I wrote this post in September, months before the election results came in. I kept the post private while I seriously debated if I could share it. However, since the results of the election I’ve realized that keeping it private is not an option. We now have a president-elect that refers to women as “fat slobs.” This type of damaging and misogynistic rhetoric threatens to unravel years of progress in the body positive movement. This type of language reinforces the notion that girls are defined only by their looks and, by association, their weight. It tells our little girls “you are flawed” and “you are not valuable.” This rhetoric pushes to keep women and girls focused on superficial issues, which distract them from realizing their power. I’m sharing my story in hopes that others may realize we are not alone and that our magic supersedes our waistlines.
I’ve struggled with my weight my entire life. I was 8 the first time I was called fat, 13 when I first tried dieting, and 19 when I made the decision to get weight loss surgery. Writing this, at 29, I can’t remember a single day I haven’t struggled with body image.
I first learned about bariatric (weight loss) surgery when I was 19. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college when my mom mentioned surgery as a new trend in weight management. After some research, I learned about a minimally invasive surgical option called the Lap-Band. The Lap-Band is a silicone band that is wrapped around a patient’s stomach, separating it into two parts. The inside of the band is lined with inflatable pouches that are connected to a port placed underneath skin (in the abdomen). Saline can be injected into the port, filling the liner pouches with liquid, creating a smaller hole for the food to pass through.
In my research, I learned that not everyone who seeks weight loss surgery is qualified. A patient must be a certain size and have a certain BMI to get medical approval. I remember my initial consultation, sitting anxiously as I wondered if I would qualify (read: was fat enough) for the procedure. To my delight, despite being on the low end and having no health issues, I did qualify. Doctors across the board agreed it would be a good idea, deeming the surgery a “preventative” measure. After that first conversation, I felt elated. I knew right away I would undergo this procedure and felt desperate to make it happen quickly.
After a year of required nutritional and psychological counseling, in the summer of 2008 the day finally came, and I underwent surgery. I can clearly remember the overwhelming sense of relief I felt in the days following surgery. Despite the pain and difficulty eating, I felt that my battle with my body was coming to an end. It was a big step, and I couldn’t wait for it to change my life.
“I remember my initial consultation, sitting anxiously as I wondered if I would qualify (read: was fat enough) for the procedure.”
So why, eight years later, did I choose to completely remove it?
In short, weight loss surgery never helped me lose weight. After eight years living with the Lap-Band, I never grew accustomed to the side effects. When I ate, food would become lodged in my esophagus. During most meals I experienced pain, discomfort and the need to vomit for relief. The side effects weren’t biased and would occur during work meetings, client dinners and on the sets of photo shoots.
After eight years of pain, vomiting, and trouble breathing, the choice to remove the band should have been easy. But it wasn’t. The truth was, I feared removing it. I feared it would make me a failure, and that without it I would spiral into uncontrolled weight gain. I worried that my freedom to eat meant I would lose control. I thought maybe the Lap-Band wasn’t helping me lose weight, but it was keeping me from gaining weight. Nothing scared me more than becoming larger than I already was.
Everything changed one day on my way to work. With the Lap-Band, meals had to be eaten slowly. On any given morning, I would set aside 45 minutes to eat breakfast. I would take my time, chew slowly, and pause when I began to feel tightness in my stomach. On this particular morning, I was running late for an important meeting, and couldn’t risk it. I quickly ate my scrambled eggs and jumped into a cab. Before reaching the end of my block, I began to feel sick. The familiar pain of tightness at the base of my esophagus began to swell. I wanted the cab driver to pull over so I could relieve myself, but we were in three lanes of New York morning traffic. As if asking him to pull over wasn’t embarrassing enough, the hordes of pedestrians and people in their cars would surely see me puking out the side of the taxi.
“I thought maybe the Lap-Band wasn’t helping me lose weight, but it was keeping me from gaining weight. Nothing scared me more than becoming larger than I already was.”
My face flushed; I began to feel panicked because I could no longer keep the food down. I felt it moving up and before I could stop, I vomited my entire breakfast into my closed mouth. I felt mortified and disgusted. I sat in silence for 10 minutes, cheeks full, carrying the former contents of my stomach inside my closed mouth. Finally we stopped at a red light on a quiet street. I threw the taxi door open releasing the vomit onto the road. I looked around to see if anyone was watching my disgusting display, only to see my driver looking back at me, shocked. Through the rear mirror in a thick Polish accent he asked:
“Ma’am, are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I’m pregnant, so sometimes I get morning sickness.”
“Oh! I see. No problem, Miss.”
I became good at lying. It was easier than having to explain the truth. The truth that, despite suffering these side effects daily, I never got comfortable revealing this much personal information – not with random taxi cab drivers, and especially not with first dates, colleagues, and clients on a daily basis. I never got comfortable excusing myself from lunch meetings to vomit ― or business dinners, or holiday meals with family. I became embarrassed being in social settings when asked, “Do you not like your food? Are you okay? Are you not hungry?” Over time, I began to avoid social events where I would have to eat in front of others.
As open of a woman as I am, I simply did not want to reveal this truth to everyone.
So, after eight years and one awful cab ride home, I scheduled my removal surgery. I took a leave of absence from my job and returned home to Florida where it began. A week before my removal surgery, I had a series of health screenings and pre-op appointments. While going to see the various specialists, something caught me by surprise. I was repeatedly asked the exact same question by multiple healthcare professionals.
“So, we’re removing your Lap-Band, and what procedure are we doing instead?”
“We’re not doing any other procedure; just removing my Lap-Band,” I would reply.
After the fifth person inquired, their look of shock no longer surprised me. This line of questioning from the medical team implied the inquiry, “But you’re still fat ― what surgery are we going to use to fix that?” I didn’t need further reinforcement about the way others viewed my body but received it anyway.
The morning of my removal surgery, I laid waiting on the hospital bed. I was plugged into machines with various fluids and medications being pumped into my body. I looked down at them and began to cry. This reality was so different from my day-to-day. This was not me. Had I hated myself so much that I believed this was the best choice? “This” not being the removal surgery, but the initial surgery and the eight years of suffering? Did I really let my misguided opinions of my body put me in a hospital bed? This was my first moment of heartbreaking clarity.
The second came days after surgery, when I began to remove the bandages. My stomach was covered in five separate incisions. Looking at them made me feel anxious and upset. I didn’t remember feeling as horrified after my first surgery. I guess I was so desperate at the time that the means justified the end. But as I removed the bandages and saw my raw flesh held together by staples, I felt terrified and sad. Where along the line did things get so out of hand? Why had I felt that I needed surgery to feel in control?
I began to remember some of the (many) hurtful things that have been said to me over the years...
“We don’t carry that size.”
“I would date you, but you have to lose weight.”
“I’m just concerned about your health.”
“You’re just big-boned.”
“I don’t usually like big girls, but you’re cute.”
I began to think about why even people close to me, friends who “loved me,” could be so cruel. I spent weeks after surgery remembering all the hurtful things, all the backhanded compliments. I began to realize that in our country, we evangelize the idea that being “overweight” reflects a person’s lack of restraint. We think it’s a symptom of laziness and a lack of personal responsibility. We define success by numbers on a scale, and make those who are “overweight” feel flawed. We shame them. In fact, body-shaming is one of the few types of humiliation we still deem socially acceptable.
“I began to realize that in our country, we evangelize the idea that being 'overweight' reflects a person’s lack of restraint.”
The realization occurred that the problem was not my lack of control or even my weight. It was what everyone else thought about my weight and in turn what I was supposed to think about it. But what troubled me the most was how deeply and easily I subscribed to what others thought. I let some other entity, separate from myself, make decisions about my worth and the state of my health (which at 19 years old was pristine). Despite always being active and eating a reasonable diet, I believed that my very essence was flawed. I thought it was centered around self-control and believed that I lacked it. I thought weight loss surgery was the only way to gain that control. But it wasn’t. It was a road block put in place to remove control from my hands. And despite my ill-informed beliefs, control was something I always possessed... it was always mine.
Post-surgery, I feel like a completely new person. The tension and tightness that once existed in my stomach is gone. There are really no words to describe the overwhelming sense of relief. I believed once I was thin I would love what I saw in the mirror, because I believed that my worth was defined by my appearance. And while I never had impactful weight loss from the Lap-Band, when I look in the mirror I’m overwhelmed with a sense of love and respect. I love what I see, because I recognize that my body is beautiful. My body is beautiful in any shape, and at any size. I’ve learned to trust myself. And once I made the decision to trust myself... I became free. Free to pursue health and body image on my own terms. And when you write the terms, anything is possible.