By Elna Baker
ALL PHOTOGRAPHED BY JESSICA PETERSON.
This week's guest post comes from Elna Baker, a writer and performer I've long admired. For years, she's shared her journey with weight, sexuality, faith, and family with true honesty and humor. She's one of the boldest, funniest storytellers out there and it is an honor to share her voice in this space. -- Kelsey
Recently, for a romantic getaway, my boyfriend took me to the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. He pitched it as a "spa retreat." This could not have been further from the truth. Esalen is a "community experiment in mental health" where they do things like group therapy and meditation to help "integrate your body, mind, heart and spirit." That's all well and good, but I just wanted to get my nails done. This felt like an intervention.
On the first night, he took me to his favorite part: the outdoor group baths, built on cliffs overlooking the ocean, like a postcard for romance. On our way in, he casually mentioned, "Oh, they're naked baths. That's cool, right?" I froze. Naked? I don't do naked-in-public. Ever.
It wasn't just typical body-image issues (though I have those, too). I don't look like you're "supposed" to look naked. I used to be obese. At my heaviest, I weighed 265 lbs. In my early 20s, I went on a diet and lost, in total, 110 lbs. I'd imagined that losing weight would be like that scene in The Little Mermaid where Ariel holds her new legs above her head, staring at them in disbelief. This was not the case.
Don't get me wrong: I was happy I lost weight. I'd accomplished something I'd always considered impossible. But, it didn't mean I got to reverse time or have a do-over with my body. The Before and After pictures you see on billboards -- they're a lie. After dropping the weight, I had so much extra skin that I could lay on my side and pull it a half-foot in either direction.
For a long time, I tried to get the skin to go away with lotions and exercise. Eventually, I resorted to plastic surgery. I didn't do it to alter the way I look naturally; I just wanted a chance at the body I could've maybe had if I'd never put on weight.
Most of these photos were taken a month prior to my surgery, and the last one two months after it -- my "after." They're seven years old. I tracked them down for this article, and seeing them for the first time in ages, I instantly remembered what it felt like to have all of that skin on me. How insecure I used to be about it. And how I thought for sure everything would be better if I could just make the skin go away.
I've had four procedures in total. I got implants the size of my old breasts and a body lift. Two years later, I went back in for a circumferential body lift. They made an incision around my entire waist, cut out a 6-inch belt of skin, and then sewed me back together, removing over 10 pounds of my skin in total. I also got a thigh lift: They cut up my legs from knees to groin and took out as much skin as they could. To heal, I had to sit in bed for a month with my legs spread open. Sorry, roommates. Now, I have a scar that runs completely around my waist, as if a magician cut me in half. I have two scars running up my legs like inseams. But even surgery couldn't remove the extra skin entirely. When I hold my arms and legs out, I still look like a flying squirrel. I have stretch marks running down the tops of my shoulders, and there's extra skin hanging off my arms and inner thighs. If I bend over, my boobs droop like empty pouches.
So yeah, I don't like being seen naked.