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.