skin & bones

Renée Watson

May 16, 2024 
The following is from Renée Watson's skin & bones. Watson has authored fifteen young adult books, which have collectively sold more than a million copies. She received a Coretta Scott King Award and a Newbery Honor for Piecing Me Together. Watson is on the Council of Writers for the National Writing Project and is a member of the Academy of American Poets’ Education Advisory Council. She is also a writer-in-residence at The Solstice Low-Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.

I don’t want to die fat.

There would no doubt be whispers at the repast:

It’s too bad she didn’t take better care of herself.

They will speculate, assume.


Heart attack?

If I die fat, I hope I die in a car accident or go missing and turn up bloated and bloodied in a river. No one will mention my weight then. I will die without conversation about the obesity epidemic and my family and friends can grieve without the added guilt from flashbacks of every time they wanted to say something about the pounds I was putting on and on but didn’t.

Because here’s the thing, I am not thick or big-boned or voluptuous.

I am fat.


Morbidly obese.

That’s what the nurse just typed into my chart. She is a wafer of a woman. The kind of woman who looks like she’ll fall over should a big wind blow. This is the woman typing in the word morbid to describe this body.

Everything about me is big and Black. Big and majestic like the ocean. Every bit of me hard to contain. My belly spills over and so do my tears and so does my joy and every family recipe and every heartache and every weekend spent at Seaside Beach. It’s all here with me. Heavy. It’s all here sitting on this table, a layer of the thinnest tissue paper under me, holding all this Blackness, holding all this bigness. I feel the tissue paper rip under me.

Wonder why they don’t make it more sturdy.

I pull the too-small gown together as best I can. It is tight around my flabby arms and doesn’t cover my breast or my stretch-marked stomach. I might as well be sitting here naked. You would think doctor’s offices would have large robes for their patients. Don’t patients come in all sizes?

The nurse doesn’t realize that I can see what she’s typed. She enters the words so matter-of-fact, and in the space for more notes, she types: Morbidly obese but seems happy. Dressed well, good hygiene.

I stare at the word but. Morbidly obese but . . .

She types again but I look away.

Can I take the urine sample now? I really have to go. I’ve been holding it.

We’ll get to that. Give me just a moment. First I need to take your blood pressure and temperature. She wheels the mobile stand toward me and takes my temperature, then attempts to get the blood pressure cuff on my arm. Hmm, she says. Let me try this way instead. She switches positions, tries to get one side of the thick nylon material to connect to the other side. The Velcro won’t connect. You need a bigger one, she says. I’ll be right back. The nurse walks out of the room and returns with a larger cuff.

I want to ask her why both sizes aren’t just available in each room. Wouldn’t that be more efficient for the nurses and less embarrassing for the patients? But I don’t say anything. She checks my pressure. My arm tightens to the point it feels like it’s going to explode and then when she lets the air out, my arm relaxes. Wow. Pretty great numbers, she says. Like she is surprised, like she expected there to be an issue. Okay, I’m going to get the doctor. Give her just a moment.

While I wait, I fidget with the platinum miracle on my left hand. Two more weeks and I’ll be Mrs. Lena Wilson, wife of Malcolm Wilson. God, please let this bladder infection pass quickly. I’ve got a honeymoon to Hawaii to be ready for. I twist the ring, trace the diamond with the tip of my finger. That skinny nurse didn’t have a ring on. I hate that I just had this thought. I do not want to wear this engagement ring like an Olympic medal hard fought for, hard won. But it does feel like an accomplishment. I did work for this, for us. After everything I went through with Bryan, the on-again, off-again, so much heartbreak, heart-healing. Finally, I am here. Malcolm is my prize and I am his.

I look down at my dangling feet, thinking about the words the nurse used to describe me.

Morbidly obese but seems happy. Dressed well, good hygiene.

Glad I got that pedicure yesterday. My toes are painted a bright cantaloupe color, my heels smooth and silky. I always leave the house casket-ready.

I got that from Mom, who everyone calls Honey. Whenever I’d leave the house, she’d ask, You got on clean clothes? and I knew she was not talking about my shirt or jeans or socks. She was asking about my bra and panties. If you get in a car accident, you don’t want to be unladylike when the paramedics come.

Always a lesson from Honey and Grandma about taking care of myself, but never for myself. The house needed to be clean—not because that was a good discipline to learn for my own cleanliness, but just in case guests stopped by unexpectedly. Grandma always commented on my weight, occasionally mentioning my health, but mostly encouraging me to lose weight in order to become (even more) attractive, said I needed to lose this baby fat so a man would want me. And here I am, baby fat and then some—fourteen days from forty—and (finally) getting married. If Grandma was here, she’d be overjoyed, she’d be relieved that I found Malcolm, a man who loves me, loves all these pounds, loves my seven-year-old daughter, Aaliyah.

Don’t marry the man you can’t live without. Marry the man you can live with. Honey and Grandma said it all the time, that marriage is not about love only. Love is a choice, Honey always tells me. She never liked me with Bryan. This choice—me choosing Malcolm—she approves.

Just when I decide to find a cup and go to the bathroom, the doctor knocks, comes in. And what brings you in today, Lena? she asks, not looking at me. She scrolls through my file, reading while I talk.

I think I have a bladder infection. I get them often—since I was a child—so I kind of know the symptoms.

And your symptoms are?

Peeing every five minutes. And it hurts every time. Like it does when people have bladder infections.

Okay. I’d like to check your blood sugar too. Have you ever been tested for diabetes?

No, I haven’t. But today . . . today I’m here for . . . I think I have a bladder infection. And, I, I came ready to do the urine sample, so if we can get that going, that would be . . . I uh, I have to go.

Yes, we will get to that. But I need to check a few other things first. A woman your size—we should, it could be something else. She says she needs to review my family history.

Diabetes. High blood pressure. Stroke. Hypertension. Heart disease.

It all runs in my family.

Great-grands and grands. Uncles and aunties, cousins—firsts, seconds, thirds. The passing down of big-boned genes, the passing down of cooking and feeding the ones you love to celebrate, mourn, rage. Food as medicine. But also, there’s been the passing down of family sing-alongs, gathering around Grandma’s raggedy (but better than nothing) piano. What’s been passed down is preachers and teachers, generations and generations of artists, a singer here, a poet there.

I want to tell her what’s not on that chart. She wants medical history. Physical ailments. But I think she should know it all.

The almost dead, the died-too-soons, the divorces and sage loves, the births, rebirths, stillbirths, the car accidents, graduations, holiday dinners, the first days of school, last days of childhood, every birthday, every happy hour, Fourth of July picnics at Blue Lake Park, baptisms,

breakdowns, excruciating laughter, Electric Slides at up-all-night house parties.

What’s been passed down is Aunt Aretha’s recipe for lemon pound cake that must be made for every arrival and departure of breath.

She asked for my family history. I could tell her, but I know better.

A knock at the door, and then a new person enters. She is not a thin wafer, she is not morbid. The woman draws blood. A quick sting from a needle. I look away, not wanting to see myself leaving myself. She is finished with pricking and sticking me and now we wait.

Am I going to give a urine sample? I think I have a bladder infection.

What are your symptoms?

I repeat myself: Peeing every five minutes. And it hurts every time. Like it does when people have bladder infections.

The nonwafer, nonmorbid woman leaves, comes back with a plastic cup. Finally, the urine sample.

Then waiting and waiting, another knock and the words bladder infection . . . antibiotics . . .

And the blood sugar? I ask.

Normal . . . but you need to be careful carrying all that weight. I recommend trying to lose at least five to ten percent of your body weight. And then we can reassess and put you on a weight loss plan.

My doctor wants to put me on a weight loss plan even though my test results are normal.

Before she leaves the room, she offers an affirmation.

You know, she starts, you are a beautiful woman. I hope you know that. Your skin, your hair. Just gorgeous.

I smile, kind of, I think. Yes, this is a smile, a thank you. I open my mouth to say something. To correct her? Scold her? To ask why she felt the need to tell me that she thinks I am pretty.

But my words do not come. Only her words are here. They are hanging in the stale, sanitized room. When I leave, they come with me. Words are like that. They follow, linger, stay a while. Here I am, carrying what is not mine.



From skin & bones by Renée Watson. Used with permission of the publisher, Little Brown and Company. Copyright © 2024 by Renée Watson.

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