Merit Badge

By on Dec 17, 2012 in Essays

Barista in blue and green neon

The alarm clock rings, and I discover that releasing my weary body from the comfort of my pillow-top-memory-foam bed is plenty challenging. Add the indignity of a workday, and it’s turned into the sort of Thursday where both my head and my spirit hang a little low.

Feeling bulky and running late, I decide to stop off for a paper cup of overpriced coffee, which feels like a happy little incentivizing present, like giving a kid candy for using the toilet.

It’s a neighborhood joint with one of those cutesy names that plays off the concept of coffee. As though coffee were a concept instead of the sweet life-giving nectar extracted from a pebbly little bean grown on a lush vine in the fields of Costa Rica or Sumatra or somewhere quieter, slower, and prettier than this concrete jungle.

I order my usual — what my spouse calls “milky coffee” — pay the tab, then climb up onto a barstool at the high countertop to wait for the coffee jerk to pull my shots and steam my milk. (If they can call them soda jerks, can’t I call them coffee jerks?)

There are something like six employees jammed into a small space behind the copper Italian espresso machine. This one is taking money, that one grinding beans, another scooping ice, and yet another stocking pastry. They dance out of time and in rhythm, moving together like a group that not only knows what they are doing, but have done it many times before in pressure situations, like a Thursday morning commute hour.

As I marvel at the coffee-scented rumba, my eyes land on a young lady doing all the steps. I’ve got a good twenty years on her and have earned the right to call her a “young lady,” though that term is hopelessly outdated.

This budding young woman is a little larger than what is currently fashionable, and yet she glides her substantial body between the waifs and the rail-thins and does so with nary a hint of self-consciousness or insecurity.

The employees here don’t wear uniforms, only a logoed apron over their street clothes. She is wearing these god-awful thin polyester gray plaid pants. I suspect she thinks these pants, which border on slacks, make her seem more professional.

Me, I’m looking at the light gray, thinking, “Those slacks are doing her no favors.”

I happen to own a pair of substantial thighs and learned long ago that light colors and big thighs are not friends. The light colors show off the less-than-smooth parts in bas-relief. Nobody wants that.

My closet is lined with dark pants. They are soldiers in the very personal war against my body. It’s both in vanity and in vain that I cover up my body and pretend it doesn’t exist.

Now let’s be clear: This young lady in the coffee shop isn’t fat. She’s big. Sturdy. And her stuff doesn’t jiggle when she moves. She’s solid, and she’s obviously OK with that fact, because she’s wrapped the tightest pair of unflattering pants in an unkind color around her powerful legs and paired them with a tighter-than-a-second-skin girlie white baby tee on top.

In other words, she’s owning it.

As she moves, I hear my friend and bluesman Johnny Nitro in my head. He used to do the blues classic “Big Legged Woman” in the middle of the third set on a sultry night. We’d pack like sardines into The Saloon to hear him make that blue and white Telecaster growl low and pretty, and then he’d sing the lyrics in this real lascivious way.

I’m looking at a girl and I’m thinking about a bluesman singing naughty lyrics about a girl when she turns her back to me and bends partway over to scoop beans from a bin. The seam that runs right up the crack of her back door strains under the load. Those light gray plaid pants are hanging on for dear life. I prepare to hear the rip as her solid yet large ass breaks free from its artificial textile prison and sings the hallelujah chorus.

Those pants must be made out of titanium. That would account for both the color and the fact that they held under load testing. She straightens and turns and goes on about the task at hand with a smile and a laugh. It’s right then that the voice inside my head pipes up. The one that always has something to say.

Today it proclaims, “You know, she wears her size like a badge of honor.”

And I tilt my head like a curious dog at the phrase that just passed through my mind.

Because it’s so right. Too right.

I wish Johnny Nitro was still alive so I could tell him this line. Maybe he could find a way to drop it into some naughty lyrics and some real greasy blues. I’d drink whiskey neat and smile into my glass, remembering this miracle of a woman that I’ve found here on an otherwise unremarkable Thursday.

Instead I take delivery on a double latte and add sweetener, because surely I’m not sweet enough, and I take a sip and it’s good. Then I take my leave of the coffee grinders and go back out into the world.

On the way to my car, I walk by a plate-glass window and look at myself. I’m a big woman, older than the girl in polyester and substantially more jiggly.

I do not wear my size like a badge of honor. I do not own myself in my skin. I do not have the kind of confidence it takes to simply be OK with who I am. At the close-to-halfway mark of my life, it’s unlikely I ever will.

“She owns her size like a badge of honor” keeps ringing in my head. My already low self-esteem, rooted at the cellular level, drops another couple of notches. Under the heading of body awareness, I have no badge of honor. No badge of courage. Not even a merit badge for trying, and I have no freaking idea how to get there.

So I adjust my loose pants and pull my frumpy sweater tighter around my shoulders and turn my head quickly away from my reflection. I don’t like looking in mirrors.

I climb back in my car, and I make the commute, and I sit at my desk and pick low-hanging fruit. I conceptualize and think outside of the box for nine hours.

As the day draws to a close, I can’t forget the girl in the coffee shop. I feel like there is a lesson here for me, but, like higher math, it just doesn’t make sense. I can’t quite calculate the first derivative.

Instead it’s home, and I drown my sorrows in sugary-fatty-salty food, and I lay my head back down on my memory-foam pillow and sleep. Images of confident go-go-dancing, polyester-clad women fill my dreams.


Born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico and complemented by an evolving urban aesthetic. Karen now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. When she's not spinning a tale, she conducts business throughout the United States, Western Europe, Asia, and South America. Karen has won awards for her writing, photography, and art. Recent publication credits include a series of three features in New Mexico magazine.


  1. Absolute delight, Karen, and story we can all relate too. Well done! :-)

  2. Wonderful story, very well told. Thanks for passing along the thought provoking lesson!

  3. Boy, does this resonate. I have been self-conscious about what I feel are my too big thighs and hips my entire life, probably because my mother hated her own body and was very vocal about it, and we have similar bodies. So I, like you, tend to wear baggy pants and over large sweaters. And I, like you, have tremendous admiration and am in awe of those women considered “large” who hold their heads high, wear clinging pants and dresses, and have a flair and self-confidence I will never have. You are at the mid point of your life – I am nearing the end of mine – I fear these self images are with us for the long-term. Thanks for sharing – you are not alone.

  4. Jamie, Barbara and Laurel — Thank you so much! Both for the read and for the comments. I really appreciate it.

  5. That baby really flows smoothly. The narrative, the philosophical asides, the literary flourishes all woven together seamlessly. And a peak behind the mighty ego where mortals fear to tread. I like it, and that in it especially.

    And it’s fiction, people.

  6. Hi Frank! Thanks for both the read and the comment. I appreciate you!!