My Body, My Self

Food issues and a bad self-image led our columnist to undergo weight-loss surgery. She's still a mess, but a better-looking one.

The nurses are having a really hard time finding a vein into which to place the IV tubes I will need during and after my surgery for morbid obesity. I make my usual "This is why I'm not a junkie" joke that always slays the phlebotomists. A third nurse has been called in. I heard the others powwow about her before she arrived, speaking of her as though she were some sort of blood-drawing shaman. She can't find a vein either.

I am trying to relax as best I can before having my entire digestive system ripped apart, rearranged, and sewn shut. I think briefly about people on death row, strapped onto the table for execution. You hear about the times doctors have trouble finding a vein and the guy has to lie there while all of these people try to find a good viaduct with which to kill him. I, on the other hand, am about to be reborn in February 2006. Or so they say.

I'm ambivalent about the whole process of weight-loss surgery. It's not about the risks of gastric bypass, which have been overblown. No, I'm unsure because I want to be a fat girl who stays fat and still gets the guy, who is called pretty and not just in the face, who lives the life of a fully actualized person and is sexually confident. That girl doesn't have people harping on and on about her "health" as a veiled way of saying, "Damn, you are really freakin' fat!" She can walk into any store and find some cute clothes, no matter her size. She is judged by the content of her character and not the width of her ass. She doesn't need to get thin to find herself.

Brian Stauffer
Dad's nickname for me: 68 pounds of swingin' meat.
Dad's nickname for me: 68 pounds of swingin' meat.
Age 24: My weight is starting to balloon.
Age 24: My weight is starting to balloon.
The night before my surgery.
The night before my surgery.
Almost two years after the surgery.
Almost two years after the surgery.

I want this, but I shall not have it. Because in minutes, if all goes according to the surgeon's plan, I will have betrayed myself one year from now and will no longer be a "malignant morbidly obese" woman weighing 360 pounds; I will have become a thinner person.

Eventually the nurses have to use a vein in my hand. "Okay, Oldie," my dad says, using the nickname he has had for me since I was a toddler. "I'll be waiting for you on the other side." Then I am wheeled into surgery.

My surgeon, a sharp, reed-thin woman who thankfully has the common sense and steadiness of, well, a surgeon, is giddy. "I'm so excited!" she says. She has done more than 600 of these operations, and it's hard for me to believe that this one could really set her all aflame. Yet in the back of my mind, in the part of me that has the ego of a once-beautiful woman, I wonder if she is energized because, as one of the nurses told me, I will be a "knockout" when this whole thing is over. Already nervous about joining the ranks of regular-looking people, I don't know where to store this information. (And prematurely bitter at whatever man dares hit on the thinner me, who would never have done so a year before.) I swallow all this — irony be damned — and steel myself for the big event.

What the heck. If the surgeon is excited, maybe I should be, too. Despite my mixed feelings, I know that I am taking a really positive step in my life, one that took more than 30 years to reach.

I remember the first time I used food as a drug. I was in kindergarten. It was my parents' anniversary and I wanted to throw them a party, so I invited my friend Caroline from next door to help me with the planning.

We stood on a chair together and set to phoning all the parents in the neighborhood to tell them about the surprise party we were throwing in 15 minutes. They all said they were sorry, but of course they were busy. Never mind, we thought, we'll just do it ourselves. In retrospect, I was determined to make it happen. I thought that I could repair my parents' marriage with a party. I thought, in my kindergarten mind, that the magic of two cute kids and some soda pop would transform my house into a Norman Rockwell print.

Using the foodstuffs at hand, Caroline and I made enough cinnamon toast for 10 people, put it on a platter, and hid it in my closet. Then we waited for my parents to come home.

I knew immediately that they were fighting when they drove up, my father being an alcoholic and my mother being a depressive (things I know now, but not then). I was embarrassed but also sure that all we needed to do was show them that we had made a party and cooked for them, and everything would blow over immediately.

They walked in, muttering to each other, and we jumped out from behind the door with a "Happy anniversary!" greeting.

My mother looked sad and annoyed and yelled something out at me like "Just stop it!" with a look of disapproval.

Caroline had enough sense to high-tail it home. I was numb. I went into my room and quietly shut the door. My parents never comforted me when I was upset, so I knew I wouldn't be interrupted. I opened the closet and ate the entire plate of cinnamon toast while I wept. A strange, nice, insidious thing happened. I felt a warm calm pass over me, as though someone was soothing my brow. It was the magic of carbohydrates.

I was hooked.

No one was fat in my family but me. The chubbiness was due to an errant gene and some horrible eating habits. My folks never made me lunch to take to school in the morning, so it was up to me. However, I never felt like doing it because I was lazy, and, like, 8 years old. So the school day would be spent with no food until 3 p.m., at which time I would be starving and would come home to an empty house and eat, eat, eat. Then my folks would come home and we'd have dinner. My metabolism was being set up to grab onto every calorie for dear life.

My body, which consisted of thighs that rubbed together and a pudge, disgusted my mother and father, which really pisses me off to this day. "Suck in your gut" was their mantra. My dad even had this quaint little nickname for me in first grade: "68 pounds of swingin' meat."

My body had become my enemy. I hated it.

At one point, in sixth grade, I shot up in height and my weight stayed about the same, and I suddenly looked slim and more womanly.

High school was spent teetering on the edge of chubbiness at size 14. I felt gi-fucking-gantic. My eating habits had stayed the same from grade school. No breakfast, no lunch, and now, in my teenage "maturity," rarely much for dinner. I was a functioning anorexic, despite not being skinny. At the end of my senior year I really kicked out the jams and starved myself into certifiable svelteness. I managed to get on the radar of a ridiculously cute semipro skateboarder, the kind of guy who could have any 18-year-old idiot he wanted. Flummoxed at the attention and full of anxiety, I bought a pint of ice cream and ate the lot. Then, as usual, I felt a horrible wave of guilt and fear from "being bad." I had heard about this whole purging thing and thought I might give it a go. I went into the bathroom and forced myself to throw up. It was violent and gross, and when it was done a cool calmness came over me that felt like the after-effects of a really good cry. It was the perfect thing to do for someone who hated herself; the ultimate form of self-flagellation. Plus, I could now eat "bad" foods willy-nilly to deal with my feelings and then just hack them up again. Problem solved.

I needed help.

Once I finally did get ready to talk to a therapist, I got a doozy. Her name was Grace. At our first meeting, when I was 20, she made the astute judgment that I was depressed. "We have to get your self-esteem up," she told me. "You need to lose weight." I was five foot nine and 175 pounds, a size 14.

Finally, I thought, someone who gets it. Yes, I just needed to lose weight. I loved her instantly, and over three years became dangerously attached to Grace and her approval. She weighed me at the beginning of every session. For a self-loathing bulimic, this was fetishistic. It only reinforced my disdain for myself and my body. It affirmed the idea that, really, all I was was my body.

Then I met another boyfriend, a great guy who was really nice (I didn't trust him of course — he was too nice), and, strangely, he liked "fleshy" women. This didn't compute; no one liked fat chicks except closet cases and retards. Despite all my attempts at anorexia I had never gotten beyond being curvy, or, in my mind, fat. Still, I remember gaining a little weight in the beginning of our love, as people often do, and looking at myself in the mirror and saying, "You know what, Katy? So what?"

This was monumental.

Well, it was monumental for a nano-second. Then I knew that I would lose control. And I did. The weight started to pile on. It seemed as if aliens were abducting me every night and filling me with gravy and ice cream, and I'd awake in my bed 10 pounds heavier the next day. For someone who thought that life would end if I gained 10 pounds, this was devastating. I stopped taking care of myself, stopped going out, stopped seeing friends. My clothes consisted of the same frumpy housecoat, day in and day out, the better to completely dissociate from the neck down. Mirrors were verboten and removed from the house. I was really, really depressed.

Eventually a new therapist entered my life, a great one who knew what she was doing, and my course changed. We focused on me and not my body and normalized my feelings of failure and immorality around being fat.

I wasn't a bad person because I was fat. Wow! Slowly my body image began to separate from who I was as a whole, and what I had to offer the world. I started to stand up for myself. I began to feel as if I had a right to take up space, a right to ask for a bigger chair if need be. It was hard work, because no matter how much progress was made, I would always be thrown back out into a world that saw me as a fat chick. Again, my therapist was an amazing normalizer. I would say something like, "I can't go to that awards ceremony because I'm overweight." And she would say, "You are over whose idea of a proper weight? Over what standard?" as if to say, These are constructs, norms. Not truths.

I kept getting bigger and bigger, but in some ways, I was eating whatever I wanted as a big "fuck you" to the old me who was so restrictive. I was liberating myself from all that crap. I threw away my scale, becoming a fat activist of sorts, embracing my body and feeling sexy for the first time in my life. I had more sex at 300 pounds than I ever had at 160.

As my self-esteem grew — really grew — it was a sort of high to feel like a confident, big woman. I had always possessed a "big" personality; now I had a body to go with it, and it was intimidating to some people. The attention my beauty used to bring me now came from my presence. I read all the fat manifestos from great people like Marilyn Wann, whose book Fat! So? was instrumental in my attitude shift. I "came out" as fat to my family, who lived out of state and only saw me thin one year and fat as hell the next. They said nothing, of course, but I'm sure they talked plenty behind my back. By embracing my size I was also rejecting all the guilt they had laid on me as a child about my "gut." I suppose, in a way, I was saying, "You made me this way! Now fucking deal with it!"

It became apparent to me that no matter how much progress was made in my therapy, self-image, and strength, I would constantly be put up against the rest of the world, who could see none of my spiritual growth. Damn, it was hard to be fat. Also, no matter how "happy" I was, I still wouldn't fit in airplane seats or restaurant booths, or be able to have a healthy pregnancy someday. At this point I was the music editor at the East Bay Express, and I would always dread meeting bands; I didn't want them to know I was fat. I didn't want anyone to know that Katy St. Clair was morbidly obese.

Yet I also knew that losing weight and keeping it off would be next to impossible. Statistically speaking, somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of people who lose weight keep it off, and the stats were worse for obese people. I would probably gain it all back and then some. So, it seemed my only options were to soldier on and accept myself the way I was.

I became part of the large 'n' lovely go-go girls' crew at Stinky's Peep Show in the city, a club with punk bands and fat dancers, where I could dress sexy and meet guys — lots of guys — who were into bigger girls. What is there to say about chubby chasers? They objectify fat women, and after eight years of no action, this ho was ready to be objectified. Everything that might disgust you about your body — your hanging belly, your cottage-cheese butt, your floppy, massive titties — got these men harder than concrete.

When I wasn't meeting guys at Stinky's, I was meeting them online. The Internet is a fat-girls-and-the-men-who-love-them paradise. There were, of course, some nut jobs. First there was the guy with the Willy Wonka fetish, who found the scene in the movie where Violet Beauregard turns into a blueberry to be the most erotic three minutes of film in existence. I would wear blue clothing while we had sex and then puff my cheeks up right before he came, pretending to "blow up." I enjoyed this and thought it was cute — a turn-on, even. But I was also just glad to be gettin' some. I was hungry for not only love, but also, Jesus Christ, sex ... please?

On the Internet I came across a guy who was conventionally handsome in his picture. He wasn't really the sort of man the thin me would go for — too square — but compared to all the other gnomes out there who liked superbig girls, he was a catch. I instant-messaged him with a picture of myself. He asked for my phone number, and for some stupid reason I gave it to him.

Small talk ensued. I said I was a writer, and he told me he was an actor currently playing Tony in Tony and Tina's Wedding in a Philly dinner theater. He instantly got very pushy about my going there to meet him. "I just feel something between us, you know?" he said. "Like, girls like you are hard to come by. That woman 'Tina' in my play, she's like this Barbie doll, totally what most men would want. She disgusts me. I like fat girls."

"Okaaaaayyyy," I responded, alarm bells going off.

He wanted to fly me out to see his show, and insisted that I would come backstage after his performance: "Yeah!" His voice was picking up in pace and he seemed, er, a bit more herky-jerky.

"You will come backstage! And I will introduce you to Tina!"

"Yeah?" I said. "I dunno ..."

"Yes! You will meet Tina, and ... and ... and then I want you to ... squish her."

He said the "squish her" part with a breathlessness that belied the release that I feared was coming.

"Squish her??!"

"Yeah! Press your big fat body into her! Press her into the floor! Ohhhhhhhh!"

Click.

I think it was at this point that I began to really consider weight-loss surgery.

Before your surgery, at least if you have a reputable surgeon, you have to take classes. At the place where I had mine, ValleyCare Medical Center in Pleasanton, you have to take more than a dozen.

There are two kinds of classes. In the first batch, you are taught how to deal with your postsurgery body: what vitamins to take and when to take them, what foods to avoid for fear that they will harm or stretch your new stomach pouch, how to eat for those first few months when your tummy is the size of a fingerling potato. The other classes are about psychological stuff, the "What's eating you?" crap that people who "understand" fat people trot out. It's not that I think that stuff is total bullshit; not at all. It's just that I had already spent eight years answering that question in therapy. Some of the people at the medical center had been grappling with this stuff for only four weeks. There was no way they could conquer their food demons that quickly. They just wanted to race through their classes so that they could get a surgery date. They saw the procedure as some sort of magic bullet. "My sister had it done and she looks fabulous," was the sort of thing I would hear from them.

These people made me really, really nervous. I felt like I was in some sort of cult. Was I rushing into something stupid? Would the surgery work for a while and then I would just get fat again after my body had recalibrated its proven-to-be-fucked-up metabolism? Was I one of these lemmings?

As a result of my trepidation, I took more than two years to get a surgery date, stretching my classes out as far as I could, even taking almost an entire year off from my pursuit.

I also think I took forever because I was fucking terrified of losing weight.

Still, it was nice to get together with fat people a few times a week. I realized that alcoholics and other 12-steppers are probably missing that one important factor that goes along with food addiction: Boy howdy, are fat people jolly. We had some real cards in attendance, ever ready with the corny one-liners and zingers.

Teacher: "So, does anyone have ideas about good ways to deal with stress that aren't self-sabotaging?"

Jolly fat person: "I like to go on a date and let my hair down with my special girl. ... Her name is Sara Lee!"

It seems I wasn't the only one who had compensated for her "ugliness" by developing a sense of humor. On some level we were all giddy; I mean, we were there for pretty exciting reasons. We were all going to lose more than 100 pounds each.

Sometimes people who had already been through the program were brought in to talk to us. They entered the room and a sort of hush would pass among us. We revered them. They looked like regular people; it was hard to imagine them as fat. It was harder still to ever imagine that I would maybe be one of them at some point, that I would look "normal." Thin people were aliens, a master race. I realized that my disability of obesity was one of the few that could be reversed. If I had cerebral palsy, or quadriplegia, or dwarfism, there would be next to nothing I could do about it. But being fat, really fat, and then being able to transform myself into a thin person? Wow. I felt blessed.

We asked one young girl to describe something that had changed about her after the surgery that stuck out in her mind. She thought for a minute and then said, "I hate potato chips now. They disgust me."

"Whoaaaaa," we all said in hushed unison, stealing furtive glances at one another. She might as well have said, "I have the power to kill my adversaries using only the force of my mind."

My parents were supportive about my plans. My mother was terrified for a bit, but she did some research and started to feel better. My dad was also okay with it. They had had their share of therapy and growth over the years, too, and I didn't feel as judged. My friends were also incredibly supportive. They had seen me depressed for so long, avoiding parties and social events, and not seeing my own worth. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, the people who were not into the idea were some of my other fat friends. Perhaps they felt I was rejecting them, or saying that there was something wrong with being fat; I don't know. But they pulled away from me.

I read all I could about the surgery to ensure I wasn't making a colossal mistake. I liked what I learned. While just a small percentage of people who go on a diet maintain their new weight, between 60 and 80 percent of weight-loss-surgery patients kept their weight down after five years. I liked those odds.

Surprisingly, I had no real health concerns. My cholesterol was normal, as was my blood pressure and blood sugar, and I had a very healthy heart. In fact, that's something that pisses me off about the whole weight debate. Just because someone is fat doesn't mean he or she is unhealthy. Many fat people work out and eat well. That said, I couldn't sustain 200 pounds of extra girth for the rest of my life. My knees were starting to ache. I also wanted to have a child someday, and pregnancy isn't safe if you are obese. Finally, I had done a lot of work on my insides, and I was ready to have my outsides match. I needed to become a whole person and meld my two selves.

The first thing I remember after the surgery is waking up in pain and being wheeled into recovery. From there, things just got better and better. I have zero complications from the surgery, and, as expected, the weight begins to fall off. Basically, the surgeon sews off most of your stomach and leaves an itty-bitty part at the top intact. Then your intestines are rerouted to the "new" tummy. The weight loss comes from basically starving yourself with the small amount of food you take in, while parts of your digestive tract that absorb calories are "bypassed." People who undergo gastric bypass surgery do not process the same calories as other people, even if they eat the same things.

The weight falls off rapidly for about a year, then slows a bit for the next half year. I start losing between 15 and 20 pounds a month. Every time I go down a size I am sure that is it — that I won't lose any more — and then, of course, I do. One side effect of the gastric bypass is hair loss, and I experience a substantial amount. This is all part of the sucky mid-weight-loss stage, when you are aren't thin yet, are partially bald, and get full after a few bites of food.

One thing that strikes me is that I don't have that same "high" I would get from losing weight back when I was bulimic-anorexic. Now I truly am melding my mind and body. My form is catching up with my function. I am clearing out the cobwebs, not creating a whole new person. Every day, I feel more comfortable in my skin. A lot of people say this surgery is the easy way out. Then the weight-loss-surgery proponents pipe back up with how hard it actually is, how much work goes into it, how much willpower is actually needed. Well, I'm here to tell you that weight-loss surgery is the easy way out. Thank fucking God!

The world starts treating me differently, too. The first thing I notice is that the smaller I get, the more people start letting me into traffic. White men begin to notice I exist. Clerks in stores don't assume I'm stupid.

At almost two years out now, I am still losing weight. Your new stomach pouch stretches a bit over time, but your intestine really stretches, so that three years out from surgery, you can eat a pretty normal amount of food, like a sandwich and a banana, for one meal. This is how you slow down and then maintain your weight loss, along with exercising and eating healthy, lower-calorie food.

As I write this, almost at my two-year anniversary, my life is both very different and very much the same. I have lost 160 pounds and now weigh 200. I'm tall, so though not slim, I look pretty proportionate. I'm hourglass-curvy, and for the first time in my whole life I love my body.

Then there are the myriad other little things that are different. I no longer have to scout out the strongest chairs when I enter a room. I can still make jokes about my size. (I no longer have to post "Lost Dog" signs around town, all the while not knowing that the Chihuahua is actually wedged between my butt cheeks. D'oh!)

What hasn't changed is my relationship to men. I still can't tell when I am being asked out, and I still expect to be rejected at every turn. If I have a date with a guy and he cancels for a good reason, or says he is tired because he has been working for two days straight, all I hear is "I don't like you." The more I like someone, the harder it is to get that he might like me. If he does give me nice attention, instead of feeling all glowy, I feel like breaking down and crying. And even to this day, if a handsome man is staring at me from across the room, I do the Molly Ringwald Sixteen Candles thing of slowly looking over my shoulder to see the person behind me that he must be looking at, or the John Cusack Better Off Dead thing of assuming that I must have a booger, or the Revenge of the Nerds thing of quickly changing into a Darth Vader costume so that I can more comfortably sleep with them without their having to see my face.

I still have anxiety, and food is still the first thing that enters my head whenever I feel it. But I recognize it, give it a little wave, and move on. I smoke and drink way more than I used to, which I'm sure is part of what they call a "transfer of addictions" that happens to many post-ops.

So, yeah. I'm still a mess, but a better-looking mess.

The main thing I have learned is a sort of Anne Frank philosophy. She said that all people are good at heart. I think that we are all in there somewhere, deep inside, and what is in there is right and good. We need to clear away the debris that is covering up our true essence. I had to get really fat to find myself, and then I had to find the strength to pull myself back down to a "normal" size and deal with the world as that person. This is really hard to do. No wonder I have ambivalence.

Another thing to understand is that you can change your own head, but you can't change anyone else's. I went on my first date with a "hot" guy a few months back. I slipped into my size 16 pants and looked in the mirror one last time before I left. "Wow," I thought. "You look pretty, Katy." I even cried a little, out of happiness. I was proud of myself. I was really nervous about my date, but we met and had a good time. Then he let me know how he felt.

"Yeah," he said. "I really like you."

"Aww," I said, blushing.

"Yeah, I dunno," he continued. "There's just something about a fat girl."

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