Paint Thinner

“Why. In the world. Do I have to wear scrubs?” I asked my boss. “I don’t have any patient contact beyond the front desk. I register them. That’s it.”

“New management entity, new rules.” She said.

I scoffed at how completely ridiculous it was for me, the front desk receptionist and part-time medical biller, to wear scrubs. Did this management company not know how seriously I considered footwear? Apparently, they did not and did not care either.

I was in my second year of graduate school and to pay for it, I worked at an ambulatory surgery center. The hours were perfect because I started between 5:30 and 6:00 every morning, and I was done for the day between 1:30 and 2:00 in the afternoon.

That year, the center was “acquired” by a new management firm. It was also the year that the administrator hired a business manager named John. Not only was he new to the center, but he was also going to become my immediate supervisor.  The administrator would be his boss. But anything I needed, I would ask John. I would report to him and he would be the one managing the front desk (where I worked) and the billing office, which was in the basement of the building.

I’d already been working there for over a year, and when John began working with me, we got along great. Upon arrival, we hit it off well. He acknowledged my efficiency and praised my work and my work ethic. Overall, I thought he was a nice guy. And after he observed my work for a couple of days, he left me alone and I did my job without incident.

While I was working at the surgery center, I gained more weight than I had ever gained in my life. I am a stress eater and a snacker. As many grad school survivors will say, it is stressful ninety-nine percent of the time, and the other ten percent, they were asleep. If they were lucky.

I’d started to notice the weight gain. My clothes weren’t fitting the way that I wanted them to and it was uncomfortable. So, I made a choice to commit to a lifestyle change. I had always liked walking, so I began walking regularly. That also happened to be the year that my mom walked in her first Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day walks. We trained together for months, and I noticed that eventually, my old clothes began to fit more comfortably and I was getting down to the weight I had been.

I lost weight easier than I thought I would, and before I knew it, I’d dropped ten pounds! I was proud because I had done it by changing my eating habits and walking. I’d gotten some new work clothes and was excited to look as nice as I felt. Then, our administrator dropped the scrub bomb. In addition to the scrub bomb, our administrator also announced that John’s position would be eliminated with the arrival of the new management entity.

John’s behavior immediately changed. He became passive/aggressive and uncharacteristically picky and snide. He didn’t have a kind word for most people and spent the majority of the work day looking up other jobs and applying online from his desk.

When his last day finally came, the staff, nurses, doctors, and the administrator, had a small going away party for him. Up to that point, we had all liked John and were genuinely disappointed to see him go.

After we’d eaten lunch and had given him his farewell gifts, he made a few parting comments. Some were humorous and others seemingly heartfelt, but when he got to mentioning me, he made a comment that has altered by behavior in many ways.

        “I won’t miss Melissa’s tight ass pants.” He looked at me and continued, “they look like you have to rub them off at the end of the day with paint thinner.”

To say I was embarrassed is an understatement. I sat at the table and watched as each person turned to look at me. I was stunned and afraid to get up. In my head, I was screaming. But in reality, I sat there with tears forming in my eyes. Thank God my friend Dee pinched my arm and shook her head at me, ordering me not to cry.

He continued to talk for a few more minutes and people went back to work. I sat at the table, still staring at the remnants of my fat-free yogurt and the Diet Coke I forced myself to drink.

Dee looked at me and asked if I was okay. I shook my head and let some of the tears slip out.  I was twenty-three years old. I had no experience with public humiliation.

“Dee, I need to go change.” I said.

“He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s even saying.” She replied.

“Do they all think that? Dee, do I really look bad?” I asked and I began rambling about how I knew I’d gained some weight but I was walking and really trying to get back to my “normal” 115 pounds.

“Sunshine, did you not hear me?” She asked. “He. Does. Not. Know. What. The. Fuck. He. Is. Saying.” And uttered each word slowly, staring directly into my eyes.

I went home later feeling defeated.  Did people think I dressed inappropriately at work? I wore scrubs! How could I look bad in them? They were scrubs! Granted, I hated them, but still… Most people liked the scrubs and claimed they were comfortable. I felt like I was dressed like a robot.

I wondered what I could have ever done to him for that kind of public humiliation. I came in every day before the sun rose. I did my job. I cared for the patients. I made sure they had everything they needed before and after surgery. I continuously received praise from the nursing staff, and I was friends with a couple of our doctors.

Like many women harassed by men in a power position, I wondered what I’d done wrong.

I came in the next day, and instead of grabbing the size small scrub pants, I pulled on a medium.

I had to tighten the strings as tightly as they would go to get the pants to stay in place. They were huge and bagged everywhere. I looked like a pathetic attempt at MC Hammer’s classic style. I marched up the stairs, sat at my desk, and quietly began registering patients.

John left later that week, and on his way out he said goodbye to me. I didn’t say anything, I just nodded.

That day in the lunchroom is eight years in the past. It didn’t take me long to leave after John did, but I left for different reasons. The climate in the center changed and people that I had once called friends proved not to be. And most days, I don’t think about the place at all. But then again, I do.

I think about that place every single time I get dressed or buy pants.

Because I am, as some may say, hyper-aware about not wearing pants that “look like they have to be removed with paint thinner.”

John didn’t know that he was talking to a woman dealing with a weight struggle. But he did know that he deliberately humiliated me in front of a group of peers. John didn’t know that I would remember that comment every single time I shop for pants, and get dressed, for the next eight years. He didn’t know how I would react, but I think he did know that I would take it personally. Who wouldn’t?

John’s comment was hurtful and embarrassing. He did it because he could, and he did it because somewhere along the way, he learned that it was okay. He could humiliate me and I wouldn’t stop it. And I didn’t.

Looking back, I should have looked at that man, and said exactly what I was thinking. I might have gotten fired, and that was a legitimate concern, but it wouldn’t have mattered in the long run. It’s like the lie they tell you in high school. You will get into college even if you fail gym. You will get a job after grad school if you get fired from a non-related job while still attending.

I look back now and think, I should have risked it.

     The woman I was then wouldn’t have out of fear, but the woman I am today, she would say…to hell with you. And your paint thinner.






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