On fat, fantasy, reality, my mother and me

Originally published on 03/24/2008. Slightly edited for clarity.

As a pre-teen or young teenager, I had an incredibly detailed fantasy. Often at night as I was waiting to fall asleep, I’d imagine that a fairy offered me one wish. I didn’t even need a second to think about what I’d ask for. However, I was not going to play the rube, like many people in fairy tales do. From all the stories of wishes gone wrong, I knew better than to trust the fairy to know what I intended by stating my wish in vague terms like “I wish to lose weight” or “I wish to be thin.” Fairies can be tricky, and that road might lead, not to my vision of the perfect body, but instead to life as a skin-covered skeleton, being invisible side-on, or even vanishing into nothing. So, clever girl that I was, my wish would be that, for a limited amount of time, my body would become malleable, so that I’d be able to pull handfuls of flesh right off of myself. I imagined standing in front of the full-length mirror in my mom’s room and sculpting my body with my hands as though it were Silly Putty. When I had removed exactly the right amount of fat from exactly the right places, and maybe put some back on in other places (like my small saggy breasts), and then smoothed it all with my hands, the fairy would change the consistency of my flesh back to its usual state and I’d be just perfect. Then I’d be allowed to eat a candy bar or a second helping of mashed potatoes, like my thin brother, and my mother would finally love me like she did him. I’d be able to get pretty clothes that looked like the other girls’ and cease to be the sweaty, sloppy, last-picked butt-of-every-joke in gym class. No longer the backward, bookish nerd dressed in the least matronly, ill-fitting and uncomfortable gleanings of Lane Bryant, or handmade creations marked by my mother’s limited sewing ability and fashion sense, I’d make friends effortlessly, and the boys at school would flock around me, cooing.

About the middle of my freshman year in high school, I was involved in some fairly typical adolescent girl social drama. On the day that my til-then best friend dumped me for good, I was unable to maintain the stoic stonewalled facade I usually presented to my mother, and ended up confessing to her what had happened. As I sobbed at the kitchen table, she went to the telephone and made an appointment for us both with a weight-loss surgeon.

To this day I am bewildered by her reaction to my distress, but the message was clear: “If you weren’t so fat you wouldn’t have these problems.” It wasn’t a new message, even though, unlike her, I didn’t connect the rejection from my social circle with my weight. But I went along dutifully to the consultation. I don’t remember having any strong feelings as the surgeon described the process of the operation to us; I also don’t remember being disappointed when he explained that he wouldn’t perform the operation on someone under 18. I think I might have been a bit relieved, but I’m not even sure about that.

My mother went ahead with the surgery during the spring of that year, 1983. She had to stay in the hospital longer than expected for reasons I can’t recall; my brother and I were not allowed to visit her. One day we’d been told we might be able to go in, and I remember waiting in the parking lot only to have my father come out to the car, visibly upset, and tell us that my mother, for some reason, had pulled out one of her “tubes” so we couldn’t see her after all. Even now I don’t know what happened to her while she was there. I have never been particularly close to my mother, but I remember the feeling of panic when we didn’t know what was happening to her, the feeling of bewilderment at not being able to see her. It was hard to feel sure of anything under those circumstances.

When she did come home, she threw up. Everything. All the time. She had, as the surgeon recommended, frozen small amounts of pureed food in ice-cube trays before she went in for surgery, but eating even one cube of thawed mashed food would make her vomit. She vomited dozens of times a day with a fresh surgical incision through her abdominal muscles from below her breasts to above her belly button. Slowly, the vomiting became less frequent, but even now, twenty-five years later, there are certain foods she can’t eat, and if she “overeats” –as defined by her reduced stomach capacity, and not by satiety or what a normal person might consider a normal amount of food, and therefore hard to judge accurately–the entire meal reliably and rapidly comes back up. I have at least as many memories of my mother on her knees, bent over the toilet, retching, as I have of her doing anything else.

With her surgically induced bulimia, she did lose weight–overall about 100 pounds. As with the vomiting, though, over time the weight loss slowed down, and then stopped, and then she started gaining weight. This, of course, was her fault–according to the doctors and to her–for eating like a normal person instead of someone on a lifetime, surgically enforced diet. She takes so many supplements every day that I’ve never even tried to count them. She’s had other medical problems and surgeries since, but she doesn’t say–and probably no one knows for sure–whether they have anything to do with the mutilation of her gastrointestinal tract, the frequent vomiting, the nutritional consequences of her drastically reduced food intake over years.

The saddest part, to me, is what hasn’t changed. She’s still fat. And because she still hates being fat, she still diets all the time. Her wardrobe still spans several sizes to accommodate her weight fluctuations. She still posts little notes about dieting to herself on the refrigerator and the pantry, although now they run more in the new-agey affirmation style versus the unflattering photographs with rude comments attached that used to hang there when I was a kid. She still frets about what she eats. When I give her books on fat acceptance–my revenge on her for giving me The Woman Doctor’s Diet Book for Teenage Girls for my twelfth birthday–she thanks me politely, and the books disappear. I don’t know if she reads them; I suspect she gives them to Goodwill.

Why did she do it? She was a forty-something woman–only a few years older than I am now–with children well on their way to being grown. She wanted to make a career change but feared the rejection she’d face from employers with her original, fat body. She wanted to leave my father and was afraid of being the lonely fat single middle-aged woman that everyone makes fun of. She’d suffered a lifetime of abuse and being made to feel less-than because of how she looked. Like me, she was probably tired of the limited selection of shoddy, frumpy clothes that she’d put up with for 40 years. I imagine she was sick of being ashamed of every morsel of food she ingested, sick of being scared about her “health”–even though she was perfectly healthy by every measure–and sick of everyone’s assumptions about her because of her body size. She was tired of the life she knew, and she was ready for something else. Weight-loss surgery was what this culture had to offer her.

I asked her a few years ago how it is for her now, and her answer shocked me. She really, really hates being fat, she hates it when I’m right about anything, and she’s a make-nice white lady, so I imagined she’d brush off my question with a non-answer, or that she’d say it was worth it despite being no better off than she was before (and perhaps significantly worse). But instead, she said she worries every time she has a stomach pain that something has gone wrong in there. She said she wishes she’d never had the surgery.

As for me–a few years after all of this, during my freshman year in college, I was sitting around the lounge of the dorm waiting for a friend, and an obnoxious acquaintance said to me, “I can’t believe you haven’t read Shadow on a Tightrope.” As much as I couldn’t stand that woman, I hunted that book down, and the rest is pretty much history, which you can read about elsewhere on this blog. I guess I didn’t really need a fairy to save me after all, though I am grateful for the vestigial ethics of that surgeon, which kept him from cutting me open, with my mother’s consent, during a time of my life when I lacked the emotional maturity to even imagine the consequences to my body and my life. But I’ll never forget witnessing the truth behind the lies told to sell the needless cutting of healthy bodies.


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