Do fat people have souls?

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Ask a Formerly Fat Person: Ask a Formerly Anorexic Person edition

Dear Formerly Fat Person:

You’ve written about being anorexic at more than 300 lbs. I read something in Time today about how campaigns against anorexia sometimes cause anorexics to obtain accidental inspiration for their disorder. What gives?



Dear Thinspo,

I think Kelsey Osgood makes a fascinating point here about the reasons that people become anorexic. After I wrote about being unable to lose weight with normal 1500-a-day calorie plans and how the only thing that ever worked for me was dropping down to an all-raspberries and coffee until 7pm diet, I did have a number of what seemed to be young women write to me to ask how this worked out for me. I wondered a little about the ethics of writing about my experience: I thought I’d been helping people realize that this was crazy because it struck me as crazy, but obviously, it didn’t strike me as crazy in the moment when I tried it. Which is exactly what I think Osgood is getting at here. A person in her right mind might look at the emaciated corpse of a 28-year-old Italian model who died of anorexia and think, “Wow, that wasn’t the best idea,” but if you’re contemplating anorexia, you are definitionally not in your right mind. In my case, all I could think about was how gross and disgusting and horrifying I was, and how I needed to stop being that way as soon as I could. Anorexia is a disorder of compulsion, laser-like focus, and exclusion: the whole point is to reduce everything to one thing. So you become pretty good at tuning everything else out, including the people who are trying to reach you. You also become very good at making your critics quiet by turning their criticism into what you need it to be. That’s why it’s such a difficult disease to treat.

As for the ethics of writing about it, I’m not sure I have a good answer. On the one hand, writing about it generally has caused people to recognize the signs and symptoms in their friends, and, as I implied above, the only thing that stops anorexia is the reintroduction of something else into the world you’ve created for yourself besides the fact of not eating. Distraction is what works, the creation of other priorities. Because it’s hard to do other things and starve yourself, you have to choose. Other people can be helpful with this. On the other hand, people who write about their eating disorders and how they manage them do give you ideas, as well as something to do that’s related to your eating disorder. One of the examples in the Osgood article talks about a woman who was on a family vacation, picked up an anorexia memoir, and took notes. I certainly remember doing frequent web searching for advice on how not to eat. 

So what to do? This is where I think that there’s a place for fat people to write about their struggles with anorexia. One of the points that Osgood makes is that we glamorize the anorexic: the hypersensitive, brooding soul who is also beautiful by contemporary standards of beauty because on the edge of starvation. We write about their lowest weights and show pictures of them that are categorically and visually similar to the ones that you see in the magazine rack at the drugstore (“Miley Cyrus’s Amazing 25-Day Diet!”) Well, I did manage to lose 75 pounds with my anorexia, but I was still fat and even unhappier afterwards. I also nearly flubbed my chance to go to graduate school by slowing my brain function to a trickle. It didn’t work out for me in a number of highly specific and annoying ways, and I still wasn’t a sensitive, brooding, soul who looked like she was starving herself to death. So take my example and just don’t. If you’re obese and you’re struggling with losing weight, you’re not alone; as I’ve said over and over again, it is nearly impossible to lose weight if you’re obese. This is no reason to feel bad about yourself or to starve yourself down to a slightly more socially acceptable weight. There’s a lot of sense in eating nutritious, fresh food and getting 30 minutes of exercise several times a week, but this probably won’t cause much by way of weight loss and the solution is not to go big or go home. Once you become anorexic, it’s hard to avoid that way of thinking. It’s always background noise, every time you eat, every time you get on a scale. You’ll always and ever more be conscious of having to distract yourself from what you still regard (somewhere in the back of your head) as the laudable goal of not eating. So do yourself a favor and don’t stop eating in the first place. Life shouldn’t be a distraction, but the point. 


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Ask a Formerly Fat Person 2! (Halloween edition)

Dear Formerly Fat Person,

I read recently that there’s a woman in North Dakota who is handing out little pieces of paper to trick or treaters explaining that they are too fat to eat candy in lieu of candy. I am also worried about childhood obesity, but something tells me that my house might get egged if I go this route. What do you think?


Likes Clean Windows

Dear Likes Clean Windows,

Seriously, is this really a question? 

Okay. First, yes, your house will get egged. And frankly, if you pull this nasty trick, you deserve worse than that. This person’s one woman crusade is one of these things that’s constructed to troll social media (which you can tell because she alerted the Social Media as soon as she came up with this brilliant plan) and so for that reason, I’m reluctant to even comment as if this is a serious thing, but here goes. I grew up in Michigan, where my mom made or bought Halloween costumes to go over my winter coat to accommodate the not unrealistic possibility that it would snow or plunge below freezing on Halloween night. So maybe I looked a little bulkier than I was. Second, this troll is assuming that children binge on candy all night. Any of us who has ever been a kid knows that candy is kind of secondary to the social experience of Halloween. Candy’s pretty easily obtained, even if you’re a kid, and plenty of people hand out really crappy forms of it on Halloween (even apart from the ones who hand out apples, or toothbrushes, or leaflets to make A Point). Hence those crazy bartering sessions when you get home. Deirdre McCloskey makes a fun argument about how commerce is really about sociability and inculcating the ability to get along with other people, so really, we might think of Halloween candy as a kind of currency that allows your kids to participate in an important, formative, and social bonding experience. In this market, a brochure informing you that you’re fat is worse than zero value: it’s negative value. It means that you’re out in the cold, thinking about your lost innocence and watching all of your luckier friends engage in the pleasures of childhood commerce.

Which gets to my final point. Fat shaming doesn’t work. Study after study shows that it mostly just makes people feel less than human, less connected to other people, and therefore less incentivized to exercise or eat healthier or do other things that will help them live a long and happy life among us. Even if you think that obesity is a crisis and that it’s better for everyone to attain some largely artificial standard of aesthetic pleasingness because you think this has something to do with health (it may not), your goal will not be accomplished through fat shaming. All you will do is make Buzzy the Bee and Charlie the Ghost feel really bad about themselves just so that you can score some points. Do you really want to be That Guy? Maybe Cheryl in North Dakota does, but I think we can assume that the moral chickens flew the coop a long time ago for Cheryl.

Happy Halloween!


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Ask a (Formerly) Fat Person!

I’ve always enjoyed Gustavo Arellano’s Ask a Mexican column in the OC Weekly, and a recent experience on a flight gave me inspiration for a way to revive my fat blogging, which is something I’ve been meaning to do. 

Recently, on a short flight down to LAX, I encountered various problems and ended up having to change my flight to a different airport. I was flying Southwest, so this wasn’t as problematic as it would usually be—they let you switch between co-terminals pretty easily. But, as those of you who fly Southwest know, you have to check in exactly 24 hours in advance or you get a terrible boarding position, and thus a terrible seat. As I changed my flight about two hours before it was due to depart, I had B40, which is very, very marginal.

I boarded the plane and found one empty window seat in the back row. I folded myself into it and consoled myself that our air time of roughly 45 minutes would probably only feel like three hours under these conditions. A woman who had had a similarly wretched day of flight cancellations and rebookings and an even worse boarding position than mine sat down next to me. She was very large and did not fit in a standard airplane seat; she could not buckle her seatbelt. 

I found myself, maybe for the first time ever, identifying as a normal-sized person. In short, I was furious. How dare fattie over there take some of my seat and all of my armrest? How unfair it was that I had to scrunch up against the window, cross my legs and arms, and somehow turn pages in the book I was reading while twisted into the shape of a Berkeley yogi? I don’t even do yoga anymore! Grr! Argh!

I’m quite sure that my body language communicated my disgust, and I’ve felt bad about that since. But it inspired me to try to think about this situation from both the perspective of somebody who was once that woman and someone who now felt very put upon by that woman’s dimensions. So, I bring you…

Ask a (Formerly) Fat Person!

Dear Formerly Fat Person:

I was recently on an airplane flight where the person sitting next to me did not fit into her seat. Was I correct to be angry about this? Should I have notified a flight attendant that she couldn’t buckle her seatbelt? What are my ethical obligations if placed in this situation again?



Dear Squished,

A little anger is probably a natural reaction. But I would like to suggest that in this case, it is misdirected. The truth is, nobody really fits in airplane seats anymore. And the problem is about to get even worse. Tall people and fat people have long noticed what those of us who are of normal dimensions are just beginning to understand: in an effort to cut costs and keep fares as low as humanly possible, airlines are doing fairly insane things to add extra seats to planes. In economic terms, they have certain fixed costs whenever they fly a plane (personnel, renting jetways, putting the plane to that use instead of flying it on some other route or selling it), so in order to make a profit against those fixed costs, they try to sell as many seats on the plane as they possibly can. They’re already more or less flying at full capacity—remember those glory pre-9/11 days when you’d nearly always have an empty seat next to you?—so the next logical thing to do is to add more seats. This results in less pitch and often, on the bigger planes, where they have more room to work with in the body of the jet, even narrower seats. 

Fat, as I and others have written about extensively before, is usually not within the reasonable control of the fat person, any more than height is within the control of the tall person. And fat and tall people sometimes have to travel, for work, to see dying family members, and to do other things that most of us would consider pretty innocuous or even nice. But there’s an inevitable problem: tiny seats, bigger people. And the fact that even the normal-dimensioned are having trouble fitting into seats means that there’s even less room for margin. At a size 12, I just fit into your standard coach seat, which means that I can’t cede part of my seat to the person sitting next to me. 

For the record, I don’t really blame the airlines, either. They’re acting as homo economicus would, and frankly, I do not want to go back to the days when only .45 percent of Americans got to have really pleasant flying experiences once every decade or so. No, dear friends, the problem is Us. We continually demand cheaper fares, more routes and times, and carry more and more of our personal crap around with us. Those things cost money, and the airline, quite reasonably, has to find a way to pass the cost onto the people who are incurring them. If you don’t like this, there’s a good argument to be made for buying seats on airlines that might charge a little more for a better flight. (Personally, I love Virgin America. The seats are slightly wider, they usually don’t sell all of them, and the mood lighting and in-seat TVs make the flight go by a bit faster.) Some of the non-boutique airlines have even introduced a form of differential pricing with their economy plus sections. If demand for these sections escalates, believe me, they’ll put more of them in. That’s how this stuff works. There’s also (still) a lot of non-safety airline regulation in the US, and probably in other parts of the world, too: regulation that makes it difficult for new airlines to enter the market and perhaps offer a more boutique or pleasant experience for those who are willing to pay a slight premium. This basically has to do with lobbying efforts on the part of the current set of airlines, who don’t like new competitors. Write to your Congressman.

So to summarize, Squished: you have no one to blame but yourself. Okay, not exactly. You didn’t make the rules. But you can respond to the system with something more than a misplaced and unproductive rage at someone who has little intention of doing you harm and just wants to live her life, and, in this case, go do her job. You were uncomfortable for about 45 minutes: this woman is probably uncomfortable most of her life. Have a little empathy, okay?


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Stigma and shame

Bioethics has been sliding down the proverbial tubes since Peter Singer suggested that animals had more of a right to life than mentally-disabled humans (I’ve always wondered what Singer would say about my slow-yet-ironically-named-cat-Mycroft), but it’s still surprising to see someone in the field of studying the intersection between health and human behavior seriously suggest that what fat people need is MOAR SOCIAL STIGMA. Yet, according to Atlantic columnist Lindsay Abrams, this is exactly what the Hastings Center’s Daniel Callahan suggests, apparently because he couldn’t stop smoking without a social nudge. It’s always best to try to generalize your anecdotal experiences about a completely different thing onto some other thing that may or may not work in the same ways, I think, and Callahan doesn’t disappoint. I particularly enjoyed his list of “are you still beating your wife?” questions to ask the overweight and obese:

  • If you are overweight or obese, are you pleased with the way you look?
  • Are you happy that your added weight has made many ordinary activities, such as walking up a long fight of stairs, harder?
  • Would you prefer to lessen your risk of heart disease and diabetes?
  • Are you aware that, once you gain a significant amount of weight, your chances of taking that weight back off and keeping it off are poor?
  • Are you pleased when your obese children are called “fatty” or otherwise teased at school?
  • Fair or not, do you know that many people look down upon those excessively overweight or obese, often in fact discriminating against them and making fun of them or calling them lazy and lacking in self-control?

Are you pleased when your children are mocked at school? Do you remember how much awesome that was when you were in high school? 

Meanwhile, weight stigma among doctors—who really should know better—is killing people like Dawn Brooks’ friend Sandy, who wouldn’t go to the gynecologist (even after she did the impossible and lost nearly half of her body weight) for fear of being shamed. Clearly, what’s needed is more shame, and more uterine cancer. 

Callahan and his ilk often point to the occasional study that shows that Americans aren’t particularly good at guessing their weight within four or five pounds and claim that this is solid evidence that we don’t know that we’re fat, but this is such a gross misuse of a statistical study that it seems like one shouldn’t even need to seriously address it. Unless you weigh yourself every day—which most doctors and nutritionists advise against—your weight probably does fluctuate within a few pounds over the course of a week, depending on your fluid and salt intake on any given day, the time of the year, and your stress levels. Trust me, if you’re in the 35+ BMI range—and I assume these are the people that Callahan is worried about, since being merely overweight may confer some health benefits—you are under no illusions about living a normal weight life. You’re sizing up that restaurant booth when you go out with your friends to decide whether you can fit in it, and whether you really need to go to your OB/GYN. Shopping is a chore and you feel constantly judged for whatever food decisions you make, however healthy. It took weight loss surgery to make me comfortable eating in public, and I wasn’t that big to begin with. 

As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for most people to live morbidly obese. You can stay active, but it’s a lot harder. Your joints hurt more and you have much more inertia to overcome. But for most people, this is also not something that is really within their control, unless you think that it’s reasonable for a human being to starve herself into so-called health. We all make our own compromises and do our own cost-benefit analysis, and that’s really none of Daniel Callahan’s concern. 

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Shannon’s Guide to Post-Bariatric Holiday Eating

To the extent that there is a post-bariatric blogosphere, holiday eating is a popular subject. These posts tend to take one of several familiar tacts:

1. Make your own fun alterna-treats! With rice flour! And fake cheese! Eat them instead of attending parties!

2. Here are items on the holiday buffet that you can eat: shrimp, raw vegetables, bloody mary mix without the alcohol.

3. Bring your own raisin-vital wheat gluten-tears of newborns cookies, which you can enjoy all on your own without fear of running out because everyone else will be eating the real food. 

4. Holidays aren’t actually about food. Holidays are about getting together with your loved ones so that they can coo over your weight loss and tell you how much “healthier” you look.

Not surprisingly, dear readers, I do not find any of these approaches very viable, as they tend to run at odds with the very reasons that some of us underwent getting our guts opened and bandied about and shaved up in the first place: so that we could live semi-normal lives again. So, the holiday good: I knew that there might come a day when I would have to call my parents and tell them that I wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas because I’d been fat checked at the boarding door and there were no extra seats available to accommodate my girth. I’ve worried about this for years, and even now, when I approach an airline gate, I wait for some flight attendant to purse her lips and order me out of the airport before I realize that I fit—well, easily isn’t perhaps the correct word, but I do more or less fit as well as any fully grown adult, into coach seats on airplanes. 

And I’m not going to deny that being a size 10/12 instead of a 22/24 doesn’t make a whole lot of holiday things easier. Like ordering cookies at a coffee shop, for instance. Or eating in airports. I always felt that I was being judged when I ate at an airport, like every passenger who walked by was wondering whether that fat girl daring to eat lunch over there at Chili’s Too was going to be sitting next to him on the four-hour to Denver, or, to add insult to injury, have a heart attack on the plane and necessitate an emergency landing in Skokie. 

As for parties, though, lurking behind all of those glowing reviews of your new look is always the premise of the matter: that you weren’t all that pleasant to look at before. I must have gotten a dozen “you’re so beautiful nows” at my parents’ holiday party this year, and never has it been so annoying to be described as such. It’s a bit like telling a fat girl that she has such a pretty face: everyone knows that what you mean is not exactly what you’re saying. 

I’ve endured two post-bariatric rounds of winter holidays now, and I’m not sure, as usual, that I have very good advice about them, other than that directed at people who are thinking about the surgery and still haven’t done it. Holidays aren’t going to be the same. Sorry. You’re going to realize at some point that your dad’s famous roast of beef tenderloin smothered in garlic is (up side) not going to prevent you from having sex that night because (down side) you ate a few bites and threw up quietly in the bathroom located as far away from the dinner table as possible. Or maybe it was Mom’s famous broccoli casserole, one of those nominally healthful foods in a parade of deliciously decadent ones that you will no longer be enjoying. Food, as I realized a little too late, is laden with symbolic meaning. Holidays are one of the ways that we reclaim the past and count time, and inevitably, holiday gorging on the old familiar foods is part of this ritual. And people will be worried and offended—even if they understand the surgery on some intellectual level and know that you had it—when you refuse to eat things. One of our favorite popular schizophrenias about fat and eating is the woman who can eat whatever she wants and stay thin. You’ll find that this now applies to you. People like what the surgery’s done for you but they won’t necessarily like what it’s done to you, and to your eating habits. (You may feel the same way, so perhaps it’s easy to sympathize.) They like the results, but not the process. You’ll have to ignore them, or make the choice between ignoring them and vomiting/feeling sick/needing to miss out on the parties and take a nap. 

So I don’t have any specific advice on what you can or can’t eat or recipes to share. I do know the kind of mental stamina you’ll need, though, so it’s best to start training now for the holiday 2013-14 season. Practice explaining what’s been done to your intestines, in as much gory detail as possible. Charts and illustrations from anatomy books may be helpful. Learn to smile through clenched teeth when people tell you how beautiful you are now, and understand that they are trying to be helpful. Eat a little of everything and pay attention to the early warning signs. Unless you’re trying to projectile vomit in well-meaning aunt Lisa’s face when, on her fourth bloody mary, she tells you that she had no idea that there was a beautiful human being underneath all that fat.

Happy (somewhat belated) holidays to all of you, and I hope it was a good one. I got dragged up a mountain by a dogsled in Canada, but that’s a story for another day. Tomorrow: New Year’s resolutions and insidious but ubiquitous health advice.

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Cancer Cat

So, the holidays. As Buffy once put it. “Tree, nog, roast beast.” I wasn’t very far out from surgery last year when the holidays came round, but I vaguely remember a lot of wanting to eat and being completely unable to do so. This year, feeling a bit more like myself, I decided to do a lot of entertaining: mostly because I realize that I’m going to have to start re-integrating other people’s food rituals back into my life if I ever intend to live a normal one. For a long time, just avoiding food-related gatherings made sense. I didn’t want to explain to everyone what was going on, and when you don’t eat, people tend to ask why or get offended. One of our favorite restaurants hear on the lovely isle of Alameda, California is this quaint little Cambodian place where they never fail to get offended by the fact that I eat about a quarter of whatever I order, and respond by sending out fried bananas with ice cream to compensate for the supposed inadequacy of the food. (This may be why it’s one of my husband’s favorite restaurants, come to think of it.)

So, 10 of my dearest friends on the way to my house and I’m feeling pretty good, like I can eat some of the things I’ve prepared and not think constantly about the phantom expanding waist line and my Polish butt. Then the vet calls. That little benign cyst that they took off the side of my cat’s face? Well, not so benign. Actually an aggressive, cancerous tumor in a weird place, and digging it out might require taking out her eye. 

It’s been a week of x-rays and oncologists and of not eating, and wondering if my cat’s cancer is just an excuse not to eat or really an actual lack of appetite. In the end, I’m coming down on the side of not eating when I genuinely do not feel like eating. I’ve always been a stress non-eater. It reminds me of something my mom always says: “Honey, when I stop eating, just pull the plug, because that’s when you know it’s over for me.” In good times, I want to eat. In bad times, I can’t even imagine ever wanting to eat again. Today my cat underwent fairly aggressive surgery to get the thing off her tiny little face (no, they didn’t have to take the eye, at least not yet), and I didn’t eat until 4pm. 

But it does make me wonder whether I’m ever going to get over this constant weirdness of not eating because I’m stressed out and then getting stressed out over whether I’m secretly pleased by my non-eating, if that old feeling of moral virtue, of wasting away like some Victorian heroine is coming back again. Maybe. But I’m trying to think good thoughts for my cat, and stay healthy, too. 

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Non-fat related, but…

…I have a Slate Double X post up right now about the bogus ehmergerd, rich people pay people to write stuff for their kids trend article that starts appearing around this time of the year.

I understand why people get upset about this, but I don’t really think that they should.  College counseling—as anyone who has ever applied for college from school other than the one on Gossip Girls can tell you—is in an abysmal state at most American schools, and paying someone like me $150 to tell you that you need to find a more interesting topic than “I just love charity work” for your college essays is a hell of a lot cheaper than moving to a school district with good college placement rates, or, god forbid, paying for private school. I think the issue is a bit more muddy when it comes to people who actually get paid to do schoolwork, but even then, as a college instructor, lemme tell ya: it’s pretty obvious. You call the kid who could barely write a coherent sentence during the last assignment and is suddenly producing PhD-quality work into your office hours and say, “Hey, without your essay in front of you, tell me about your essay!” If she can’t, well—actually what would happen in that case is probably the gentleman’s B-minus she would have gotten without paying someone, but I’m afraid grade inflation is a subject for another day. 

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Getting fat, Part II: Thanksgiving: Revenge of Thanksgiving

The title of this post is sort of a joke. I gained half a pound since Wednesday, which I (guess) I can consider within the normal realm of water fluctuation and all of those things we tell ourselves after a few days of stuffing ourselves with unnecessary but delicious food.

This is one of these jokes where the person I’m making fun of is one of the versions of me. Specifically, the version of me that cares about half a pound of weight gain. This is not exactly me at the moment, because I can look at myself being a weird obsessive from a distance and tell myself to shut up. But it’s hard living with both of these people at once sometimes. For example, yesterday. My husband and I have a tradition of going to the annual Dickens Christmas Fair at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, where we try on our holiday happy faces for the first time and figure out how to be merry and bright. The trouble is that the place smells like food: some treacherous combination of star anise and cinnamon and mulled wine that shouts “EAT ME” so loud and clear that you can’t help but be hungry, even if you’re not, well, technically hungry. 

I should say, though, that this isn’t really the problem. The problem is that I consider it a problem. I spent the better part of the day obsessing over whether I could have a cookie in addition to eating lunch, or whether it had to be one or the other. This was stupid. I spent a lot of time not enjoying myself over a cookie that I never ended up having. But this is always some version of my trouble, post-weight loss surgery, but, admittedly, also before weight loss surgery: I play a constant soundtrack of Overeaters Anonymous advice in my head even though I do not think I have or ever had a bingeing problem. If you’re fat, or ever were, you accept on some level that you have a problem, and spend the rest of your life battling your imaginary demons over something as dumb as a cookie at a holiday fair. I concluded that because the place was obviously conspiring to get me to eat, I must resist with all of my feeble will, give it to my higher power, or whatever bullshit self-help nonsense somehow manages to permeate our collective unconscious, even if we reject it on a conscious level. So I drove my husband nuts, drove myself even nutser over the fact that I was driving him nuts, and so on.

Small consolations where you can find them, of course. I’ve always loved this one corset shop that sets up at the Dickens Fair, although always more in theory than in practice, because I was convinced that I would never fit into one of their gorgeous custom corsets without spending a small fortune for a plus size job. I’ve always also been uncomfortable with people seeing my body, which is a necessary part of their seventeen-point fitting process. But yesterday, after initially rejecting a fitting as a matter of habit and course, I said, “Sure, why not?” Turns out that not only do I easily fit into one of their regular corsets, but I’m at the lower end of the size range, and the salesperson had to go down a couple of sizes to get a good fit. In service of trying not to care about these things, I realize that I have to not care in the other direction, too, and not feel proud or happy about something as out of my control as my body size when it’s going down or going up. But I’m so programmed by the assumption that down means good that I couldn’t help a few very Victorian flushes of pleasure at this development. 

And in service of being less self-conscious about my body, I’m even going to post the picture, unedited. I’m planning to go to their store next week to get one made with a fabric of my choice. 

When I think about doing things like this—going to a store and expecting that I will find flattering clothes—I remember very clearly what it was like when I couldn’t proceed with that expectation. It’s a nice change, no doubt. But it also, of course, reminds me of what I’ve given up—and what I continue to give up—to have it. It makes me angry that the choice is so stark: mental unrest one way, a different kind of mental unrest with another. One of the frustrating things after I published my Slate article was the assumption that I was asking the Internet for advice. I wasn’t. I understand the choice pretty well, and just because it is stark doesn’t mean that it—well, that it isn’t. I know that I have to decide between eating and ballooning up and not eating and staying thin but obsessive. In some sense, I’ve made the choice already by choosing to get a surgical procedure that essentially makes anorexia a permanent feature of my life. My choice is how to live with this choice, and that’s what I need to work out.

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Getting fat

Someone asked in the comment stream if I could say a few words about how I got to the point where I had 160 pounds to lose. 

It’s a good question, although I’m not sure that I have a good answer. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t think that nutrition is really a science. I think the real answer is that our bodies are extraordinarily complicated systems with their own self-regulatory mechanisms and ways of asserting themselves that we don’t quite understand on the microcellular level yet. 

If I had to speculate, though, I would say that one of the worst things that you can do to yourself is diet before you reach puberty. When I look back at pictures of myself when I was eight or nine years old, I don’t really know why I was dieting. I had a little roll of baby fat around my waist and I was definitely an 85th percentile sort of girl, but if I hadn’t been told—by our family physician, among other people—that I was fat, I wouldn’t have really known it. I wasn’t even a Honey Boo Boo, fat-wise. 

Our family physician was a horrible woman, a harridan, a scarecrow, an abstemious Methodist with a pinched face and a pinched manner. I believe she’s still practicing, and for some reason, my mother continues to see her. Actually, I know why my mother continues to see her. My mother, until very recently, struggled with about 30 pounds. She kept losing and regaining them, like most women do, and she thought that if she had our family doctor yelling at her about them, she might be more inclined to lose than gain. This doctor, though, doesn’t yell. She just icily and clinically informs you that she thinks that you are disgusting and you must be cheating on your diet. It’s so much worse than yelling.

In any case, she told my mother when I was seven or eight that I needed to go on a diet—which is when the Healthy Choice hot dogs made their first appearance. I didn’t like this diet very much, but I totally accepted that I was fat and needed it—after all, a doctor wouldn’t lie to me. I internalized the fact of my fatness, and it’s been a part of me ever since. Sometimes, though, I would cheat: cheating would consist of having a single Chips Ahoy when I thought nobody was looking. The results of this diet were mostly to convince me to associate regular eating with deprivation, and cookies with a feeling of both happiness and shame.

The other problem with this diet is that nobody had any idea what “working” would look like. A lot of kids at that age have a little baby fat left to lose. I was an active and happy kid. I spent most of the summer outside—these were the days before child molesters camped out behind every bush—every afternoon in the pool, and in winter, we took our dog for two mile walks: rain, shine, sleet, snow, locusts, etc. I’m quite sure I would have lost the baby fat eventually, if not for this unfortunate quasi-medical intervention. 

Once it happened, though, it was hard to reverse. The two emotions I associate most clearly and potently with childhood are hunger and humiliation. I was constantly hungry. Sometimes, I would give in and eat. Then I would be humiliated, because I knew that I would go to school the next day and some bitch would pull back the waistband of my pants and report to the whole school that I wore an adult size 12. (Also, that my jeans were from J.C. Penney.) 

I was never a binger. My parents often claim that I was, because they would find some candy wrappers in my room. For a long time, I assumed that I was. But I’ve read a lot about eating disorders since, and I’ve concluded that I definitely did not have the emotions or behavior of a binger. I was just hungry. Always hungry. Candy bars were what was available to a kid who had access to a vending machine, but not much else—this was suburbia at its finest, and there was nothing in walking distance. My parents in these days were going on crazy diets—the Cabbage Soup diet, primitive versions of low carb—and every cell in my body was crying out for non-cabbage sources of energy. It’s hard to remember now, especially since I live at the epicenter of world food culture and you can buy bite-size packets of artisanal goat cheese at the local coffee shop, but food back then was BAD. Casseroles. Baked meats. Everything from a can, topped with those little fried onion strings (from a can). Vegetables were terrible for nine months out of every year. Processed was still king. In a world where you’re alternating between bad vegetables, crummy fruit, and cabbage soup, a Hershey’s bar (however retrospectively plasticky) can taste a lot better than the alternatives. (I recently nibbled on a piece of leftover Halloween candy to see if it still tasted good. It does not. It tastes like a bad SNL impression of chocolate.)

But then the guilt. And I wouldn’t eat for a day, especially if it was the day before or of my Jenny Craig appointment. Lather, rinse, repeat, until I’d routinely convinced my pre-pubescent body that it was starving to death. Of course it responded by preserving every sugary fatty calorie I gave it.

I say “of course,” but this is very much a hindsight “of course.” My parents often get angry at me for keeping this blog, and for writing about my food issues, because they consider themselves personally responsible for every single one of them. I don’t have kids and don’t intend to have them, but maybe I’d feel the same way if I did. In any case, I don’t blame my parents. Not in the least. They responded to their doctor’s suggestion—and all of the dire predictions of lifelong bad health that came along with it—in a reasonable way. I don’t blame parents who put their kids on diets, because they’re doing the best that they can with conflicting information. It’s also axiomatic that anyone who’s intending to send a fat kid to school might as well send them into a minefield, or our modern equivalent of Dickens’ bootblacking factory. Kids between the ages of nine and twenty-one will latch onto any deviation from the norm, but fat is an easy and available one, visible every moment, and already associated by society generally with laziness, immoderation, and self-indulgence. Who would want to send a kid into this mess? 

Unfortunately, I think that the tragedy here is that this very reasonable action is also completely wrong, for all of the reasons that I’ve described here. Children are bad at starving themselves—and good for them—so they either quit, or they develop the kind of bipolar eating habits that I’ve described here. I had these habits until I was a sophomore in college, at which time I grew up and started trying to eat reasonably all of the time. And by then, it was too late.

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I just wanted to take a moment to say thanks to everyone who’s commented here and on the Slate article about their personal stories of struggle and loss. I think of fat as the strangest of all secrets: it’s so visible and apparent, but it’s the one thing that we just can’t seem to bring ourselves to talk about in an open way. I never referred to myself as a fat person until I began to lose weight. It’s this kind of silence that allows people to rest easy in their stereotypes: to remember that one time that they saw a fat girl eating ice cream, and assume that this is what all fat people do, all the time. (And even worse, that that is what that fat girl does all of the time, as if she couldn’t simply be treating herself for a birthday or for some other reason. Everybody knows that fat people gorge themselves on ice cream all day long, right?) So thank you, thank you, thank you—with the exception of a comment or two, everyone here has been lovely and forthright, and these things are not unrelated. 

It’s been especially important to me to see these comments today, because I’m having a hard time of it. I have a lot of important deadlines coming up, and when I’m busy, the first thing to go is my carefully-regulated eating schedule. One of the things about bariatric surgery is that you don’t really ever get hungry, at least not for a couple of years. It’s hard to describe how disorienting this is. Most of us organize our lives around eating, to some extent or another. It’s a deeply social activity, and also tied to the rhythm of our days. One of the hardest things for me has been what my doctor calls “ever-present satiety.” My husband and I, like many married couples, play a game that I call, “No, what do you want?” I bet you can guess the rules. It’s been difficult for both of us to realize that actually, I never really want to eat. Not until it’s too late, anyway, and my blood sugar is crashing and I’m getting that headrush feeling of low blood pressure every time I move too quickly.

So I eat on a schedule. The trouble began almost from the beginning of the semester, because the class I’m grading for falls from 1-2pm. This means I have to leave for Berkeley at about 12:15, and don’t get back until 2:30 or so, if I don’t have office hours. This used to be lunchtime. My inclination now is just to skip lunch—and I have a ready-made excuse. Breakfast is easy to skip, because who wants to eat first thing in the morning? And then there’s all that lovely coffee. It’s easy to piss away the morning with three or four cups of coffee, and not get hungry until 4pm, at which point I think, “Oh, it’s too close to dinner to eat,” have a cup of popcorn, and then not eat until dinner, at which point, of course, my stomach is still very small and I can’t eat much, anyway. In the meantime, I had this intestinal stricture cleared up, and I got very nervous for a while that because eating would be easier, I would eat too much. 

So the end result of all of this physical and mental and scheduling trouble is a 20 lbs. weight loss in three and a half weeks. It’s a signal to me that my bad habits are returning, and while I know that there are some people who think that it’s more acceptable to be anorexic than to be obese—an actual comment that I had to delete!—I don’t and can’t agree. It’s not okay to lose that much weight in less than a month, and I need to turn down the voices that tell me it is. One of the best things you can have when you get stuck inside your own little reality is people telling you that you need to come back out again. So thanks, again, to everyone who shared a story. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone out there.