Content Notes: fatphobia, injuries, changes in ability, active living, loss of parents, miscarriage
I used to hike to the top of mountains in the Cascades and Olympics. I taught yoga, on beaches and in parks. I built and managed incredible urban gardens. I lead herb and plant ID walks in gardens, parks, urban areas and forests. All as a fat woman. And not just a chubby woman - I’ve always been fat fat. The kind of fat that people comment on gratuitously, and always have a problem with. I’ve dealt with mobility issues and disabilities since birth as I was born with musculoskeletal deformities that left me prone to injuries. I’ve had many! Because despite being fat and disabled, I’ve always led a super active lifestyle. Nothing could stop me, or so I believed for a very long time.
Coming to terms with my own loss of ability is one of the most difficult things I’ve dealt with, as difficult as grieving the loss of my parents. It is a grief process of its own. You have to grieve a life you once had, the future you envisioned, and the person you used to be, and you have to do it over and over again each day. It can be quite disorienting, especially when it smacks you in the face every day you can’t do something you once could. Something you love. Something that brings you joy. Something you used to live for.
I used to want to be that anomaly, the fat disabled girl who could do “all the things,” due to my own internalized fatphobia and internalized ableism. The fat girl who wasn’t like other fat people and was athletic, ate organic and vegetarian and cared about my health - even though people told me every day that I didn’t, merely because I am fat. I thought I had to earn my humanity by proving that I led a healthy lifestyle as a fat and disabled person. I wanted to prove to the straight sized and able-bodied world that I too, could do whatever they could and that I didn’t need any special accommodations.
Until my health began to significantly decline after pushing myself past the brink of exhaustion as a caregiver while in intense clinical graduate studies, working 4 jobs tryna survive and support myself and my stroke survivor mom, after we both took care of my father for 14 years and watched this racist fatphobic medical system slowly kill him, with no real support system at all in the world. I was forced to come to terms with the idea that I actually even had disabilities, as disabled was never something I ever considered myself to be, even though I absolutely was. Over the course of the last 8 years of my life I’ve not only accepted myself as a disabled person, I’ve also had to accept myself as no longer just regular fat (3x), but instead superfat (5x), along with being a lot less mobile and using mobility aids, ADA accommodations, etc.
I’m having a completely new and different experience in the world. All that healthy eating and exercise didn’t keep me from being disabled or becoming fatter, so I am a living example that you cannot diet and exercise yourself into optimal health. That's literally just not how most bodies work. I also came to realize that I don't have anything to prove, and I'm not any less worthy because I have less ability and am fatter now. I began to finally understand that it’s not me or my body that is the problem, but the world that purposely excludes me, and so many other differently abled people and people who live in fat bodies. I’m now excluded from a lot of places and things. It’s infuriating and makes me sad and angry.
I still want to hike to the top of mountains. But medical fat phobia is why I cannot get relief for the issues I have. As a trained natural healthcare provider (Acupuncturist and East Asian Medical practitioner) and trained yoga teacher with a deep understanding of the human body and it’s healing potential, as well as having multiple medical and healing modalities in my toolbelt, I am blessed with the knowledge and skills to provide myself with a lot of care and pain relief. But the reality is I need surgery. I have an 11 mm spondylolisthesis in my L4 and degenerative disc disorder and osteoarthritis in the facets of L4-5. It hurts a lot all the time. Even when I’m taking care of myself and doing “all the things.” I can’t stand for more than a couple minutes without being in excruciating pain and sitting isn’t much better. But the orthopedic and pain doctors will only refer me to the weight loss surgeon, not any back or knee surgeons. They say I have to lose weight before they’ll operate on and correct my musculoskeletal issues because otherwise I’ll just ruin their work with my fatness.
And listen, I have been active my whole life, practiced and taught yoga for years, have always swam laps and worked out regularly. I mean I lived in a van following around bands and vending my art at shows, festivals and events from my late teens til I was nearly 30 years old, dancing 3-12 hours almost every night and sometimes the whole day. I walked miles, in parking lots, cities, venues, forests, parks, just everywhere! I even did a year of boot camp at a local gym several times a week the entire year of 2017 (which greatly increased my pain, btw). I was fat the whole time! But the medical world thinks I don’t deserve to be out of pain now because I’m fat. I have to lose weight first. They don’t think that maybe, a person who used to be as active as I was until I literally was not able to in these last few years, would likely lose weight naturally if they were out of the pain keeping them from being active the way they once were. And even if I still lost no weight after surgery, I deserve the option to live pain free even if I never lose a pound. But the medical field doesn't believe that I have a right to live pain free if I don't lose weight.
That’s the reality for a lot of fat people living in chronic pain. And let’s be clear, I’ve been fat my ENTIRE 46 years of life. I was born with Osgood Schlatters so my knees never properly developed, as well as completely flat feet, making me prone to injuries. Broke my ankle the first time at age 8 riding my bike then again at age 13 at Girl Scout camp. The doc set my ankle wrong in the cast at age 13 as it was his first fiberglass cast. I had to have surgery to have it rebroken. I lived in leg contraptions most of middle school/junior high. I started having pain then. But it never stopped me. I was always so active, until I couldn’t be. I also tore my ACL at ages 19 and 28, also damaging the meniscus and shattering the patella when I was 28. I broke my foot at 38. I had a miscarriage about 2 months before breaking my foot, and my mom died 2 weeks after that miscarriage. That’s when the decline really started for me, in 2015. But back in 2015 I could still lead herb walks, go on hikes, maintain a regular dynamic yoga practice, walk long distances in the city, and stand and dance all night at a 2-set show. I can’t do any of those things anymore. And it’s been a difficult thing to accept and mourn.
I've learned that the world really does not care about us disabled people. I was excluded from something recently at a retreat I attended and it hurt deeply. It didn’t have to be that way and I was shocked and disappointed it was happening, they of all people should have known better. But it happens often. And usually when I advocate for myself, that causes me to be further ostracized. I have done my best to adapt and still be able to enjoy nature and live music, the things that make me happiest in life, but it's a different experience now, and I've had to learn to accept that there are just a lot of things I will be excluded from. Acceptance does not make it hurt any less when it happens, even though I'm always prepared for it to happen.
I know I won’t be able to hike up switchback mountains or maintain my garden on my own anymore at my current level of mobility, but the world needs to do a better job making sure people like myself and people of all abilities can access the natural world, events, parks, gardens and all spaces in society. We’re only excluded because able bodied people have purposely created a world that excludes us. So, it is able bodied people's responsibility to create a world that includes us. We shouldn't always have to be the ones advocating for ourselves, it is exhausting and demoralizing. I want able bodied people to be more proactive and when you are in a natural space, garden, event, or ANYWHERE and see issues of accessibility, SAY something. Write an email, make a phone call, DO SOMETHING. Because we matter, and we deserve to live a full life and enjoy all the beauty this planet has to offer like everyone does.
Are you a fat person who has experienced medical fatphobia? Complete this survey to help Shelagh gather data on fatphobia in healthcare.
Shelagh Brown is a clinical herbalist, ethnobotanist, medical historian, writer, poet, storyteller, cultural worker and healing centered engagement practitioner who infuses traditional ecological wisdom with modern science. She filters all her work through an intersectional, abolitionist, Black, womanist, queer, disabled and fat liberation centered lens. Shelagh holds a BS in Herbal Sciences, a MS in Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine from Bastyr University and a MA in Social Justice and Community Organizing from Prescott College. Shelagh is the Community Partnerships Director at Creative Justice, an arts and healing justice program for court impacted young people, and she is the founder of Decolonizing Healthcare, Homegoing: a Grieving Space for Black and Brown people, and the Psychedelic Wellness Collective. Shelagh believes in all our innate potential to heal by reconnecting to nature through plants, creativity, and cultural and ancestral wisdom as we work to dismantle systems of harm and create a planet that is safe, healthy and just for everyone.