Monthly Archives: January 2014

The fat girl you photographed for fun

I’m sitting in the lobby of Patterson Hall, the English building on the University of Memphis campus, and exactly four minutes ago a random woman took my picture as she waited in line at the Edgar Allen Joe’s coffee shop (located in the middle of the lobby) WITHOUT ASKING. It’s awkward, uncomfortable and creepy. I wish I could say it was the first time, but it’s not. It happens to me quite frequently actually.

In the age of technology, arguably the fastest way for someone to get likes on a Facebook post is to post an unflattering photo of someone the poster has deemed to be of less value and make fun of that person. It works. I see it all the time, and I have seen the practice explode since I first joined Facebook six years ago. I just never realized then that I would wind up being the person of less value over and over again.

I’m fat, and the internet knows it several times over, I’m sure.

People (like the woman who took my photo) are obsessed with weight and fatness. Shows like TLC’s “My 600 Pound Life” have created a stereotype of a fat person that includes not being able to walk or bathe and eating enough food in a day to feed four normal people for three days. And while that’s true for some fat people, it isn’t the reality for most of us.

The W8H8 (weight hate– get it?) goes so deep that I honestly think my friends and even strangers are much more obsessed with my weight than I am. I don’t like being fat, but I don’t spend every second of my day thinking about it…. until I have to deal with people who do.

People are often surprised that I enjoy photos, and when I ask why, their silence implies that they thought my weight should be making me run from the camera. My own “friends” have failed to invite me to parties and nights out because they assumed I wouldn’t want to be seen in my “current state.” I enjoy going out, and if I stay in, it’s because I’m tired or need time to myself, NOT because I’m embarrassed to be seen. (WTH?)

I can’t tell you how many of my friends have brought up their need to diet or exercise and then apologized to me for being insensitive or proceeded to mention how their needs really didn’t compare to mine, expecting me to be upset that they wanted to get in shape or fit into an old pair of jeans, BECAUSE I’M SO MUCH FATTER.

My weight has nothing to do with him wanting to look good to pick up chicks now that he is divorced, with her wanting to be in shape so that she can keep up with the kids she hopes to have a little further down the road, with his desire to build muscle and join the military or with her wanting to fit back into the clothes she wore five years ago.

Why would it bother me that someone else wants to get healthier? I like eating healthily too. But they don’t see that possibility. And they don’t see me.

To them, I’m not a person. I’m a fat person, because all they can see is my weight. That’s it. Just the fatness. They don’t see Paula at all; they see Fatty Fat-Fat McFatterson.

I don’t advocate for BEING obese, because well– why in the hell would anyone do that? It’s not a great aspiration. But I do advocate for kindness, which I think should be shown to everyone, even fatties like myself.

This sounds like a character lesson for kindergarteners, but there’s obviously a need for it. Sure, I’m fat and unattractive. SO WHAT? There are great things about me too, and the best one is that I see PEOPLE, not just their attributes. I just wish those people would extend the same courtesy.

Sigh.

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Coat Drive Reflections

As some of you know, I was pretty busy this week. I’m an operations board member for Common Ground, and for the past three days, we partnered with Action News 5, Memphis’ local NBC affiliate station, to host a coat drive.

It all started when it got cold outside. And when I say cold, I mean IT WAS SEVEN DEGREES. Shelby County Schools cancelled classes on Tuesday because of the dangerously low temps, and when people who are blessed enough to have never gone without a coat took to facebook to question the decision, my friend wrote a blog post explaining it to them. The fact of the matter is that too many kids in Memphis don’t have the proper winter apparel (aka a nice, warm coat) to safely walk to school or wait at a bus stop in the extreme cold.

You can read that friend’s account of the story here, but basically, it led to discussions between several people who ended up making the decision to take on the coat drive project. We were excited to work with the crew from AN5, and thanks to their hard work and a big push on social media from our extended networks and their networks and even theirs, we pulled it off quickly and successfully.

If you saw my facebook posts, you’ve probably seen this video of my interview, and you know that we collected over 480 coats, over 200 accessory items (hats, scarves, gloves, etc.) and over $4,000. That’s pretty amazing when you consider that it came together in a couple of hours, and we collected donations for the next three days.

All of this is old news. What I want to tell you about is the part that really can’t be shown on camera that well.

This week, I saw so much love. I saw people carrying bags stuffed with things they cleaned out of their own closets they wanted to donate because they wanted the items to be of use to people who needed them. I saw people driving from all over to bring coats to kids. I saw retired teachers and military officers and nurses and meteorologists and parents (and probably at least one of everything else) taking the time to make a trip out in the rain to go shopping to buy winter apparel for children they don’t know. I saw donations roll in first from the Memphis area, then from the region and soon from all over the country. I saw a note left by an online donor from Florida that said she had saved money not having to buy a coat this year (because it’s never seven degrees there), and she wanted to donate the amount so that a kid could receive a coat, but she donated enough money to buy four. 

This coat drive was the most incredible thing. Our donor pool and our lovely volunteer pool (thank y’all, by the way!) were both so diverse that it amazed me. The response from the community blew my mind. Seeing people give so freely and cheerfully is an indescribable experience.

I saw God’s love and favor firsthand this week. He helped us plan. He helped us get the word out and collect and push through. It was his plan all along that the blog post be written and that it light a fire. But this experience might have been a gift just for me.

I’m so thankful that I was able to be a part of it all. My friend thanked everyone but herself in the blog post I linked to previously, and I want to take an opportunity to do just that.

Wendi Thomas – thank you for stating the truth, for writing that blog post, for being brave and standing up for these kids, for taking on this project for the organization, for volunteering and helping me find other potential volunteers and for being the backbone that held the entire project together. I appreciate your hard work, sacrifice and can-do attitude.

We didn’t change the world this week, but we certainly made a difference in these kids’ worlds. What more could I ever ask for?

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U. Memphis’ carelessness in awarding financial aid hurts students

When people picture college students, most of them think of free-spirited young people with a lot more ambition than money. In fact, college might be the only period of the typical American life in which being poor is the norm. Tuition costs are HIGH. Textbook costs are HIGH. Add in living expenses like rent or dorm fees, food, hygiene items, other school supplies, automobile expenses – the only thing that isn’t high for college students is the amount on our paychecks.

Anyone who has ever been to college knows how the story goes. And that’s why the University of Memphis Financial Aid Office’s inability to inform students about the amount of aid they’re receiving this semester is so detrimental. (Ridiculous and pathetic also come to mind.)

I wrote about the difficulties college students from less glamorous financial backgrounds face here right before I began my first semester at the U of M. But that was before life had its way with me.

The following story is my own.

When I first started college in 2010, I was involved in a car accident on the way home to visit my grandparents for the weekend. I had to withdraw from school and go through the painful process of physical therapy for months.

Because of laws (rules? regulations?) governing federal financial aid, students must have a 67 percent completion rate (pass 67 percent of all classes taken) to continue receiving financial aid. When I withdrew, my completion rate hit zero percent.

The accident wasn’t my fault, but I’ve been cleaning up the pieces for 3.5 years. Every semester, I have had to submit an appeal with the same paperwork – copies of the accident report, my doctor’s notes, my physical therapist’s notes and reports from scans done on my back. (You’d think they could store these in my file, but…) Then I wait for it to be approved so that I can receive financial aid. It’s a very stressful, time-consuming process that I honestly don’t feel like anyone deserves to go through.

Please know that I genuinely love and care about school. I’m an honors student – I’m in one honors society and two honors programs (university-wide and department-wide). So on December 19, when my grades from the fall semester became official/final, there weren’t words to express how happy I was because my completion rate was (finally) over 67 percent.

Still, I was told I had to wait to be approved for financial aid for the spring – just one last wait, and I’d be free from all of the appeals and the paperwork that have plagued my life for years.

I waited for my financial aid to post. And then I waited. I took a nap to pass some of the time, and then I continued to wait. Christmas Eve came, and the entire university shut down for 10 days. I waited. It reopened in 2014, and I continued to wait.

When January 3 arrived and I hadn’t heard anything, I called the office (again) to inquire about it. I was told I had just then been approved to receive aid for the semester (16 days after my grades became official). The representative told me it would take another three to five business days for the amount of aid to appear on my online student portal.

My stress level skyrocketed.

You see, I lost some of my financial aid after the accident (because of the withdrawal), and while I could’ve appealed that and gotten it back, the university screwed that up for me (another story for another day). I pay a portion of my tuition out of pocket now. For the fall 2013 semester, I ended up paying about $1,000 out of pocket just for tuition. Purchasing textbooks added another $300.

Tuition is due by the close of business January 15. That’s eight days away, and I have no idea how much I owe the school – $1,000 again? The whole $5,050? I don’t know because they literally will not tell me, and those three to five additional business days are up exactly five days before the money is due.

To be fair, I should mention that the university offers students a payment plan option. When we enroll in a payment plan, we must pay a $50 enrollment fee and half of the amount owed. The remaining balance is split into two or three monthly payments. The program is designed to help students plan financially, but how does a student, who is broke almost by definition, plan financially when she has no idea how much money she needs to pay?

I understand that there’s a lot going on at the end of a semester. And there are a lot of students. And it was the holiday season. And we still haven’t decided if the chicken or the egg came first. But there has to be a better way of doing things.

For all I know, I could be receiving NO financial aid and be on the hook for over $5,000 plus additional fees, textbooks and additional supplies. Even making use of the payment plan option, there’s no way I can pay $2,500 (half of the tuition amount due) and a $50 enrollment fee and purchase $200 (minimum) worth of textbooks and a bunch of supplies – totaling close to $3,000 – WITH FIVE DAYS NOTICE.

If that happens, add “spring 2014” to the list of semesters I was unable to attend school for reasons beyond my control.

I just wonder how many of “me” there are out there.

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