I’d been waiting months for this night to come. Gloria Steinem, the iconic writer, feminist activist, trailblazer and change maker was speaking, and I was going to be there. I had followed her work for as long as I could remember, especially in the years I conducted early parts of my PhD research. I was in awe of her, and couldn’t have been more excited.
Waiting for Ms. Steinem to take the stage, and chatting with my girlfriend, I heard someone clearing their throat behind me.
‘Excuse me, are you a writer?’ she asked, and then continued, ‘Are you Megan Dalla-Camina?’
‘Yes I am,’ I replied. Could this night get any better, I thought to myself? As an author, connecting with readers was always a moment to be cherished.
‘I saw you speak at that writers conference. You were incredible. I just love your book,’ she continued, referring to my first book Getting Real About Having It All. She was a woman perhaps in her late fifties, slim with soft grey hair.
I was feeling so great about myself on this night, confident, happy, vibrant. This just took me to a whole new level.
And then she continued.
‘Here’s my card. I’d love to talk to you about your weight, and share the details of the Doctor who helped me lose all of mine.
’Wait, what? What did she just say to me?
It was like I’d been hit by a train. Bam. Just like that, my heart started racing, my stomach plummeted and my face turned beet red.
She wasn’t done yet though, as she continued, oblivious to my horrified reaction, ’You’re amazing, and you were so incredible speaking at that event. You could be even more amazing if you lost the weight.’
I was speechless. I took the card from her hand, mumbled something politely and turned back around in my seat. My girlfriend hadn’t heard the exchange, but she could see the look on my face. As I told her what happened, it was all I could do to keep her from lurching behind us to strangle the woman.
As her words played over in my head and I felt myself shrinking into my seat, I tried to pinpoint the emotions I felt. I was embarrassed. Mostly, I felt shamed. Like all of my fears about myself were labelled across my back for all to see. My confidence plummeted and the enthusiasm I had for the night vanished. I wanted to leave. To hide myself and my extra pounds somewhere where no one could see me.
And yet the irony didn’t escape me. Here I was waiting for the most famous feminist in the world to speak with us about women and power, self worth and our place in society. And there was a woman telling me that I could be so much more fabulous and powerful if I wasn’t heavy, if I looked differently than I did, if I fit the mold better of what a ‘successful’ female author looked like. Who does that, I thought?
I would later see a video of Oprah Winfrey being interviewed by Joan Rivers in 1985.
Joan: “How did you gain the weight? You said you gained 50 pounds. You shouldn’t let that happen to you, you’re very pretty. And you’re single. You must lose the weight!”
If you look closely at Oprah’s reaction, you can see she is shocked as she tries to fumble through a response on live TV. She would, years later, recount to Dr Oz that she felt shamed by Joan. That all she heard as Joan was speaking was a siren screaming inside her head, “She’s calling me fat, she’s calling me fat, she’s calling me FAT!”
This is exactly how I felt and I learnt a lot about myself that night and in the months to follow. We decide who we are as women: what we think, what we believe, how we look, the clothes we wear, the size we are.
We decide how we parent, how we partner, the jobs we take, the choices we make and how we show up. It’s taken me a long time to realize, even after losing the excess weight, that I will not be dictated to by anyone else what my version of womanhood looks like. That I will not be shamed for my choices, and nor should any of us be.
Our worth will not be defined by others opinions of who we should be. For how slim or heavy are. For our age, our color, our bank balance, our job title or the lines on our face. We define our own worth.