A few days back, as I walked from the Co-Op to the car on a well-masked and socially distanced grocery run, I was approached by a similarly masked, middle aged white lady the parking lot. She waved me down and I turned, fearing I’d dropped something or left something in the store.
I couldn’t read her expression , but she waved and, though her mask, mentioned that she’d seen me in the store shopping and was concerned. Plagued (no pun intended) as I am with a perennially guilty conscience, I wondered if I’d inadvertently violated some protocol and went ahead and apologized. My default. She nodded, and then said, “I was just so worried seeing you in there. You know, as an obese person, you are at a much higher risk of dying of COVID. You really should be more careful. Try harder not to leave your house. Don’t be so cavalier with your health.”
I was stunned, but managed to walk away. It wasn’t my first rodeo. I didn’t tell her to fuck off or mind her business. I didn’t tell her how creepy it is for a perfect stranger to start talking to me about my weight. I didn’t tell her that I’ve spent the last nine months dealing with a wide variety of weirdo GI issues, causing me to (unintentionally) lose more weight than I have in years. I didn’t offer to show her my medical records or exercise logs, as some marker of good health. I didn’t go low enough to say that, in the grand scheme of things, I didn’t think I was THAT noticeably fat that she would trail me into the parking lot to “try and be helpful.” I didn’t say all the things I wanted to say because what’s the point?
She has her own issues. I have mine.
I drove home. I put up my groceries. I thought about all of my petty issues that I complain about and the ones that I don’t. I thought about how quick we are, as human beings, to assume that whatever is wrong with a person must be their fault. I’ve spent some of the last year grappling with various unsettling health issues, none exactly critical, but all a little scary. I’ve come under that eye more than once. The tacit sighing, the not-really taking serious, the “I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with you, but it’s hard for me to feel sorry for you because I’m pretty sure you’ve brought it on yourself.”
On the sliding scale of things, I don’t think I look terribly unhealthy. I know how to present. I wear most of my bad habits under the skin and therefore under the metaphorical hair shirt I wear whenever I feel guilty about my bad habits (or more accurately whenever I feel guilty about actually taking pleasure from my bad habits). It’s a challenge being both a hedonist and worrier. It’s difficult to accept that some things—illness, pandemics, shitty economies, terrible politics, wars, heartbreak, uncertainty- just happen to people when you’re predisposed to believe that everything is most likely your fault.
It’s the kind of irrationality that verges on superstition. I’ll admit to the sort of butterfly effect “Maybe if I hadn’t been so quick to try and buy a house last year, whatever chain reaction I set off wouldn’t have caused COVID” justifications you’ll need to support a 3am foray from a quiet house and into the thorny, disassociative borderlands way out beyond the pale. I mean, I know that’s crazy. But we’re all living in Crazy now and I’m stressed out and my stomach’s a little upset and I vacillate between, “If this is COVID, it’s because I didn’t wash my hands correctly and I probably gave it to people in the woods today so that makes me a possible murderer” and “Obviously, I had two beers on Tuesday night with a slightly upset stomach and therefore I now have liver disease, and it’s entirely my fault because I have no self-control and I’ll probably ruin people’s lives because of it.”
Ridiculous, yeah. But maybe not to that woman in the parking lot, the one who thinks I should stay home because I’m fat and COVID kills fat people and if I persist in showing my face publicly, I’m just asking for it. I knows she’s not the only person that feels that way. And so I have the additional burden, if I get sick—if I get very sick—of being reduced to a statistic, hand-waved by people who believe in their own invincibility, people who never think it’s their fault. “Oh well, you know she was obese. I mean, if you look at it, it was her own fault. Can you imagine how thoughtless, how selfish she was living like that? I mean, what did she expect?”
The real bullshit of secretly thinking everything is your fault is secretly knowing that, in a pinch, there are plenty of people out there hungry to confirm it.
So my point–other than the fact that I clearly need a new mental health strategy and that woman in the parking lot was a total asshole—is that this virus situation has us all over the place. There’s a lot of tattling and shaming and unsolicited medical advice (and unsolicited terrible medical advice) and shouting and complaining and denial and whatever. We’re all doing it. But do me a favor, the next time you feel like telling a perfect stranger how they should be handling their life in this most unhandleable era?
Picture today is a self-portrait I did last year, on another day of unsolicited opinions.
As of this writing, 1,703, 675 people have recovered from COVID-19.