Real-life expert: Weight-loss surgery didn’t fix me

Jen Larsen is one of those rare writers who writes about things that happen to her in a way that makes everyone else go, "OMG, that's exactly how I feel" and "How did you get in my brain?" She is also a woman who decided to get weight-loss surgery and write every day about what it felt like to be transforming, how becoming the person you always thought you wanted to be isn't, it turns out, all carousels and sno-cones. Here, she answers some of our questions about what she's learned along the way.

You decided to have weight-loss surgery. Why?

I was fat my whole life, and for my whole life I thought it was something I had to fix, but I didn't know how. Diets didn't work. Diets, frankly, suck. I was angry that I couldn't eat the way everyone else seemed to be able to eat, whatever they wanted in whatever quantities they wanted. I was naturally unathletic, and angry that I had to actively work at being someone different, that it wasn't easy, and I wasn't smart enough or disciplined enough or brave enough or tough enough to do it, or to stick with the Be a Better, Stronger, Thinner, Faster Person Program. I threw myself into it over and over, and over and over, I failed. A year, six months, a month, a week, a day, an hour. At some point, I always failed, and it was exhausting.

I seriously used to fantasize, from the day I learned simultaneously that I was fat and that fat was a bad thing, about a magic weight loss pill, or three wishes from a genie, or some way to peel the fat off my body, layer by layer. I was nine years old and fantasizing about weight loss surgery before I even knew it existed.

I found out it existed (in a much less imaginative form) twenty years later, via a link I just randomly came across on a blog I randomly found. And oh. It made so much sense. It was like correcting a harelip. It was like finding a cure for obesity, and I couldn't understand why everyone wasn't doing it, why there weren't lines out the door of surgeons' offices, weight-loss surgery clinics, a free weight-loss surgery with every prescription renewal, weight-loss surgery vouchers passed out at the birth of every child, because isn't one of the things that parents think, right after "Just as long as she's healthy!" isn't it, "I hope she isn't fat"? Why hadn't I heard about this before? Why it had taken so long?

The idea of a surgery that would fix whatever was wrong with you, no matter why you were fat-an eating disorder, or genetics, or depression or whatever it was, it would all just go away once they operated on
you-It was real! We live in the future!

You have to understand: I was so tired of being fat; I couldn't imagine being fat and happy.

I had always been heavy, but I was over three hundred pounds when I found that link. I clicked on it and I devoured the website devoted to the duodenal switch. I skimmed over words like "major surgery" and "3-day recovery," and "loose, foul-smelling stools," "colostomy bags for the rest of your life," and agonizing death from intestinal complications, "blood clots" and "leaks" and "aneurisms" and "costs up to $35,000, and will probably not be covered by insurance." None of it registered.

Because there were the pictures. Those were what got me. The Before, she-it was usually a she-stood there with rolled over shoulders, pulled up to her ears. An oversized t-shirt, hanging down past her knees, a skirt to her ankles a look on her face that said, I know I am fat. I think I am worthless. I have given up. Heartbreaking photos, every one of them.

But then there was the progress. A photo every single month, down through the pounds that just seemed to fall off and vanish away. Every photo, such a dramatic difference in size and shape, but more importantly, how the smaller details change. The photos seem brighter, the clothes get less frumpy. The smiles. The pictures progress through the months, go out a year or two after surgery. Suddenly there were
hands on cocked hips, heels kicked out, chins lifted, backs straight. And those huge smiles. These people in the After photos were thin, and it only took radical major surgery and a single year. A year to lose
hundreds of pounds. A year to look so happy. And right there is when I made my decision.

Everything I knew about the Fat Acceptance movement, about Health at Every Size, all my wistful thinking that someday maybe I'd figure out how to be one of those beautiful, happy, confident women vanished entirely. I didn't have to be strong. I just had to get surgery.

How has losing weight changed and not changed your life?

When I was a kid, maybe around 11 years old, I had a headache. All the time. Every day. I was terrified of doctors, and terrified to do anything about it, terrified to tell my mother. I knew there was something wrong with me, but I was afraid to find out what. We were in the middle of getting ready to move to Pennsylvania, away from where I grew up in the Bronx, and I clung to that idea-as soon as we moved, as soon as we got to the mountains, I was going to be okay. The fresh air, I guess I thought, would cure me. I would be fixed and everything would be fine.

Obviously, fresh Poconos air can't cure an impacted wisdom tooth. And it turns out, losing weight can't cure depression or any of a host of psychological problems. Losing weight didn't fix me. A part of me, an
unconscious, irrational part of my brain, was utterly and totally convinced that all my problems, all my issues, all my unhappiness sprung from the shape of my body and the number on my scale. I was shy and socially awkward because I was fat. Depressed because I was fat. Low self-esteem-fat. Anxious? Fat. Disorganized? Fat. Clumsy and kind of foolish and lonely, because I was fat. Stuck in a job I hated, because I was fat. My life was airless and sad, because I was fat.

And that irrational, unconscious, ridiculous part of my brain really expected that when the weight melted away, it would carry along with it all my unhappiness and my self-consciousness and my self-doubt and
my self-loathing and finally I would be cured. I would be fixed and everything would be fine.

Oh, that was such a beautiful dream.

It turns out that losing weight was like getting rid of all my excuses. The weight's gone, and there's nothing left to blame, and now I have to figure out, for real, how to get happy, how to be a person I want to be, how to live a kind of life that is important and good. It has been incredibly difficult coming to terms with that, the fact that there's nothing holding me back any more, and progress, or lack of it, is all me and not this Other that's been dogging me my whole life. And it's been exhilarating, too. I can do anything. I can be anyone.

My biggest regret is that I didn't figure it out years ago, that I could have done anything, at any time, even when I was wearing plus sizes.

My biggest surprise is that I was right, all those times I resentfully thought that skinny people had it so much easier than fat people. Skinny people fit in the world, because the world is designed for them. Skinny people can be invisible. Skinny people are looked at approvingly, when they're not trying to be invisible. I don't have that always-on background kind of noise that follows me everywhere, the back-of-my mind fear that someone is going to say something terrible and vicious and hurtful to me just because they can.

I like being skinny. I spend a lot of time feeling guilty about that. But I would get weight-loss surgery again, just for that reason.

What have your realized about body image and self-esteem through this process?

I used to hate-hate! really, seriously loathe-objectively thin women who would say "god, I've gained five pounds, I am such a heifer." Or, "God, I can't lose this last seven pounds, what is wrong with me, I'm
so disgusting!"

I hated them. They didn't know anything about real body issues, or weight or fat or the hell that I went through, emotionally and physically and psychologically. I thought they should shut up and be grateful for the fact that they passed as normal. They were skinny, and they should be quiet because they didn't have real problems, and I hated them for only having five pounds to lose.

Then I lost 180 pounds, and according to BMI charts I was totally, perfectly normal, and it was very exciting because I had never been normal before, or in single-digit sizes and I couldn't stand it, it was so awesome and weird and cool and it was a wonder that my head didn't explode into a shower of marshmallow-crapping unicorns.

And then I got my period, gained five pounds of water weight, and my pants didn't fit. I felt huge and bloated and weird and horrible-that five pounds made a difference not only physically, but emotionally.
Five pounds! Five stupid, measly pounds. I was objectively, scientifically normal, but a five-pound gain made me feel ugly and terrible and ungainly.

I realized that I have no right to decide how another person should feel about her body. I have no right to tell someone what amount of weight on her body is the correct amount of weight she should have. To me she may be utterly perfect, but it is her own perception of her weight and size and shape that is important. She's the one who needs to feel happy and comfortable and good in her skin.

Feeling happy and comfortable and good in your skin-that is a goal that is absolutely worth striving for. But I'm also pretty sure it has very little to do with weight. I've lost so much, and I'm still struggling with it, every day.

Read more from Jen at her blog.

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