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The Power to Hurt

In the long-ago summer of 1986 I was 19 years young, had just squeaked through my first year of university, and was back in what I considered to be my hometown to look for a job.

Not exactly sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go with my life, but needing an income while I figured it out, I decided that my best bet would be to follow on with my high school work experience and apply for a position in retail. I set up my somewhat sparse résumé, bought a ghastly (in retrospect) pale yellow interview suit (because even though I’d never actually dress that way for a retail position, I’d always been taught that you HAD to wear a suit for an interview), and began to pound the pavement.

Not too far along in my search I received a call from a woman at a major chain pharmacy, asking me if I would like to come in for an interview for a position as a cashier at her store. Would I?! The thought of the store’s above-minimum wage pay rates, bright and modern environment, discounts on drugstore products, and opportunities for advancement made it a no-brainer… and the fact that I’d actually spent my last year of high school working part-time at a pharmacy gave me an extra boost of confidence. I could DO this job!

I donned my suit and tucked a copy of my résumé into an envelope, then excitedly headed over to the pharmacy earlier than the scheduled time for my chance at an interview. I scaled a long staircase to the offices on the second floor, above the store, and introduced myself with a smile to the woman who had the power to decide whether I was to become her newest employee.

She was slim, impeccably dressed, with straight dark hair and a pair of reading glasses through which she looked down her nose at my résumé, then over at me. I’ve always been rather shy and lacking in self-confidence, so her “togetherness” felt a little intimidating; still, I held on to the knowledge that my previous experience and abilities made me a shoe-in for the position, and gathered my courage to proceed with the interview.

I thought at first that everything was going well. She rattled off a string of standard interview questions – “Why do you want to work for our company?” “What is your greatest strength? Greatest weakness?” “Where do you see yourself in five years?” – and I responded with what I believed to be confidence and competence, waiting for the moment when she would tell me that I was exactly the person she’d been looking for, and offer me the job.

Then the bomb dropped.

Slowly taking off her reading glasses, she looked me up and down with what I can only describe as distaste, then said coldly, “I’m concerned that you wouldn’t be able to do this job because you’re overweight.”

At that moment, every ounce of my scraped-together self-confidence dissolved in a hot flush of embarrassment and shame. I stammered something about how my weight had never held me back in any previous job, but quickly realized that despite her open-ended phrasing, her comment wasn’t actually a request for reassurance, but rather a firm dismissal. So I left the room, humiliated and close to tears, the interview over.

And no, I didn’t get the job.

In the days to come I tried to comfort myself with reminders that it was she who had lost out, not me, by missing the opportunity to hire an excellent employee… that I wouldn’t really want to work for someone that judgmental anyway… that obviously there was something far better for me out there – I just had to be patient.

But, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time, the fragile framework of identity and positive self-image that I’d begun to build as an insecure young adult had crumpled with that thoughtless blow.

Yes, according to the charts, carrying 140 pounds or so on my 5′ 4½” frame did classify me as overweight. I knew it. That bit of information dealt in the interviewer’s blunt observation wasn’t a surprise to me – I’d been fighting to get my weight under control since my early teens, in an assortment of healthy and not-so-healthy ways, with varying degrees of success. She didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

And perhaps she meant well. Perhaps she thought that by giving me a quick jolt of the harsh realities of life in a competitive world and job market, I’d realize the error of my well-padded, overeating, self-indulgent ways. Perhaps she felt she was doing me a favour.

But the fact that this stranger judged and dismissed me – my character, my abilities, everything I had to offer – based solely on an external quality, reinforced something that I had long suspected but desperately hoped wasn’t true: that in this world, all the good things I could bring to the table – loyalty, commitment, honesty, hard work, dedication – were secondary to my weight.

If you’re fat, nothing else matters.

I know that’s not actually true. I know it. And at times I can even laugh at the ridiculous notion that a person with maybe 20 pounds to lose wouldn’t have the endurance necessary to handle a job as a cashier. Yet now, more than a quarter of a century after that horrific interview, and despite hundreds of reassurances to the contrary, that woman’s snap judgment – and, more importantly, her decision to share it with me – still shores up my insecurities.

I wish I could say that I’m totally over it. While on the one hand I would without hesitation go back in time to hug that humiliated 19-year-old and reassure her of her beauty, talent, and worth, the woman I am right now still fights a mental battle daily, struggling to believe those very same things.

Please, please know that your words have power – power to heal or hurt, to build up or tear down, to encourage or disparage.

And please, please remember it.


Laurel Storey, CZT – Certified Zentangle Teacher. Writer, reader, tangler, iPhoneographer, cat herder, learner of French and Italian, crocheter, needle felter, on-and-off politics junkie, 80s music trivia freak, ongoing work in progress.