Tag Archives: Size Acceptance

Accepting A Once-Fat Body

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Debbie says:

Of course I knew, as you probably do, that people who have lost large amounts of weight have major skin folds and similar issues, and that many of these people (usually but not always women) have plastic surgery to smooth out their skin and fit it to their new bodies.

What I didn’t know, even after more than three decades of doing this work, is how extensive and dangerous the cosmetic procedure is. I’m simultaneously grateful to Jamie Cattanach, writing at The Establishment, for enlightening me, and shocked by the issues she describes. Cattanach, who walked away from the surgery leaving her nonrefundable $1000 on the table, says:

My phone rang a week before my surgery date, which was set for early December. It was my anesthesiologist. He wanted to triple-check my health history for the many risk factors of general paralysis; I’d be under for at least four, and up to seven, hours.

I’d planned to take the four-week winter break of my senior year in college to get through the worst of the recuperation. Along with all the risks of the surgery itself, a full tummy tuck involves weeks of brutal recovery; patients can’t even sit upright, let alone walk properly, for several days post-op. Bulbous drains are inserted bilaterally into the wound to catch the lymph and blood the body weeps for even longer, requiring regular, stomach-turning maintenance. The incision site can remain swollen and tender for months after the procedure, all to say nothing of the basic, gut-level grisliness of the thing: a hip-to-hip gouge, a triangle of flesh lifted from the abdomen like making the mouth of a Pac-Man.

“Tummy tuck” sounds so casual I might have guessed it was outpatient surgery; I would have been so wrong. Cattanach also explains how, even with no medical complications, it can backfire:

Paradoxically, this surgery meant to make a body look “fitter” requires that body to give up fitness pursuits to properly mend. Many patients find that by the time they’re healed, they’ve gained much of their lost weight back. It’s not an uncommon irony in plastic surgery; breast augmentations, for instance, carry the risk of loss of nipple sensitivity. The sexually-objectified body part becomes a more perfect sexual object, but loses its sexual potency for the woman herself.

And there is the heart of Cattanach’s essay: as she makes so clear, cosmetic surgery is not designed for the person having it, but for the person looking at it. And because we are so conditioned to believe that who we are is how we look, tens of thousands of people go through this process. She opens the essay by recounting how the surgeon handled her to show her boyfriend how “pleasing” she would look after the surgery.

The remainder of the essay is somewhat more familiar to body acceptance activists: Cattanach supports her decision without sugarcoating its negative aspects, and has found — as truth-tellers everywhere find — unexpected benefits:

I can’t deny that excess skin has made dating somewhat challenging — sometimes more so than it was to date fat, when my partners knew what they were signing up for from the start. But in some ways, it’s actually a helpful elimination tool (or, as I like to think of it, an asshole barometer). Given that I look significantly different naked than one might expect when meeting me clothed, I’ve taken to having a frank and open conversation ahead of business time — and if that honesty and imperfection gives a would-be partner pause, I’ve gained an invaluable data point as to whether I really want to sleep with them in the first place.

Reading Cattanach’s essay made me long for truth-in-advertising cosmetic surgery ads and sites. How about:

Lost weight? Got those big, ugly skin folds? Wouldn’t you rather get rid of them? You can spend thousands of dollars,  you can spend a month in bed, you can spend months unable to exercise, and you might gain back the weight you lost before you had the folds removed. But hey, you’ll have a better chance of getting assholes to sleep with you!

I mean, who wouldn’t take an offer like that?

Thanks to Melissa McEwen at Shakesville for the link.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

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Debbie says:

Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning of Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body:

I wish I could write a book about being at peace and living myself wholly, at any size. Instead, I have written this book, which has been the most difficult writing experience of my life, one far more challenging than I could have ever imagined. When I set out to write Hunger, I was certain the words would come easily, the way they usually do. And what could be easier to write about than the body I have lived in for more than forty years? But I soon realized I was not only writing a memoir of my body; I was forcing myself to look at what my body has endured, the weight I gained, and how hard it has been to both live with and lose that weight. I’ve been forced to look at my guiltiest secrets. I’ve cut myself wide open. I am exposed. That is not comfortable. That is not easy.

I have been a body image activist since the early 1980s. I have heard people’s body image stories, told my body image stories, led workshops where people tell their body image stories, edited body image stories for print. Doing this work for much of a lifetime, one of the many things I have learned is that while your story is not, is never, cannot be my story, your story nonetheless overlaps and strengthens and connects to my story in hundreds of places.

So that takes us to Roxane Gay, who has perhaps written the most powerful body image story ever told. Having made that statement, let me say what I don’t mean:

  • Gay, as she is extremely careful to stress, is not the victim of The Worst Trauma. She is precisely aware of her privileges and the ways she is lucky.
  • She is not a stand-in for every other fat woman, nor does she want to be; her story is her own, not mine, and not anyone else’s.
  • Hunger is not a book about miraculous healing, or a road map for other fat women to find healing.
  • The book has no new information, and doesn’t contain much that is surprising to someone who inhabits the world of fat activism.

What makes this book such a punch in the gut is that Hunger ranks among the most nakedly honest books ever written. Whether Gay is reliving the story of her childhood, talking about her family, recounting relationships, or just telling every fat woman’s story of going to the doctor, she never for one second takes the easy way out. She never tells a simple version of the truth: the truth is always complex, thick, interwoven.  She also accomplishes the amazing feat of not writing about race, while also not excluding the role of race in body image. Here’s just one example of how open this book is:

During my twenties, my personal life was an unending disaster. I did not meet many people who treated me with any kind of kindness or respect. I was a lightning rod for indifference, disdain, and outright aggression, and I tolerated all of this because I knew I didn’t deserve any better, not after how I had been ruined and not after how I continued to ruin my body.

My friendships, and I use that term loosely, were fleeting and fragile and often painful, with people who generally wanted something from me and were gone as soon as they got that something. I was so lonely I was willing to tolerate these relationships. The faint resemblance of human connection was enough. It had to be enough even though it wasn’t.

Food was the only place of solace. Alone, in my apartment, I could soothe myself with food. Food didn’t judge me or demand anything from me. When I ate, I did not have to be anything but myself. And so I gained a hundred pounds and then another hundred and then another hundred.

In some ways, it feels like the weight just appeared on my body one day. I was a size 8 and then I was a size 16 and then I was a size 28 and then I was a size 42.

In other ways, I was intimately aware of every single pound that accumulated and clung to my body. And everyone around me was also intimately aware.

There is so much more here. We live in a world where physical nakedness is easy currency, although its implications are extremely contextual and complicated, and the physical nakedness of fat women is fraught indeed, as Laurie and I know in detail. But Gay’s determination to be emotionally as naked as a human being can get is far from easy.

Just as everyone’s story is individual and unique, our stories all also overlap on each other. They intertwine and diverge and reconnect. And when they are brilliantly told, they reflect so much more than one person’s story. Without ever taking a moment to speculate on whether or not her truth is related to anyone else’s truth, Gay opens a window on human truth in general; she focuses unrelentingly on her own story, and by doing so models how each of us can see ourselves.

Read the book (if you can stand a graphic description of pre-teen sexual trauma, and an unflinching examination of its results).  Read it whether you’re a lifetime body image activist or completely new to the concepts. Rarely will you find a book more worth your time and attention.

Caveat: Lots of people (including me) will respond to this book by wanting to reach out and make a connection with Roxane Gay. If you have that reaction, and you follow through, I’m personally asking you now to make sure that whatever you send or say to her doesn’t ask for anything from her in return: not an acknowledgment of commonality, not a response, not advice, not comfort. She’s given us everything she has in this book, and you can be 100% sure that a great many readers are asking her for more, and every one she has to turn away causes her pain. Don’t be That Reader.