Worst Case Scenario

During the season finale of This Is Us, the real and raw and lovely show that is, in my opinion, the best thing NBC has brought to television in a long time, married couple Randall and Beth share a game they play together called "Worst Case Scenario." It's something that helps Randall deal with his severe anxiety and desire for control by speaking out loud with a safe person something they are worried about and all the bad things they are thinking with no judgement and no censorship. The idea is that it gets out of your system and makes you feel better and you can forge on. For example, Beth reveals that she's fearful the volatile foster child they are caring for will resent them and become a stripper or that she'll kill both Randall and herself in their sleep.

I'm a big fan of This is Us and have been excited about it from the announcement of the show a few years ago, in particular when it was revealed that there was a fat character as a main star. There aren't that many characters of size on television, nor many that are complex and positively portrayed, so when the creators/directors asked for input two years ago I immediately sent this this email:

Hi there, the trailer for your new show looks great, and I’m super excited to see a beautiful fat woman who appears to be a main character. Unfortunately, though, it seems she’s set to play the same tired tropes and stereotypes of hating herself, being shamed, not finding love, and dieting in hopes of “fixing” herself and everything that is wrong in her life. Since you asked for comments/suggestions to be direct messaged, I’m hoping you’re amenable to pushing the envelope and being part of the radical conversation to change the message that all fat women are sad, stupid and shallow. Please take this chance to do something different, extraordinary and brave on mainstream television. Sincerely, Amy Pence-Brown, Body Image Activist, Boise, ID
Kate and Toby's wedding, season 2 finale from earlier this week on This Is Us. Photo courtesy variety.com

Kate and Toby's wedding, season 2 finale from earlier this week on This Is Us. Photo courtesy variety.com

We're now two seasons in and much has been written in the fatosphere about the character of Kate, who is controversial due to her very real plot line and fear that we'll all continued to be pummeled with the usual fat girl tropes of weight loss and fat shaming. Worst Case Scenario: the writers didn't read my message nor do they care about what I or anyone else thinks and Kate has weight loss surgery as threatened. The jury is still out, but I remain hopeful, as thus far I feel the show is beautifully written and powerful and thoughtful and adding to important body positive conversations in many ways.

A colleague of mine, Dr. Cat Pause in Australia, recently wrote a lovely little blog post on failure. About how social media often only celebrates the greatest hits of our lives but isn't really a place where we share things gone wrong. She makes a lovely comparison to the difference between that and how -  being a fat woman - the perceived "failures" of her body have always been public:

As a fat person, I’m very familiar with failure. My body, to most, represents a failure. A failure of discipline. A failure of self control. A failure to appropriately manage my body and the burden it may become for society (NEOLIBERALISM, AM I RIGHT?!)

As a super fat person, I’ve spent decades failing at making myself smaller. Bodies get to be my size after decades of succeeding, and then failing, at weight loss. I get the congratulations and appreciation when I succeed to lose. And the sheltered looks of pity and “you’ll get ‘em next time” pep talks when I fail through growth.

My failures at weight loss are public. People in my daily life know when I’ve failed. I don’t have to tell them, it’s written on my body. Social media makes it more likely that people who entire my life long after those failures could discover them for themselves; here’s a memory for you from 10yrs and 100lbs ago, Cat. Hoozah!

My failures as an academic, though, aren’t as public. No one knows if an article is rejected by an editor, or if I’m turned down for a funding grant, unless I chose to tell them. And while I do speak about such things with my close friends and colleagues, I don’t share them on social media in the same way I share my successes. We don’t talk about failing in academia very often, and this probably leaves many out in the cold. It may appear that everyone else is only ever succeeding, if that’s what we share on social media. So, I’m going to work on failing out loud.

She goes on to write about some recent failures and a job she really wanted but didn't get. What I really loved about her post, though, was how she didn't necessarily want to wax poetic about what can be learned from losing. I'm a big fan of talking about the hard stuff and sharing struggles, too. Worst Case Scenario: someone doesn't and rolls their eyes and scrolls right by or stops reading. Or maybe leaves a nasty internet comment on my words. (Trust me, they won't be the first or the last. I'm a bit of an expert in negativity online.)

Nine years ago this month I lost my dream job in a surprise "lay off" that left me stunned and shocked and angry and afraid of the Worst Case Scenario: that we'd lose our house after losing nearly half our income and I'd never find another position. I had already grown to dislike that job so much, so we pulled our two babies out of their really expensive daycare and preschool and got rid of a whole bunch of extra luxuries like Direct TV and a house cleaner, and were able to keep our home. It catapulted me into starting this blog and an alternate career path that I may never have been brave enough to attempt without that forced decision no matter how much my spirit desperately needed it.

My very first blog post almost nine years ago. Still silly, less depressed but more cynical.

My very first blog post almost nine years ago. Still silly, less depressed but more cynical.

Five years ago I was surprised to find out I was pregnant with a baby we did not plan for nor really want while on the birth control pill. We thought we were done having kids, until I saw those two pink lines on the pregnancy test and suddenly I didn't want anything more in the world than that third baby. Our Worst Case Scenario happened just a few weeks later when I miscarried that baby at home, somewhere around eight weeks along. It was devastating, but we went on to conceive our sweet Arlo a few months later.

About a year ago I applied to two Idaho-based arts grants to help pay for writing residencies to write my book. I didn't get either of them, and the granting committees' feedback consisted of things insinuating I wasn't a real writer and that it sounded like "I just wanted time away from my kids." Worst Case Scenario: I had to create my own "writing residency" which consisted of holing up in a tiny private room for free for 10 hours a week at Boise State University for 8 solids months while Dr. Brown was home with the kids to get that manuscript out. But I did it.

And after three amazing beta readers read the first draft of that manuscript and offered amazing advice and changes I made it even better and decided to go all the way to the top and send it out to eight of the best and most well known literary agents I could find in the genre of feminist nonfiction literature. It was risky and terrifying, but I worked up a pretty good proposal and query letter and sent them off from my laptop at the airports in San Fransisco and Salt Lake City to and from a weekend teaching a private self-love workshop in Las Vegas. Worst Case Scenario: I'd never hear from them or get nasty rejection letters and be sad and embarrassed and have to move on to the next round of literary agents. Or try to send my manuscript to smaller book publishers myself. Turns out I got more than one offer of representation by amazing literary agents and ended up signing with the perfect one.

This past fall a friend in the Midwest sent me notification that the Obama Foundation was opening applications for their first round of fellows - 20 amazing and lucky people who are "outstanding civic innovators from around the world" to give them resources and money "in order to amplify the impact of their work and to inspire a wave of civic innovation." She thought my work in body image activism and feminism fit the bill and I agreed. I asked a few amazing people familiar with what I do to be references, worked long and hard on the application, including making this little one minute video on my work, and submitted my application. 

Worst Case Scenario: I haven't found out the results yet (the Fellows should be announced this month!), but in all truth the odds are I won't get accepted. So I spent several hours of time making a video and writing up really thoughtful and succinct application responses (they could each only be a limited number of characters). It was already worth it, as I've re-used that prose in several other applications and I've now got this great little promo video.

In January Melinda Gates wrote a piece in Time magazine about how it's a new era for women. "You may never know their names. They work beneath the headlines and far from the spotlight. When they receive formal recognition from bodies like the Nobel Committee, it is the exception, not the norm. But the fact remains: under the radar, grassroots organizations led by women are quietly changing the world," she wrote. Another friend, this time in the Pacific Northwest, sent this to me and said, "I think it's time you wrote a letter to Melinda." So I did. Worst Case Scenario: it gets tossed in the garbage. She never reads it. She reads it and unbeknownst to me, laughs about it.  I haven't received any reply. Since this more recent piece by her just out about funding important women-driven projects in mainly third-world countries, my guess is I won't.

melinda gates letter.jpg

Here's the thing, though, about Worst Case Scenarios. Sometimes there is a lot at stake. Sometimes saying your fears out loud is too hard and emotional and not a good idea (if you're also a This Is Us fan you know this happened when Randall tried to play the game with his brother Kevin in the car). There's been a lot of situations in my life over the past few months in which I dare not speak my Worst Case Scenarios out loud because they loom so large in my head and heart and I know they will do no one else any good hearing them, least of all me. Sometimes, though, the Worst Case Scenario never happens. Or sometimes it does and it was actually the best thing that you never ever anticipated could happened. Because I'm an optimist at heart and sometimes the most cliched advice is the best: you won't know unless you try.