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I was never mocked for my size in school, but I was mocked for my clothes – secondhand, and far out of date, sometimes dirty because my mother, a single parent of four kids who worked a day job and was also trying to finish up the college degree that four children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

Sing Out Loud, Sing Out Strong

My nephew called me today to tell me about his grades this semester. He’s been working for the past 8 years as a sort of cabinet refinisher, and he told me that he looked at guys who’d been doing that kind of work for decades, and realized that they all had the same glassy-eyed, brain-damaged affect of long-time drug users. My nephew has a wife and two small kids, and he realized that he couldn’t afford to stay in a job that would leave him a mental cripple. The problem was, he’d never been exactly a great student. He wasn’t very motivated in high school, and even at the job he has now, he’s been working at the same level, without promotion, for 8 years. He hadn’t quit in protest because he needed the money, and had begun to believe that he couldn’t do anything else.

He decided to try nursing school, realizing that he first needed to complete about a year and a half’s worth of prerequisites in math and sciences. He enrolled at a local community college, and from the minute he told his boss “I can’t work late anymore because I have school,” his idea of himself began to change.

He was calling me because he was disappointed in his English grade. Until now, he’d been getting all As and high Bs, but now he’d gotten a 79.8% in the class, which translates to a C. He was disappointed, and he felt that he’d let everyone down. He told me that he’d been getting a solid B until the last class where everyone did a presentation. My nephew is prone to panic attacks, and has been on medication to treat them. He’s also got nerve damage from a near-fatal surgical accident that mean that his speech can sometimes be halting, and he occasionally stutters. The thing is, his mind is as sharp as can be – it just sounds like he’s a little slow. I suspect this is at the heart of his failure to be promoted at his current job, or the fact that the family’s expectations of him have been low. He went on to give me a litany of other ways in which the teacher had undermined his grade – telling them to use MLA format for website citations and then not accepting those citations, telling him that he wouldn’t be missing anything important if he skipped class to go to his wife’s grandmother’s funeral, then docking him points for it.

But I told him to write to his teacher. Tell her that he’s disappointed in his grade, and that because of things that were held against him in error, he got a C when he deserved a B. The worst that could happen was that the teacher would say “No, my grade stands,” and then he’s no worse off than he is now. In terms of overall grade point averaging, there’s not a lot of difference between a 79.8% and an 80%, but emotionally, a B is much better than a C.

It made me think about a seminar I took more than twenty years ago. I was doing childcare, and I was the head of the largest professional childcare association in the state of Arizona – an organization I had founded myself. The seminar was meant to make us think of ourselves as businesswomen, and to hone our business skills. At the end, we were each handed a survey sheet that asked us to grade ourselves on our performance in the class. “If we’re grading ourselves,” I thought, “I’m giving myself an A+!” The instructor collected the surveys and then, without looking at them, told us that whatever grade we had given ourselves would be the grade he gave us. Many of the women expressed dismay, having given themselves Bs or Cs.

It turns out that a lot of people go through life undervaluing themselves and their own efforts, thinking that it’s up to other people to notice when they’re doing well and to reward them accordingly. I was not raised in a family that lavished praise on others. I learned early on that if I wanted to hear good things about my performance and my choices, I had better say them myself. It stood me in good stead later, when I worked at an electronics firm and began and ended every conversation with my boss with “And you should be paying me more.” It worked – I got more raises, more often than my co-workers. It helped me later in my career when I would work into every argument with my boss the phrase “I’m not wrong,” and mostly, she believed it.

I’m not saying that blowing one’s own trumpet is always a good thing. The people in my family are a smug group, and can come off as obnoxious (I’m not naming names here, and it’s unlikely that the guilty parties would even recognize themselves). But I’m saying that if you believe in yourself and what you’re doing, it behooves you to speak up about it. I’m hoping that my nephew’s teacher sees the time and effort he’s put into his classes, the fact that he’s raising two young children, working full time and still going to school, and cuts him the slack he deserves. He’s not one of the insufferable members of the family, but I think it’s time he learned how to sing his own praises.