Part 5: Self Image

On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.

My “Real” Family

Like a lot of children, I harbored the fantasy that the people I lived with weren’t my real family. My real family was kind and supportive. They valued the things I did and said, and liked having me around.

Because I read constantly, I had more than my own family and those of my friends to compare my life to. In fiction, everyone, no matter how unattractive, undeserving, or unlikeable, got partnered up with the person of their dreams. If it could happen in fiction, it was possible. People believed it could be true. Which meant that, despite the messages my family gave me, my ideal person was out there.

The hard part to keep in mind wasn’t that I could find my perfect person. It wasn’t even believing that this perfect person would like me. It was believing that I was deserving of a fulfilling relationship.

Where to Start?

Believing I’m deserving is complicated. If my only problem was being fat, I think I could have overcome that to be the kind of in-your-face, larger-than-life personality whose larger-than-life body was just part of the package. Sadly, my family was one of millions affected by the recession of the early 1970s, so I wasn’t just fat, I was also poor. My family is mixed race, and my parents were divorced before I even got to kindergarten. All these were strikes against me, and the ones that my family didn’t despise me for, the rest of my peers and neighbors did.

I was never mocked for my size in school, but I was mocked for my clothes – secondhand, and far out of date, sometimes dirty because my mother, a single parent of four kids who worked a day job and was also trying to finish up the college degree that four children started at age 18 had interrupted, couldn’t singlehandedly keep up with all the housework.

Worse, I was isolated from some of my friends, who weren’t allowed to come to my house because my mother was divorced. I have no idea what the parents of those kids thought would happen, but it was just another thing that marked me out as different. And every additional difference made me a little less deserving of the kind of life I dreamed of.

The Building Blocks of Self Esteem

Once I was too old to wear hand-me-downs, I had to figure out my own style. I did what everyone does – I spent my late teens and early twenties with bad perms, goofy outfits, and ridiculous makeup on my way to finding what worked for me. But the basis of finding one’s personal style is the belief that there’s something to work with – some good features to highlight, the possibility of hiding some flaws.

The first, and hardest, step was finding clothes that fit. When you’re larger than the largest size carried in most stores, your options drop off steeply. There have always been a few stores that cater to larger women, but not as many as there are today – and when I was in college, online shopping was still a distant dream. Clothes for larger women were usually for older women – the kind of gaudy floral prints your grandmother might wear, made into shapeless sacks. Finding a piece of clothing that both fit and looked good was a rare score. Slowly, I built a wardrobe that at least made me feel like a normal person.

Take Me As I Am

What I really wanted was what everyone wants – to have people think I looked good as I was. But that’s so complicated. Knowing I am fat, there’s a complicated logic that goes into feeling good. “If this person finds me attractive, my makeup and clothes must be fooling them.” Which means that I couldn’t be caught out with no makeup in sweatpants (she types while hanging out on the couch with no makeup and in sweatpants). There is also the deep knowledge that any photo of me will reveal what the naked eye doesn’t – that I’m fat. Pervading every clothing or makeup choice, every hairstyle, every carefully posed selfie is the central belief that to be fat is to be the worst, most reprehensible thing a person can be.

It has taken me nearly half a century, but I had finally made peace with the complicated mental gymnastics that go into being fat. With each grudging acceptance of the reality of my life – that I’m fat, that I’m a good person, that people find me fun to be with, that my children love me, that my husband finds me desirable – I could stand to look at myself with one less filter. Up to and including having a full-length mirror next to my dresser, so I end up seeing myself as I get dressed every morning. A sobering sight if ever there was one.

Which Leads to New Fears

Accepting myself has been a war I have to fight every minute of every day, and I don’t win every battle. But honestly, I feel that it’s a battle worth fighting. Learning to love myself as I am is the most important thing I can do not just for myself, but for my children who are bombarded with media messages that there is a “perfect” kind of person to be, and it isn’t necessarily the kind of person they are.

That’s why one of my biggest fears has been that people will see the changes to my body and think “oh, good, she’s finally doing something about all that excess weight.” And while that’s true, all most people are thinking is that I will become more attractive (or, at the very least, less unattractive) to look at. And that notion offends me.

Losing weight is hard. Harder for women than for men, and harder for people who have spent their lives dieting and thereby killing their own metabolisms than for people who’ve been thin most of their lives. But even with surgery that will boost my metabolism, I can’t continue to live the life I had before and still lose the weight that’s making my joints and back hurt.

I haven’t eaten more than 500 calories in a day since my surgery, and for more than a week before that, not more than 750. Because surgery has enhanced my metabolism, it means that I’m burning through a lot more calories than I was before, but taking in practically nothing. I feel weak sometimes, and a little dizzy. The pain from the surgery was excruciating for the first few days, and now, 18 days on, it has died back to a dull ache in one localized place. I still have to be careful about overdoing it, meaning that my family has had to pick up the slack for household chores. I will have to take specialized vitamins for the rest of my life, because I won’t ever be able to eat enough food or in the right proportions to stay healthy without them.

I wouldn’t have gone through the pain and expense and inconvenience to my family just so that random strangers will think I’m attractive. There is nothing the admiration of a stranger gets me, apart from attention that makes me uncomfortable. But even saying “I did this for me” leaves that nagging voice in my head: “You don’t deserve it.”

Next time, I’ll talk about the challenges in the run up to surgery. 

Part 4: All the Numbers

On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.

Prurient Curiosity

There’s a class of questions everyone secretly wants to know, but is afraid to ask because weight and size are such fraught topics in our society. Those questions are all about numbers – how much did you weigh? How much did you lose? How much do you expect to lose? How long will it take?

Let’s start at the beginning.

When I first went to the doctor for a consultation, I weighed in at 243.8. For years, I had gone to every doctor’s visit and refused to be weighed. For most things, that datum isn’t relevant. I wasn’t surprised by the number, but certainly I was disappointed by it, although in a way, hopeful. My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t qualify for surgery. According to my doctor, the criteria was either a BMI of 40 or more, or a BMI of 35 or more and one or more co-morbidities – obstructive sleep apnea, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol (yes, no, no, no).  My BMI was 39.6. I was so relieved that I qualified, I nearly cried.

At that appointment, I was given a pre-surgery consultation appointment about 2 weeks later where I would receive my surgery date, get all my pre-surgery instructions, and get a list of the resources that would help me both before and after the process.

At the pre-surgery appointment, I was told that I needed to lose 5-10 pounds before surgery in order to shrink my liver (the stomach is under the liver, so shrinking it makes surgery easier and safer). And in the 2 weeks since my initial consultation, my weight had gone up to 245.4.

Ten days before my surgery, I started a liquid diet. Three times a day, I had a protein shake and a liquid protein drink. The shake was big, and could be really thick, so the ten days went by pretty quickly without my feeling very deprived. When I did feel sad, I could just look at the calendar and say “I can do this for another 5 days.” On the day of surgery, my weight was recorded as 238.7.

Where Do You Want to Be?

When I first considered this surgery,  it was because I had had back issues for years. I couldn’t lay in bed for more than a couple of minutes after waking, because the pain in my lower back (from the blown disc I talked about in Part 3) would become excruciating.  In the last year, I’d also had a problem with my left hip – it hurt when I lay on my side, or when I sat for too long. The doctor diagnosed it as bursitis. (I think if you’re old enough to have bursitis, you automatically have to put “the” in front of things like Google and Facebook.)

As I filled in the paperwork for surgery, I was asked several times what my goal weight would be. It was frustrating because even though the women recording my information were very encouraging and said “It doesn’t matter, we just have to put something down,” they didn’t give me any guidance. They told me what my BMI was, but not what a “healthy” BMI should be, nor what that would translate to in pounds. A “healthy” BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9, which would put my “healthy” weight between 115 and 154. That’s a 40-pound spread.

It’s really hard to know what your “ideal” look is, because even women of the same height and weight can have very different body types. With no guidance, I arbitrarily chose 160. I now know that the number you choose is important – it’s what the doctor will use to qualify whether your surgery and long-term outcome are a “success,” which is defined as keeping off at least 50% of your excess weight for 5 or more years. The success rate of gastric sleeve surgery is upward of 80%.

What Happens Next?

Doing a little math, we can see that my goal weight is 85.4 pounds less than my highest starting weight. I lost a few pounds before surgery, and as of right now, I’m down 21.6 pounds from that highest weight. It was easy, because for the first two weeks after surgery I was on a completely liquid diet, drinking clear protein drinks recommended by my doctor. Each packet of powder was to be mixed with ~8 ounces of water, and it was really, really hard to get that much stuff into my body. Surgery hadn’t just cut off a huge portion of my stomach, it had left my insides swollen and uncomfortable. Often in the first couple of days, I would take a sip of water and then struggle not to vomit. Over the next few days, drinking all my protein got a little easier, but that protein stuff is kind of gross.

Now, two weeks in, I am on “blenderized” food – any food that can be sucked up through a straw. At first I joked about putting pizza and burgers into the blender, but I had a huge secret.

I am terrified to eat real food. 

I’m still in that mindset of “my food choices got me into this in the first place.” To top that off, the advice given for life after surgery can be conflicting – I need to get a specific percentage of protein, carbs, and fat, I need to get at least 60-80 grams of protein a day, I have to drink 60 ounces of water, but I can’t drink either 30 minutes before or 30 minutes after a meal, and I have to eat 5-6 times a day, and I should make my meals last 30-60 minutes. I can’t eat cruciferous vegetables for a few months after surgery, I can’t eat red meat until at least 6 months after surgery….I am paralyzed.

Don’t Overthink It

I said this to the doctor on my first follow-up visit, and he gave a small laugh and just said “You’re overthinking this. Just eat food. Nothing processed, wait on anything with too much fiber, no simple carbohydrates.”

The best advice I was given came from the dietitian I had to consult before my surgery. She told me to eat slowly enough that I would be able to tell when I went from “I’m hungry and want more,” to “I’m no longer invested in this.” Not waiting until I was full, but waiting until the food was less important.

To this end, I bought myself a set of coffee spoons and dessert forks. I already own a fairly large selection of sushi plates and sauce dishes, as well as a food scale.

lunch plate

The remains of 2 ounces of cottage cheese and 1 ounce of unsweetened applesauce. 

When I talked to my doctor about using tiny utensils and plates, he sort of laughed at me, as though it were some kind of affectation. What this tells me about my doctor is that, while he sees and deals with the bodies of severely obese patients every day, he doesn’t have much insight into the mental processes of the severely obese. By taking tiny bites, I can tell exactly how I’m feeling as I eat, and can pay attention to the point where continuing to eat is no longer compelling.

It’s a challenge. I’m supposed to eat 5-6 times a day, but I can eat 4 times, tops. Even then, I’ll portion myself out 3 or 4 ounces of food and can’t finish it. I have no idea how much longer that’ll be the case, but I’m really, really hoping that the habits I’m establishing now will have solidified and be the foundation of how I eat going forward.

Next time, I’ll talk about the ins and outs of self image for the fat.

 

 

Part 3: Who Am I?

On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.

How Do You Know What You Like?

When you’re little, your parents expose you to stuff, and you figure out whether you like it. Broccoli, classical music, the beach – your parents give you experiences, you evaluate them as well as your age and capacity allow, and you decide whether you like them. As we grow, the sources of our influences change – media, our peers, and our observations of adults we would like to emulate all affect what we want or think of as “good.” And as our capacity to evaluate and our range of things with which we can compare grows, we can change our minds. In my house, I’ve lately had to beg my child to tell me when she’s changed her mind about a given food – within the last year, pickles, oatmeal, jalapeños, and onions have become acceptable foods after nearly two decades of staunch refusal to have them on her plate.

When I was a kid, my father’s idea of a good time was usually hiking. South Mountain Park, the largest city park in the United States, wasn’t far from our house, and we would start out from the Mormon Trailhead and hike until it met the South Mountain National Trail, which we’d take until we hit a place called Fat Man’s Pass.

Lord help you if you encountered this in the company of my father and couldn’t make it through.

The entire hike was perhaps a mile total (uphill – it was a mountain, after all), but my father’s style of family hiking was to go at a pace comfortable for a 6′ 1″ adult, and yell at the children lagging behind to stop being lazy. If I stopped to rest, the others may or may not stop, and if they stopped, they made their displeasure clear. The irony of being the fat kid getting dragged to Fat Man’s Pass was not lost on me. Fat Man’s Pass was two huge boulders with flat surfaces facing each other about 18″ apart (see the picture above). I felt a secret thrill of pride every time I slithered through the gap. The alternative was Squaw Peak (later renamed Piestewa Peak), the second-highest mountain in Phoenix – a shorter trail, but a tougher climb.

Discovering What I Liked

For a long time, I thought I just fucking hated hiking. It was punishing, humiliating, painful, and there were a million books I’d rather be at home reading. Even when, as a teenager, I relished walking for hours around my neighborhood, I never equated it with all the hiking I’d done as a child. To this day, I love walking everywhere – I could walk for hours and hours. I live on the edge of a state park, and I take my dogs into the park for a hike as often as I can (sadly, I haven’t been able to hike since the surgery because it’s still a little too strenuous, but it won’t be long before I get that back).

I also realized that I love swimming. I joined our local swim team when I was in elementary school, and won ribbons in backstroke (probably because I was one of the few kids who could keep from veering out of my lane whilst going backward).

As an adult, I’ve also come to realize that I love dancing. A lifetime of being petrified to dance in public for fear of looking foolish meant that until a few years ago, I would only dance at home with my children. It took a very conscious effort of will to get over that fear (and when I say “get over,” I mean “I’m still petrified of looking foolish but I don’t let that stop me from doing it anyway”), and now I’ve taken dance classes with my husband, done silent discos, and generally allowed myself to appreciate, even in public, how good it feels to move to a rhythm.

If You Stop Moving, You Will Stop Being Able to Move

When I was 36, I blew a disc in my spine. I was sitting on the couch reading, I sneezed, and I could feel something in my back pop. The pain was immediate and excruciating. I went to my doctor, and after quizzing me about where I felt the pain (in my lower back, down my right leg) and poking various parts of my back and buttocks, he gave me…wait for it….nasal spray for the sneezing. For two years, I couldn’t sit, stand, or lie down. Bending over was out of the question. The only time I was comfortable was when walking. Of course, during that time I still had to work, so for two years, I was just in excruciating pain every minute of every day.

I went to another doctor, complaining that my original doctor hadn’t even tried to figure out what was wrong. This second doctor turned out to be a friend of the first doctor and flatly refused to treat me at all. Out of desperation, I went to a chiropractor who first referred me to a doctor for an x-ray, which showed that the two vertebrae on either side of the ruptured disc had, over the two years I had been unable to get treated, fused, crushing and killing the nerve that had branch between them. No wonder my pain was getting better!

The doctor who took my x-ray told me very seriously that I had to keep moving, because if I stopped, I would become unable to move. I was so frightened by the prospect of spending any part of my life immobile that I redoubled my commitment to walking, running, dancing, swimming. At this point, people who know me think of me as someone who genuinely likes exercise for its own sake, and for the most part, that’s true.

Fat Athlete

But wait, I hear you cry. How could you be fat if you’re so fond of exercise?

Most people, including most doctors, will tell you that losing weight is a straightforward mathematical calculation – you just have to take in fewer calories than you’re using. Any fat person who has dieted and exercised for months only to lose nothing (or worse – gain weight!) will tell you that’s rubbish. Metabolism is a tricky thing, and the human body is a miracle of engineering that can streamline its operations and husband its resources when necessary. Fat people with a history of dieting tend to have metabolisms used to making do with very little, and so hang onto every calorie. It’s why when my thin husband and I went on the same diet, ate the same greatly reduced number of calories, and exercised every day, he lost 10 pounds over just a few days, and I gained 2.

But I haven’t let that deter me from my love of exercise. When I can’t exercise for more than a couple of days in a row, my overall well-being takes a hit – I don’t sleep as soundly, my neck and back ache, and I feel lethargic and bloated. At this point, I have a very firm idea in my mind of myself as an athlete. My size doesn’t enter into it. If doing athletic activity is at the core of who I am, then I am an athlete.

Sadly, there’s that early conditioning still in my brain. Sure, I’m an athlete, but if I’m fat, it means I’m a lazy athlete. Sure, I hike for miles every day, but if I were a real athlete, I would be running the trails, not walking. I would be spending three or four hours a day exercising, instead of the paltry one hour I normally spend. Even though while exercising my heart rate is generally elevated well above my maximum target heart rate (which should be between 83 and 140 bpm – while I’m hiking, it goes as high as 170), I’m still just not doing enough.

Magic Bullet?

The promise held out by the sleeve gastrectomy was that it would change my metabolism back to that of a thinner person. My body would be more inclined to let go of the excess weight as long as I stay active. I realize that a lot of people with excess weight got there through inactivity. Being sedentary became a habit that got harder to break as they got heavier and movement became more uncomfortable. In this, I’m feeling lucky. I have always loved to move, and as my weight goes down, it gets easier and more pleasurable. I’m really hoping that these habits of mine serve me well as I go forward on this journey.

Next time I’m going to talk about health issues. There will be math. 

Part 2: More to Love

On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.

What You Love is Beautiful

I’m currently reading a biography of Alma Mahler, a fascinating woman born at the end of the 19th century. Alma’s distinguishing feature (aside from her tragic anti-Semitism) is her passion. Her teen years were spent listening to and composing music, and all her thoughts as recorded in her journals were wild, passionate, and outsized. In her late teens, she met Alexander Zemlinsky, a composer who mentored her in a weird, emotionally manipulative kind of relationship. Alma fell deeply in love with him, and even though she had earlier admitted his glaring physical flaws (short, “practically chinless”), eventually she talked about him as the most beautiful man in the world.

Okay, he’s not hideously deformed, but in an ensemble show, he would definitely be the hunky hero’s comedy sidekick.

If you ask a small child what they think of the people they love, they will tell you that their loved ones are beautiful. And how many truly ugly  babies have you seen whose parents can’t stop cooing about how perfect their little goblins are? Love is a filter that smooths the rough spots in the loved one’s appearance or character. It’s why people who have been in a relationship for decades can put on dangerous amounts of weight, and their partners still see them as beautiful.

This notion that the person you love is automatically beautiful to you explains couples where one person may be much more conventionally attractive than the other (sure, money can also be a factor, but let’s face it, I don’t know anyone with that kind of money, and neither do you).

There’s Someone for Everyone

The flip side of this notion that what you love is beautiful is a truth that I didn’t find out until I was in my 20s: it doesn’t matter what shape you are, what color you are, what parts of your body/mind/heart are missing/broken/different, there is someone who finds you attractive. Media has shown us for years that the physical ideal is young, white, and a shape that is natural to only a tiny fraction of the population. That image of beauty isn’t some platonic ideal that has existed throughout time. That image of beauty is a way of controlling women by making them constantly feel inadequate. But in the real world, all kinds of people are looking at all kinds of other people and liking what they see.

I’m Doing You a Favor

Boys started noticing me in first grade (although I did have a 17-year-old boyfriend when I was 3, but I later found out he was just using me to hook up with high school girls). So it didn’t seem odd to me that they would keep noticing me as I got older. But when viewed through the filter of my family’s unrelenting negative messages, I soon came to feel that I was somehow unworthy of attention. In fact, I was sexually assaulted twice before I was 16, and both times when I tried to tell my family, I was labeled as “dramatic” because the men who assaulted me used the defense “why would I want that?”

A weird thing happened when I kept receiving something good I thought I didn’t deserve – complete dissociation. The person receiving all the attention couldn’t be me, because me was unloveable. People who claimed to be attracted to me weren’t seeing me clearly. For whatever reason – the way I dressed, the way I wore my hair, the way I spoke – they were somehow blind to the fact that I was fat, because if they knew that, if they could see it, they would laugh at me and walk away.

As an adult, the men I dated fell into two categories – the ones that were genuinely interested in me, and the ones who may have been interested in me, but who felt the need to let me know they were doing me some kind of favor by going out with me. When I was in college, I was at a party at a guy’s house, and my friends and I were all laughing and talking about my (even then) hilarious romantic history. Later, when the guy and I were alone, he said “I just don’t get how all that stuff they were saying could be true when-” and he made a vague gesture taking in my body. This question didn’t stop him from wanting a relationship with me, but his presumption that dating was a new world to me and that he was somehow going to improve my life by approving of my body was so off-putting that I dumped him within weeks.

Cinderella, But With Character

Throughout all of this, I had an idea in my mind of the kind of relationship I wanted – someone whom I found physically attractive who was also smart, capable, and fun to be around. As a kid, being convinced that no one would ever love me, I devoted myself to reading, to learning, to mastering things that interested me. As an introvert, making a good life for just myself came really naturally – I didn’t feel like I would die without a partner. On the other hand, who doesn’t want to be loved? Even the most hardcore introvert needs a core person or group of people to bond with.

So, while I was doing the things that interested me, I was still waiting for that perfect person. And I wasn’t shy about kicking the imperfect ones to the curb. When I was a freshman in high school, there was a boy I went out with maybe two or three times – long enough for me to consider him my boyfriend. But then he told me he was dumping me for the girl that he then went on to date for the rest of our time in high school. That was the last time anyone has broken up with me. Since then, it’s always been me who breaks up because the other person isn’t living up to my standards. Which are, admittedly high – but why shouldn’t they be?

Oh, yeah. Because I’m fat.

Building an Adult Life

In 2000, I met my current husband. I found him very attractive the minute I met him, and as we talked, I found out he was hilarious and smart. There were some obstacles to our getting together (notably, my 3rd husband), but even after we got together, we had some real struggles. I was operating on the assumption that I was always going to be hurt, disappointed, betrayed. For years, I continued to have a dream I’d had regularly since I was a teenager: that I would be in some very public place, surrounded by people who knew me (work, school) and my significant other would approach me with another woman by his side. He would say, in a very matter-of-fact way, that I was out and she was in. When I got upset, he would act disappointed, say “I really thought you’d be more adult about this,” and encourage the onlookers to agree with him that I was the one being unreasonable.

It literally took me a decade to relax into the idea that this person that I valued so highly actually did think of me as attractive. That he loved me – not some fantasized, idealistic version of me, but ME. He’s smelled my morning breath. He’s seen my pimples, my stretch marks, every part of my own body that I find embarrassing or repulsive, and he still tells me he thinks I’m beautiful every day.

Will It End?

I’ll be honest – now that I have a relationship where my husband thinks I’m beautiful, what will happen when I’m no longer that shape? What if he’s just one of those guys who only likes bigger women? This is one of those times where I have to force myself to stop letting my fears run away with me. When my husband met me, I was about 50 pounds lighter than I was before I had surgery, and he was really into that person. The person he’s into is smart, and silly, and curious, and adventurous, and that’s not going away.

Next time, I’ll talk about figuring out who I am, what I like, and how I could make peace with my past. 

Part 1: Forty Five Years of Dieting

On October 22, 2019, I had a sleeve gastrectomy. I went into this process knowing that this would forever change my relationship to food and my body. This is part of a series of posts covering my history with food, weight loss, and my body. All opinions expressed in these posts are my own, and reflect my own lived experience. Nothing said here should be generalized, or taken as a suggestion for others. If you’re considering weight loss surgery, your first step is to reach out to your doctor.

Did I start out fat?

I have a brother and two sisters. All of us, at one time or another, went through a period of weighing more than we should, and when I reach back into my childhood memories, the thing that’s really clear is that weighing more than you should made you a Bad Person.

My mother has always been stocky, and has been on a diet for the entirety of my life. Rather than recount it all, I invite you to read this article I wrote about food and how it has affected my relationship with my mother. My older brother is built more like my mother – on the short side, and stocky. In fact, even though he’s an ultra-marathoner who runs like a million miles a week, he still has kind of a dad bod. My two sisters favored my father more – dad was a string bean as a kid, and as an adult, was the sort of person who, whenever he thought he was putting on weight, he’d skip lunch and it would be gone.

Sadly, both my mother’s constant dieting and my father’s utter disdain for fat had the same effect: to make me hate myself. I’ve seen pictures of myself as a child, and I don’t look particularly fat. I know that in first grade I weighed 40 pounds (the average weight for a first grader is 46 pounds). And I don’t recall being mocked for being fat in school – like, not ever. Whatever I looked like out in the world was just fine with everyone. It was only at home that I was unforgivable.

I was on my first diet at 9 or 10, my second big diet at 13, all through high school I took over the counter diet pills and would exist for weeks at a time on the pickles off my friends’ hamburgers and diet Coke while swimming for hours every day. In college, my father paid for me to go on one of those medically supervised diets where you drink shakes that add up to (and this is no exaggeration) 400 calories a day. After I had my first daughter, I joined OA and for years followed their very restrictive Gray Sheet diet.

When I was dieting, my family would praise me for making “good” choices, even when those choices were horribly unhealthy – the medically supervised diet made my blood pressure so low that I would faint and my vision would black out. But how I felt wasn’t important. When I lost weight, everyone was quick to tell me how attractive I was, but when I was heavier, I wasn’t unattractive. I was invisible.

It’s Not Just the Food

What compounded the issue was the fact that I am an extreme introvert. I love being around people, but I burn out quickly, and once I’m burnt out, being around other people is a nightmare. My father comes from a family of 7 kids, and all of them had a bunch of kids of their own, and all of those kids went on to marry and have more kids. That side of my family numbers in the hundreds at this point. And I would always rather stay home and read a book than go on family outings (which invariably included some kind of athletic activity). For a long time, both of my extrovert parents took my reluctance to leave the house personally. As though I were purposely trying to spoil their good time. And they decided that I wanted to stay home, not because leaving the house felt horrible, but because I was just too lazy to get my shit together to go out.

It meant that the reason I was fat was because I am lazy. To this day, my entire personality is built around proving to the entire world that I am not lazy. It’s the reason why I feel inadequate if I’m not doing as much as all my friends. I don’t mean doing as much as any one of my individual friends – I mean doing as much as all of them put together. Saying it out loud sounds crazy, but in my head, it’s the only logic I hear sometimes.

Both my parents, whether they admit it or not, equate excess weight with personal failure. I would go so far as to speculate that my mother’s weight was a factor in their splitting up when I was a toddler. My mother longingly recounts times in her life when she was thin the way other people might recount being briefly famous or wildly rich. Those were the highlights of her life, and the memories she falls back on when she feels inadequate. My father isn’t shy about making fun of fat people, despite the fact that much of his family is overweight. He thinks it’s hilarious, like we’re performing monkeys. And it doesn’t matter if those performing monkeys have feelings, or lives, or accomplishments of which they are justly proud – nobody cares what the monkey thinks.

What Happens When You’re Only Important If You’re Thin

The fallout of growing up with this kind of self-hatred was the inescapable idea that I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve happiness, or pleasure, or success because I haven’t “earned” it by being attractive. When my siblings were given things I was denied (which happened more than most of my family will admit), I couldn’t complain, because after all, I didn’t really deserve them. When I experienced successes out in the world and looked to my parents for validation, I was more often compared to other people who were more successful, as though my own personal success wasn’t meaningful. Because it really doesn’t matter what you do when you’re fat. It doesn’t count.

Next time, I’ll talk about the impact of being fat on my dating life. 

Let It Go…

I’ve decided to lay aside my publishing work for a while so I can concentrate on my own writing, and the last interaction I had with a submitter was an unfortunate one.

This person had submitted a chapbook to our press, and we accepted it back in May, letting them know it would be published in September. We sent them our standard contract to sign, but it took more than three weeks for them to sign it even though it’s electronic – they only had to click a checkbox. But with four months until publication, it didn’t seem to be a huge issue. I asked for a bio and updated address, but what I got after another couple of weeks’ wait wasn’t really a bio. It read more like someone writing a letter to a distant relative, introducing themselves and catching them up. I deal with this all the time, and cleaned it up into an almost-presentable third-person bio, figuring that the author would likely want to make changes to it before publication.

In August, I sent out the proof copy of the book for sign off. The wording on the form letter accompanying the proof was something like “let us know if there are any changes to be made,” and for only the second time in the decades I’ve been an editor, someone decided this meant “you don’t actually have to reply.” This was to be the very last project our press would work on, and I was already working on other things, so when I didn’t hear from this person, I decided to save myself the time and aggravation of having to chase them down every time I needed something. I sent a note saying “since we didn’t hear anything from you, we’re rescinding our offer of publication.”

What did I think would happen? Well, I figured that at worst, I might get an apologetic note giving some excuse for their failure to respond. What I didn’t expect was several letters saying that it was my fault, and I should publish their work. The whole approach was so grating that I ended up feeling like I had dodged a bullet. I had to put together in my mind exactly why this person’s response offended me.

Mistake #1

Their first email said “The last email I received stated that if I had no problems with the layout that you were going to go ahead with how it looked like.” Grammar aside, that’s not what the email they referenced said. I don’t know if this person assumed I hadn’t sent the email, or that I wouldn’t be able to easily look up what they had been sent. If you use Submittable to accept submissions, it keeps track of all correspondence for each submission. Even if I weren’t the person who had sent out the email, a single click would pull it up so I could read it.

But also, that grammar.

Mistake #2

Minutes after sending the first email, they sent a second asking if we could still publish the work because “this is really upsetting for me.”

I get it. Realizing that you made a mistake that has cost you something important is upsetting. And the right response to that upset is to understand where the mistake was made, and be more diligent in the future. The way this person responded leads me to believe that they are the sort of person who has had people smooth things over for them in other areas of life and expects that to always be the case. As an adult, this is almost never the case, and sending a series of increasingly petulant emails is not professional.

I took pity on this person and responded to them to let them know the circumstances that led to the decision to pull their work, how another author that we accepted at the same time had responded on time and therefore had been published without issue, and said that while their work was good, no one’s work is so good that they can afford to ignore emails from publishers. I even suggested another venue for their work.

Which brings us to…

Mistake #3

They responded, doubling down on the fact that the wording of the email was ambiguous, and suggesting “Maybe you guys could’ve chosen your words more wisely, for example ‘please respond yes or no’ would’ve been more forward of an email if you guys were going to actually cut my pieces out if I simply didn’t respond!”

After sending the same form letter email to hundreds of authors and having them respond without an issue, I am unsympathetic to this person, and don’t look kindly on the insistence that this is my fault, not theirs. If an editor is kind enough to take time out of their schedule to point out your error, it would be great if the recipient understood that the editor is trying to be helpful, not trying to rub their nose in it. I have a whole lot of other demands on my time, and letting people down makes me feel terrible, so insisting that I’m the asshole in this situation doesn’t go down well.

Mistake #4

They weren’t happy that I mentioned the other person whose writing I accepted at the same time. “You said that you accepted my work at the same time you accepted someone else’s… I don’t mean to be rude but quite frankly if you accept people’s work it is not a competition … ”

Except that it is. Getting published is absolutely a competition where you are trying to give editors a good reason to publish your work, as opposed to anyone else’s. Years ago, I heard an editor from Graywolf Press say that each year, they cut from their lineup the authors who required the most attention and hand holding. At the time I was horrified, but now I get it. I have a “do not publish” list, and anyone who makes tons of unnecessary demands is added to that list. Putting together a journal is a time-intensive, laborious process, and I don’t need authors who make it worse. And for every great submission I get, there are about ten great submissions I don’t take. If I end up struggling with an author over time-wasting nonsense, it’s easier to just go with someone else.

Mistake #5

They didn’t care for my remark that no one’s work is so great that they can afford to ignore emails. “I also do NOT appreciate you inferring that I think my work is so amazing that I do not have to respond to you guys! How can you make those crass assumptions when you’ve never met me, nor know who I am?”

First, I imply. You infer. If you want to present yourself as an author, learn what the words mean.

But I didn’t imply they thought their work was so great they could be rude about it. I said that no one‘s work was so great they could afford to be rude about it. And while it’s true I never met them, their emails tell me everything I need to know. I also know that this is a person who spelled their own name wrong on their Submittable account.

They closed with “This would’ve been the first time I was ever published, I graduated college and the writing world is harsh and cold at times, and I thought something good was finally coming out of my writing.” My heart is broken at the fact that their work was decent enough to be chosen, but a lack of professionalism undermined them.

You’re Making Me Uncomfortable

Uncomfortable.

It’s a word that went from private and innocuous to a public excuse for bad behavior almost overnight. When I was a kid, if you felt uncomfortable, you either fixed whatever it was, or you shut up about it. Discomfort wasn’t seen as a thing so awful that no one should be made to endure it for more than a millisecond – people were uncomfortable with all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons.

But around the time that self esteem policing (the impulse to ensure that no one is ever unhappy for any reason, and brought about such idiocy as participation trophies, third grade graduation ceremonies, and the kind of apps that take away your wrinkles and put makeup on your selfies) really got going, someone decided that the worst damage one can inflict on a human being is to make them feel “uncomfortable.”

The problem I have with other people’s expressions of discomfort is that the word “uncomfortable” is a vague, unhelpful word, and when placed in the sentence “You’re making me uncomfortable,” it asks the listener not only to decode what this particular person means by it, but also puts the burden of relieving that discomfort on the listener. Sometimes that’s absolutely appropriate, but not always.

What does “You are making me uncomfortable” mean? The answer to that varies greatly, and can give insight into who should be changing their behavior or attitudes.

You are making me…

Experience Physical Discomfort

Sometimes “uncomfortable” can be literal. Someone’s standing on your foot. Someone is invading your personal space, forcing you to stand or sit in an awkward position. Someone is touching you in a way that hurts. In that case, it’s absolutely okay to use the word “uncomfortable,” and to specifically call out what’s happening. “Can you back up? You’re pushing me against the wall and it’s uncomfortable.”

Feel Threatened

This one is trickier, and one that causes no end of argument between men and women. A man will say something personal to a woman – “You look really nice in that dress.” “Nice ass.” “Smile.” The woman responds with “You’re making me uncomfortable,” and the man comes back with “I’m just trying to pay you a compliment! I’m being nice and you’re being rude!” (Or worse.)

What men don’t take into account is that most women have had this experience before, and the way it plays out is almost never good. A man makes an observation about a woman’s body, she fails to respond with warm enthusiasm, and the man turns abusive – sometimes physically. And if the woman were to say to the man “you’re making me feel threatened,” the man would scoff at the idea.

It doesn’t even have to be as overt as an inappropriately personal comment. It can be someone staring at you the way they would stare at a product in a store window, or someone obviously talking about you to someone they’re with. Anytime someone is treated like they are not a human being with thoughts and feelings, but instead an object that exists for others’ amusement or approval, it’s easy to wonder where that objectification stops. It’s hard to call someone’s attention to the fact that they aren’t acknowledging your humanity without making that person feel defensive.

Using the word “uncomfortable” allows the speaker to introduce an element of ambiguity that lets the speaker off the hook – “I may have misinterpreted this, I understand that you had the best intentions,” rather than “We do not have the kind of relationship where your behavior is appropriate, and you should know that.” Because they should know.

Confront My Inherent Biases

This is the one that makes us all crazy. White people calling the police on Black people without provocation. Trans people abused and humiliated because some people freak out when they don’t know how to classify someone based on their appearance. Asylum seekers being detained and tortured while people debate whether they’ve broken any laws. Sometimes people are uncomfortable because they have opinions about entire groups of people that have no basis in fact. It’s easy to exist in the echo chamber of social media and formulate opinions about groups of people you have no direct experience of. If your only exposure to cultures other than your own is on television or social media, you can’t say you know anything. Media consumption is self-selected – you watch things you enjoy. If you’re a KKK member, you’re way more likely to be watching Fox and Friends, which reinforces your racist views, than Dear White People, which does not.

It’s human to be afraid of what we don’t understand, and when confronted with a set of social cues and conventions we don’t understand, it’s natural to feel awkward. But it’s only recently that people have gone from “I don’t exactly understand what’s expected of me in this interaction” to “I’m angry that I’m being confronted by my own ignorance.” And it seems that it’s increasingly true that just the presence of an Other whose culture might be different from one’s own is enough to make a person uncomfortable. It’s a vicious cycle: see an Other whose culture you’re not sure of, demand that Other explain their presence, be (rightfully) denied that explanation, get angry that the person Other isn’t conforming to your expectation of their behavior, demand validation from an authority that your mistrust of the Other is justified. But just because the systems of power in our country support narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes doesn’t make those attitudes correct. It just means that we have to work harder to confront our own narrow-minded, bigoted attitudes, rather than ask those we’re hurting to do the work for us.

What do you mean when you tell someone they’re making you uncomfortable? I would suggest that it’s time to remove “uncomfortable” from your vocabulary. Not permanently, but maybe let it go on an extended vacation. Do the work of drilling down on why you feel uneasy around certain people or situations, and then do the work of figuring out the right way of expressing it. It could be by saying “I’m not looking for your approval” to someone who makes personal remarks about you. Or it could be by introducing yourself to someone you don’t know and getting to know them better. Or it could be by shutting your mouth and walking away.