Where Have I Gone?

I’ve talked before about the Thin Bubble. It’s that air of civility that surrounds thin people and colors how they see the world, and how the world sees them. If you’ve been thin all your life, you’ve probably never noticed it. People accord you basic civility every day, and you believe that’s just how the world is. But if you’re fat, you know that it’s not how it works for everyone.

When I was in my late 20s, I lost a great deal of weight. I got down to what would be considered a “normal” weight for my height, and for the first time, I experienced life inside the Thin Bubble. I’m not talking about people finding me sexually attractive – that’s an entirely different thing. This is much more basic and mundane. Service workers now greeted me when I came into a shop. Strangers smiled at me and greeted me. But at that point in my life, I was married and running a daycare, so it’s not like I was out in public much.

Then I had another baby, and put on weight. And put on more weight. And before I knew it, I was back to where I had started, plus some (anyone who’s fat knows exactly how this goes). I went back to being invisible – to having service workers look right through me, to being able to walk into a crowd of people and have no one meet my eye.

Now, twenty years later, I’ve lost weight again, and things have changed dramatically. I’ve never been any great beauty – I’ve known that all my life. And now that I’m solidly average in every way, I’m a very different kind of invisible. When I was large, people looked at me and their minds said “unacceptable” and filtered me from their perception. For purposes of, say, navigating around me in a crowded room, I registered as something like a piece of furniture. The physical fact of me was undeniable.

Nowadays, I walk to work most days, and once I’m at work, I break for lunch or to go to the post office, which involved walking through downtown. And every day, people bump into me and act as though I sprang up right in front of them. I’ve had people look right at me, bump into me, and then look surprised. At least twice, I’ve nearly been hit by cars whose drivers looked at me in the crosswalk and started forward anyway. I am now so average that I am functionally invisible.

I never for a moment thought that I’d be leered at in the street or propositioned by strangers, but I never realized I’d disappear entirely. Now part of me is wondering if I need to change my demeanor. Become one of those people who greets everyone they pass in the street. Someone who waves at passing cars. Someone who calls out to people from halfway down the block. But honestly, that kind of behavior – having to engage with literally every person I encounter – would be a nightmare. I couldn’t do it. Which means that either I never leave the house, or I learn to live with being invisible.

All my life, all I wanted to be was invisible. It’s not what I thought it would be.

Full Circle Crazy

It’s happened. I knew it would, but I was hoping it would take a little longer. I was hoping that there would be some period of time between the “honeymoon period” of my bariatric surgery to be over (that period where, no matter what you do/eat, you will lose weight, usually 12-18 months) and the time when I would look in the mirror and decide I was still fat.

To be clear, I now weigh just under 143 pounds — this is the lowest my weight has ever been in my adult life. The things I find wrong with my body have much more to do with folds of sagging skin, and no amount of exercise will address that. Getting those cut off would take another 5-10 pounds off my weight. I wear a size 6 to 12, depending on the garment and the brand (anyone who has ever bought women’s clothes can commiserate over the completely arbitrary nature of women’s sizing), although normally, 8-10 works just fine for me.

Now that restrictions are being lifted in my area, my husband and I have decided to go back to our dance class. For a few years, we spent an hour every Wednesday at the dance studio in our town learning salsa, and for those years, I was just fine looking at myself in the mirror that covers one entire wall of the studio. Yes, I was 100 pounds overweight, but I was fine with how I looked. I wasn’t comparing myself with anyone else in the class, because I knew that wasn’t going to be a productive or useful comparison.

“…compared to them, I was a walrus galumphing around the dance floor, jiggling my blubber from side to side in time to the beat…”

Last week, though, I looked at myself in the mirror, and all I could think was “I look fat.” At 143, I still have hips and big boobs, and as I said, I’ve got that skin that adds a layer around my middle that can be minimized, but never completely obscured. Now I can see the other people in the class, though. Like the woman who leads the class who is at least 20 years younger than I am, and who has been a professional dancer since she was a child. There’s a group of college students, one of whom is a woman who looked about 19-20, who could best be described as “willowy.” She was wearing those thin, bell-bottomed yoga pants that one can only carry off if one is emaciated, and this woman was carrying them off just fine. These were the only two other people I could see, and compared to them, I was a walrus galumphing around the dance floor, jiggling my blubber from side to side in time to the beat.

I wanted to run.

I am wondering if it took this long to happen only because we’ve all been staying inside during quarantine. I didn’t have anyone to compare myself with except my daughter, and she and I share the same clothes at this point (yes, that’s weird too). Objectively, if my daughter and I share clothes, that means we are roughly the same size, and I don’t look at my child and think “oh, jeez, she’s fat.”

I guess now is the time to not just continue taking care of myself by eating right and exercising, but by remembering three things:

  1. This is not a contest. No matter what anyone else may look like, the fact that I am bigger/smaller, taller/shorter, lighter/darker than they are has no impact on anyone’s worth as a human being. I don’t have to be the world’s most perfectly perfect person in order to be a good person.
  2. I am fine just the way I am. I have stamina, moving my body feels good, I don’t spend all my time feeling like I have no energy or motivation. If I never lose another pound, if nothing about my body changes between now and the day I die, or conversely if everything about my body changes between now and the day I die, I’m still fine the way I am.
  3. So are you.

Removing the Frog’s Nervous System

My life recently has been defined by three things: losing about 100 pounds, losing everything I owned in a fire, and discovering that I’m on the autism spectrum.

  • Thinking about any aspect of my life, I bump up against those three things. Perhaps only two of those things at a time, but they’re always there.
  • How I react to my friends’ rallying around me after the fire: Do they love me because I’m quirky, or because I’m more attractive now that I’m no longer fat?
  • How I replace clothing since I can’t go into a store and try things on: Sure, I’m a “medium,” but what size is that in vintage clothing? At Banana Republic? At Target? And where do I find clothes that suit my very particular taste?
  • How I interact with strangers, who are the lion’s share of my interactions since the fire: Are they being kind, courteous, solicitous because they find me attractive, or because of the huge effort I put into seeming normal?

Since the fire, I’ve been thinking about my life pre-weight loss, pre-diagnosis, pre-fire. I know I’m not the only person in the world who feels that 2020 has drawn a line across my life, which was one thing before, and a very different thing after. What part of that earlier me is still there? How could things have been different?

Without the fire, I don’t think I would ever have had a reason to examine my life in the detail I have in the past three and a half months (as of this writing, it’s been 105 days since we lost our house). On the other hand, I have always been self-reflective, second guessing my every thought word and deed almost before they are completed.

I read a book where two characters were discussing two separate, but intertwined things, and one character expressed the desire to separate them. The other character said that separating them would be like removing the nervous system from a frog intact, and without killing the frog. It can’t be done, and it would be painful and disturbing to try.

I’m driven mad by how unscientific an experiment my life is. I can’t isolate any one of the above events and observe the public reaction from that thing in isolation, and if I were to hand everyone I interacted with a questionnaire that said things like “Which of the following factors was most influential in your interaction?” people would tell me they had the plague as an excuse to never interact with me. Sadly, I’m not smooth enough to figure out how to subtly ask stuff like this without the other person knowing that’s what I’m getting at.

We are each an amalgam. Not just emotionally – composed of every experience we’ve had, sensation we’ve felt, emotion we’ve endured – but physically. Every human being is an amalgam of human bits and a unique group of bacteria and various symbionts that live in our blood and guts, making each person a literal aggregate. So, it looks like going forward, I can’t separate any of the large defining events of 2020 in my experience.

I came into 2020 as an optimistic, fat little tadpole. I go out as a lean, muscular, and quite whole frog.

Putting the “Morph” Into “Dysmorphia”

I have never been able to look at myself in a mirror, then look at a crowd of people and point to one who looked like me.

For years, I would point to someone and ask whoever I was with “Is that what I look like?” It must have felt to them like I was fishing for compliments, because that’s usually what I got in return. What I really wanted to know was how I appear to other people, because I can’t tell.

What I did know was how much space I took up. I knew how far back the seat of the car should be. I knew looking at a chair whether or not it would be comfortable. Whether there would be enough room for me on a bench with other people sitting on it. Whether a particular pair of pants or shirt would fit me. Whether, if I parked my car in a certain place, I would be able to open my door wide enough to get out.

But things have changed.

I recently bought some new jeans, because the old ones were uncomfortably large. What arrived was a size smaller than I thought I had ordered, and I held them up and thought “I couldn’t fit one leg into these things.” And yet, not only do they fit, they fit loosely. I can park in smaller spaces and still get out of my car. I can sit in an armchair and cross my legs up on the seat and still fit.

You would think that would be a good thing, but what it means is that my dysmorphia is now complete. I have lost the one thing about my body I thought I knew – how much space I took up. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see that my body has changed, because although my face looks thinner, my proportions are still the same. When I look in the mirror, I have nothing else to compare myself too, so I can’t see that my body has actually gotten smaller.

It doesn’t help that I am still wearing a lot of the clothes I wore at my heaviest. My leggings, for example, wrinkle even at my widest points and no longer compress me at the waist, but they don’t fall off. I have a drawer full of t-shirts that have gone from painted-on to a bit loose, but they still fit. Almost 75 pounds down, I am still wearing the same underpants, although I am less prone to wedgies.

Part of me wants to believe that I will come to recognize this new body. Not just how much space it takes up, but its shape and texture. But when I do, will I love that body as well?


You May Not Be Fat, But You’re Still Fucked Up

Ever since I started these posts, people have been flocking to me, wanting to talk about their own experiences of weight. Many of them have BMIs* in the “morbidly obese” category (a BMI greater than 40), but just as many of them are what I think of as a “media-normal” weight, that is to say close to the size and shape that people in the media tend to appear.**

When thinner people want to talk about fat, the conversation always starts out the same way: “I lost a lot of weight, and…” But drill down on what “a lot of weight” is, and it almost always turns out to be 30 pounds or less. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fucking HARD to lose weight, and 30 pounds is a considerable accomplishment. Anyone who’s lost 30 pounds has a great deal more sympathy for those still struggling than people who cry about wanting to lose “that last 5 pounds” but have never had a BMI above “normal.”

What’s sad to me is that even those 30 pounds are enough to make many people panic, and to have friends and family begin the cycle of well-meant advice and snotty, skinnier-than-thou remarks. To these folks, those 30 pounds are often admitted to like a dark secret (as though people who saw you in the past could see how your thighs touched or your upper arms wobbled or whatever your hallmark of fat was), and I suspect the reaction they’re looking for is “NO! YOU?” That would reassure them no one could see the moral stain of excess weight. As though knowing they weighed more in the past would make me think any different about them than I do in the present. As though 30 excess pounds is the equivalent of murdering kittens.

It breaks my heart to hear how those people who’ve had a few excess pounds and shed them often talk about the unpleasant things they did to lose the weight. “I gave up all starches.” “I exercised three hours a day.” “I ate nothing but celery for a week.” “I fasted for 20 hours a day.” None of them say “And the whole time, I felt like Superman!” But they did it because they felt they had to suffer and sacrifice, not just to lose weight, but to atone for having gained it in the first place. And the more extreme and unhealthy their dieting journey, the more skinny people laud them for having endured it to re-enter the Company of the Comely.

Weight fluctuates for such a huge variety of reasons, from a slower metabolism due to aging, to the body’s need to conserve resources when it thinks it’s in crisis. People should be kinder to themselves about their bodies’ own changes. Love yourself, not by ensuring that you look attractive to someone else, but my making sure that you feel healthy, strong, and at peace. And if you feel those things at 30 pounds more, you’re fine.

*I use BMI here only because it’s a commonly-used metric. Please remember that both the entire notion of “body mass index” that supposedly measures your lean/fat ratio and the labels attached to various numbers on that index are utterly arbitrary.

**I say “tend to appear,” because we all know that anyone who looks “normal” on television or in the movies is likely a miniature stick figure in real life. I’ve seen Jane Fonda in person. She’s 5′ 8″ and weighs 4 pounds.

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.