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I was never mocked for my size in school, but I was mocked for my clothes – secondhand, and far out of date, sometimes dirty because my mother, a single parent of four kids who worked a day job and was also trying to finish up the college degree that four children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. 

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