Monday, August 20, 2018

I Body Shamed My 4-Month Old Kitten. What Kind of a Monster Am I?




Beatrice the Kitten
A feral momma cat gave birth to her kittens at the top of my back steps this past March. This is how I came to adopt Beatrice who, with her Dalmatian spotted body and tiger striped head, is an oddly beautiful chimera of a cat. I couldn’t bear to give her up, despite the horrified glares of Francesca and Atticus Finch, my two adult cats. Nor was my boyfriend’s cat allergy enough to dissuade me because, you know, benadryl. I dismissed a psychologist friend’s warning that “more than two cats per capita in a household is a sign of psychosis”, because she was born at the top of my back steps. It was meant to be.

As my beautiful kitten grew, I began to notice a protrusion of saggy skin under her abdomen. As she grew, it grew – flapping unattractively side to side as she chased ribbons, attacked fuzzy felt mice, and trotted out to greet me when I walked in the door. I had pictured her growing into a sleek, elegant cat – abdomen firm, muscles sinewy – delighting guests with her feline prowess and balletic form. “How beautiful” they would say, “where did you get her?” I would proudly reply:  “She was born at the top of my back steps”, as though the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet had placed her there, just for me.
Beatrice and her primordial pouch 

But my kitten has a primordial pouch. Yes, that’s what it’s called. I know this because I googled “my kitten has saggy skin hanging down from her abdomen, what is that?” It’s a primordial pouch. Some cats have it and others don’t. It’s not a result of eating too much or spaying. Both male and female cats can have one. It’s simply excess skin and fat that allows cats extra flexibility and movement and helps them to wriggle loose in a fight. Wild cats often have them and it’s a breed standard for the Bengal and the Egyptian Mau. This last primordial pouch fun fact gave me cold comfort since Beatrice’s heritage is urban feral, making her ineligible for pageant competition.

So, when I took Beatrice in for her last round of vaccinations, I said to my vet, in a practiced tone that was half kidding, half serious, “Hey, you know she’s got a primordial pouch. So when you spay her next month, how about a little nip and tuck to tighten that thing up?” I added a little half-laugh to make sure she didn’t think I was seriously requesting cosmetic surgery on a kitten. But I was hoping she’d say “Sure – no problem, we do that all the time”. Instead, she said, “Oh, primordial pouches are normal. Perfectly healthy.”

So there it was. I had just body shamed my 4-month old kitten. I should know better. After all, I was body shamed when I was a teen in high school. This was back in the 70’s and 80’s when we didn’t call it “body shaming”. My “primordial pouch” was a nose that was too big, breasts that were too small, and a rotund butt that would have to wait decades before Kim Kardashian would make it fashionable. Everything about my looks was wrong, disproportionate – and some of the other students made sure I knew it. One male classmate called me “TT”. The first “T” was for “tiny”. I’m sure you can guess what the second “T” stood for. Another classmate once told me I was ugly. While I knew I was not ugly, I also knew I was not pretty and would never be considered so. These memories flashed back to me as I tried to humor my vet into giving a kitten a tummy tuck.

Thankfully Beatrice is and will remain unaware that I body shamed her. She’s a cat. But it made me wonder, what if I had not been so fortunate? What if the people who were supposed to love me had body shamed me? It made me think of a day a long time ago, when I was 14 or 15. It was summer. The phone rang and my mom answered. I heard her say, “well maybe you should ask her” and handed the phone to me. It was a woman from the county fair wanting me to participate in the yearly county beauty pageant. While she likely got my name from a list of girls from the high school, I felt patronized. Didn’t she know what I looked like? Didn’t she think I knew? I knew I was not pageant material. And I didn't care. “No thank you, I’m not interested”, I said and hung up the phone. My mother didn’t say anything as she continued cooking dinner, but I noticed a slight smile on her face. I knew she was proud of me – primordial pouches and all.

So now, I look down at Beatrice who is curled up in my lap purring.  And I know I will love her forever – not because she is beautiful, but because she was born at the top of my back steps.

Beth Kitchin PhD RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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