share something.
This past week, a friend of mine posted an article on Facebook written by Shoshanna Schechter Shaffin titled,“Passing Over: Gastric Bypass, Thin Privilege and Perspective.” According to Shaffin, “I was obese—morbidly obese, but never let my weight stop me from pursuing my dreams. In fact, my weight was who I was…” But despite her good fortune as a wife, mother and teacher, she had health concerns relating to obesity and so she decided to have gastric bypass surgery. While Shaffin knew her body would change post-surgery, what struck her the most was the fact that her entire life began to change as well. Before the operation Shaffin had grown accustomed to being judged harshly by strangers. She actually thought it was normal. Not surprisingly people never tried to accommodate her 265-pound frame. For example, when she barely fit into an airplane seat, no one would step forward to offer her a roomier seat. After all, people tended to assume she brought her condition on herself so why should they feel sympathetic? (In fact, Shaffin’s condition was heavily influenced by her genes and family history.)
But only after losing the weight, and becoming a size 2, did Shaffin realize how much her life would change. For example, her teaching career immediately improved. Student reviews of her performance became significantly more favorable, with class registration numbers soaring. It was as if after 15 years of teaching she had suddenly discovered the key to success. Public speaking became easier as she discovered she no longer had to overcome that invisible barrier to the audience’s approval. “I’ve already won over the crowd before I begin to speak….the more I succeeded in my new body the more I wondered how often I had not succeeded in my old one. I had no idea how badly I had been treated and judged as an obese person.” Shaffin acknowledged how often her weight really held her back. Interestingly, she also noted her disgust coupled with tremendous guilt at the many opportunities the “thin privilege” had opened for her.
Shaffin’s piece got me thinking a lot about my own life, where there is no surgical option for improvement and people will continue to make immediate assumptions and judgments about my physical appearance.
In my case, my physical difference has meant that people that meet me generally take one look and offer assistance. I get offered free tickets and unexpected discounts, the chance to bypass lines, as well as countless, genuine and supportive smiles wherever I go. What is it about a woman with two fingers that she must be reliable, trustworthy, and interesting? Years ago, when I was new at a job, I was told that the General Counsel, after chatting with me for a few minutes, told his direct reports he had just met one of the most intriguing people of the year. Did I deserve that? Of course not. And for a long time I resented the attention I received because of my appearance. I didn’t feel I needed or deserved special treatment. To be clear, I still don’t. But when I think about it, I am treated incredibly well, simply by looking the way that I look.
So let’s be honest. If you asked a hundred people if they would rather be extremely overweight or look like me, I suspect that the vast majority would choose to have the weight issue. Yet they would likely be surprised to learn that it’s easier to be me.
When I finally caught up with our friends in the Louvre, I had to laugh and explain that my hands could’ve gotten the whole group in for free. Johanna turned to me, “Meg, does that bother you? I would’ve thought you would have been insulted!” I grinned, and quickly explained that after all these years I had finally let go of being frustrated when afforded special treatment. “Let’s face it, they are trying to be nice and I have now completely evolved. My view is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!”