I’m writing a piece about fat acceptance and bariatric surgery. So far, it’s mostly from my perspective, but my editor suggested that I do some research into what other people have to say about it. As you might imagine from my previous posts, I have an opinion on the matter. But a big part of the article is exploring the intersection between fat politics and personal healthcare decisions.
If you’d like to share your experience with me, you can submit a comment via this post. Please use your real name and provide contact information so a fact-checker can verify your identity — you can choose whether or not I use your name in the piece. The comment won’t appear until I approve it unless you’ve already commented on the site. If you prefer, you can use my contact form or email me at gardenofwordseditor at gmail.
Anything you share with me is welcome, but here are some questions that might help:
Have you considered weight loss surgery for yourself?
What made you decide to do it or not do it?
Did your doctor suggest it?
Was the suggestion unsolicited, or did you bring up the topic first?
What sort of research did you do before making your decision? Was there something you learned that influenced your choice?
Did you talk to other people who had the surgery? Did this influence your choice?
If you did get the surgery, what has your experience been with it?
If you had the surgery more than a few years ago, did you gain back the weight or some of the weight?
Did it cause or alleviate any other health problems?
Fat acceptance isn’t always about loving your body. It’s not always about standing up and proclaiming that fat is flabulous. Sometimes fat acceptance is just about accepting your body as it is at this moment.
My road to fat acceptance has been a long and winding one. Unlike some of the larger voices in the movement, I’m not a lifelong fattie. I’ve fluctuated up and down in body size since childhood, although I’ve been holding steady at my current size for the last decade or so. My first introduction was back in 1996, when my mother gave me a book called Nothing to Lose: A Guide to Sane Living in a Larger Body, by Cheri Erdman. This was long before the fatosphere — even before the blogosphere — and it was the first time I was exposed to the idea that fat people shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies. I’d already gone through two large fluctuations in weight at that point: once in the sixth grade, and once again in college. In the sixth grade, my mother took me aside one day and told me that obesity ran in our family, and that I “had to be careful.” I joined the YMCA and began to run every day. I still remember one of the neighborhood kids looking at me incredulously and saying, “You can’t run!” I went ahead and ran anyway. Puberty caught up with me and I grew out of my ugly ducking phase.
Over the next few years, I continued a regular exercise routine. Like most teenaged girls, I was ashamed of my wobbly bits, but looking back now I can see that I was — like most dewy-skinned teenagers — quite attractive. Plenty of boys seemed to think so. At the end of my senior year, I came down with a chronic illness that runs in my family. I spent the last six weeks of high school in the hospital, missed my prom, and almost missed my own graduation. The drugs used to treat my illness made me foggy-headed and sluggish. They also gave me intense cravings. Over the course of two months, I gained about thirty pounds. HMO coverage being what it was in the early 1990s, the follow-up care I received was negligible. I spent my first semester of college seriously overmedicated, nodding off in classes and uncomfortable in my own skin.
That January, I discontinued the medication and joined Weight Watchers. Every Wednesday evening, I’d drive from campus to the local strip-mall, line up to get weighed, pay my $10, and sit in a meeting where a skinny lady taught us fatties how to take better care of ourselves. It wasn’t a diet, it was a lifestyle change! Nine months later, I was 60 pounds lighter. People on campus were nicer to me. My love life resurrected itself. And I was terribly, terribly depressed. Depression following a major weight loss is actually a fairly common occurrence — and many women would, apparently, rather be depressed than overweight. Three years later, I’d gained all the weight back and then some.
When I picked up Erdman’s book in 1996, I was at one of the low points in my life. My post-college ambition to move to New York had failed, as had my first live-in relationship (she left me for a man 20 years our senior). I was 23 years old, living in a shitty little town in central Connecticut, with no friends and no job. Reading Erdman’s book was a real revelation to me. It energized me and gave me permission to stop postponing positive changes in my life until after I lost the weight. After I found a job, I overcame my body shame enough to join a gym and become more physically active. I began to look in the mirror and say, “It’s the only body I’ll have, so I might as well learn to love it.”
And here, for the first time, I experienced the paradox of body acceptance. While I was busy loving and enjoying my body, I lost about sixty pounds without any conscious effort or intention.
When I met Quick in 1998, I’d become slender enough to shop in “normal” clothing stores. My collarbone, ribs, and hipbones had become visible again. My butt would hurt when I sat on a hard surface. I came by all these changes organically, and I had mixed feelings about them. I was uncomfortable with the extra attention and praise that people gave me, because inherent in it was a condemnation of what my body had been before. As Margaret Atwood wrote in one of her novels (I think it was Cat’s Eye), it was as though I always carried around two bodies — a fat one and a skinny one.
When I moved to Boston, I found a job at a company with headquarters in Sweden. Surrounded by Nordic beauties — we all worked out at the same gym — I couldn’t help but feel inferior. Looking back, I can also see how Quick’s crazy fat-phobic attitudes eroded at my sense of self. For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, my weight began to creep back up again. I also began to look at my eating behaviors. I joined a 12-step fellowship for people with eating problems. While this fellowship does seem to help a lot of being, my body shame and crazy ideas about how I “should” be eating exploded during my membership. There’s no official position in the organization on what kinds of food people should eat, but Boston area meetings have a long history of insisting that people cut out all forms of sugar and flour.
People would proudly declare how many years it had been since they’d last eaten bread or pasta. They’d say that they no longer had the capacity to know when they were full or when they were hungry. Many people weighed and measured everything they ate – even at restaurants. I tried and failed to follow every variation of food plan these women used, all the while becoming more and more obsessed with food and ashamed of my body.
For the next several years I suffered through a living hell of judgment, denial, secret eating, and shame. Looking back at it, I see how needless all of that suffering was. The irony of all ironies is that the more I tried to deny my own hunger, the more my weight crept up. Then in 2009 I began working with a nutritionist who specialized in eating disorders. The first thing she did was tell me to eat more food — not more chocolate in secret, but more healthy, nutritious food more often than three times at day. She encouraged me to enjoy my food, a concept that had become utterly foreign to me by then. It took a good year, but I slowly began to experience some relief from the constant obsession, hunger, and shame that dogged my thoughts. And the longer I nurtured my body with good food on a regular basis, the more my weight gain slowed. For the first time in years, I began to maintain a consistent weight.
Contrary to all the dire predictions surrounding America’s so-called obesity epidemic, I have never developed diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, or any of the other illnesses people like to blame on being fat. My chronic illness is not related to my body size, although some of the drugs I take to control it probably contribute to my being overweight. I’m not the healthiest person on the planet, but I’m also not the sickest. This body has walked ten miles in a single day, climbed mountains, and bench-pressed close to 200 pounds. It’s held babies in its arms, made delicious meals for my friends, given me a rather breathtaking variety of sexual pleasure, written volumes, created art, planted gardens, worshiped the goddess, and housed my spirit for 40 years. I try to treat it with the same dignity and respect that I would any close friend.
The subject of fat is a highly divisive issue. It’s difficult to talk about it in the public sphere; to do so opens one up to an avalanche of hate speech. Lesley Kinzel’s co-moderator at Fatshionista found the constant online battling so draining that she quit the fatosphere. As with all controversy, the loudest voices seem to be the most extreme. It’s probably for this reason that people still find my website because of a letter I wrote to a catalog company about their plus-size offerings back in 2012. It’s definitely the reason I had to close comments on that post. But my body is not an issue for public debate. It is not a battleground. It’s just my body – special, delicate, sexy, frumpy, sweaty, meaty, and mutable. It’s the only body I’m going to get in this lifetime, so I might as well enjoy it while it’s here.
[NOTE: This post was featured on Gender Focus on September 15, 2014. Shout out to Jarrah Hodge, its creator and moderator, for all her work in the feminist blogosphere.]
Despite the fact that my blog is mostly devoted to poetry and other arcane topics, the top search term bringing people here lately is “North Style.” Back in April I posted a strongly worded letter to North Style — a company I’ve never actually done any business with. They send me catalogs on a fairly regular basis though, like a lot of other companies do. That’s because I do, in fact, buy clothing from catalogs.
“Why buy your clothing from catalogs?” you ask.
“Funny you should ask,” I reply.
About two or three years ago I made the switch almost entirely from brick-and-mortar stores for pretty much one reason: I am fat. That’s right, I said it. I am a fat fatty. I have a fat belly, a fat ass, fat-ass thighs (which, admittedly, some people like), big fat tits, and miscellaneous fat distributed across the rest of my physique. In the world of fashion — and in the world in general, if you are to believe many people — this is a deadly sin, deadlier than anger, pride, greed, lust, sloth, envy, and gluttony combined. And since sinning fatties aren’t entitled to the same dignity and respect we accord to, say, people who cause massive financial crises, that means we have to pass by all the really cute outfits offered at reasonable prices on our way to the back of the store, where we can choose from a black polyester tent or a purple polyester tent for twice the prices a “normal” person would pay.
Thanks to teh Intarnets and to other fat fatties who like to look cute, I have other options. Also, I got some extra cash back after paying off a debt and discovered a few places who offered free shipping. Et voila! La belle femme sans honte est arrivee.
Applied to marketing, this means that any retailer who thinks I might possibly buy their stuff sends me catalogs regularly. If I actually BUY something from their catalog, I get a veritable deluge of the things. And I keep the damn things laying around because
(a) at the age of 38, I’m finally willing to admit that I like pretty clothes;
(b) I still covet pretty clothes;
(c) I actually have the money to BUY pretty clothes;
(d) the really clever retailers include all of these TOP SEEKRIT codes for free shipping and stuff.
The resulting flood of glossy pamphlets featuring smiling women and their collarbones reminds me a lot of B.F. Skinner’s experiment with the pigeons. He did quite a few experiments with pigeons actually, but the one I’m referring to showed that random positive reinforcement results in the highest payback. In other words, if a pigeon didn’t know when its next meal was coming, it pecked at the pigeon-food button more consistently and more often than in any other scenario.
To extend the metaphor to its breaking point (which is something I’ve been known to do), these are the pigeons I enjoy feeding:
Simply Be: A retailer from the UK with lots of cute, on-trend clothes. They used to offer free shipping and returns, but that seems to have changed as they become more popular. They often have specials for new customers. Their customer service people are awesome. Their price points are higher, but the quality of many — not all — of the clothes makes up for it. And if you wait for the sales, you might not find it in your size!
IGIGI: A San-Fransisco-based boutique with FAAAABULOUS dresses, skirts, and accessories. Most of their stuff is very feminine and therefore not always career-friendly, but they do come out with a few business suits every year. I scored a killer pantsuit from them last season that sees plenty of wear. All of their stuff is made in San Francisco so you’re paying San Francisco prices, but if the dress fits you will wear it for years and years. Plus, they have some of the hottest plus-size models I’ve seen. So there’s that. Shipping will always cost money but their standard method is FedEx which means you get it pretty quickly. Returns cost money, although I’ve never returned anything I bought there.
Woman Within: Good for staples like t-shirts, leggings, nightgowns and the like. With discounts and special offers, many items are insanely cheap, which probably means you’re supporting a sweatshop in China that beats its workers and makes them sleep in dormitories with windows made opaque by coal dust. But hey, times are tough.
Ulla Popken: If you believe their “About Us” pages, they were one of the first retailers to go into the plus-size business. Their styles lean toward the matronly and the tent-like, but you can find some good career pieces and many of their items (especially the tunics) have lovely detailing. Higher on the cost side unless you catch their sales. They don’t offer free shipping very often and their returns cost money as well.
Sonsi: This is the new-ish multi-brand website started by Lane Bryant and a few other retailers you’ve probably seen in storefronts (Catherine’s, Fashion Bug, etc). You can also find more obscure brands like Igigi and Kiyonna here — often with good deals. Shipping and returns usually cost extra but they often run specials and sales that make up the difference.
When I decided to make the switch to online shopping, I had to make some adjustments in the way that I think about buying clothes. I had to give up on the notion of instant gratification. I had to give up on the idea that everything I ordered would work out (this one was the hardest, and is why I still prefer free shipping and returns when I can get them). I had to get used to the idea of ordering clothes for the next season one or two months in advance. And I had to give up on the idea that online shopping is any more convenient than shopping at a brick-and-mortar store. It’s just a different kind of inconvenient. I also had to learn how to make allowances for the cash moving back and forth (I recommend setting up an extra bank account just for online shopping).
While the adjustment was difficult, it was well worth the effort — not just because more than a few friends have commented on how well-turned-out I am these days, but because I feel more confident, sexy, and well cared for.
Now that I’ve got a solid wardrobe put together, I’ve really got to get back to my old frugal-fanny ways when it comes to clothes. Which means that more of those glossy collarbones are heading right to the recycling bin. And that I’m less likely to take a risk with a retailer like North Style.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: With all due respect to fat fashion bloggers, who help make the world a more fabulous place, my only relationship to the retailers mentioned in this post is as a paying customer or a potential customer. I received neither money nor free stuff from them.]
About once or twice a year I receive a catalog from your fine establishment. I’m a big mail-order shopper, so it’s very appropriate that you would send me one. Each time I receive it, I think “hmmmm… stylish, understated, affordable.” I mark off a few items. And then I notice that you insist on a $5 surcharge for me to order your clothes in my size.
Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but fat ladies all across the world are getting fed up with this kind of treatment. Countless times every day, I get messages — covert and overt — that there’s something wrong with me because of the size of my hips and the number on a label inside my clothes. These messages persist in spite of assurances from my doctor, my boyfriend, and my loved ones that I am healthy, lovable, and actually pretty attractive.
North Style, if you really want my business — and you should, considering what I spent on new clothes last year — then you’ve got to get with the program. I don’t hang out with people who make me feel ugly. And I’m certainly not going to hand over my hard-won dollars for the as-yet-unproven privilege of purchasing your merchandise. Take a number from retailers like Simply Be, Woman Within, and Ulla Popken, who treat me with the same courtesy and respect as a lady who wears a size 10. Then maybe I’ll take the next step and actually place an order with you.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The main focus of this website is not fat politics, fashion, or online shopping reviews. Comments on this post have been closed. If you would like to discuss haiku, poetry, spiritual practice, gender, sexuality, or social justice, please feel free to follow me. If you would like to debate the pros and cons of fat acceptance and American’s obesity epidemic, please troll someone else’s blog. There are lots of people being wrong on the Internet. You can’t fix them all.
Oh, and for the record, I never ordered from North Style. And I never will. They sound like a company with a lot of customer service problems. ]
Thank you so much for your congratulations on my new house! Nothing says “welcome to the neighborhood” like a postcard from a company that found me via an automated report from the United States Postal Service. I’m also touched and gratified that you care enough about my health to offer me an affordable, convenient option for losing weight so close to home.
Here’s the thing:
I don’t want to lose any weight.
I have no interest in losing any weight.
And if I decided I *did* want to lose some weight or join a gym, your marketing approach has completely ruined any chance of your getting my business. I’ll spare you the diatribe about the way constant media messages and images screw with women’s perceptions of what constitutes a normal, healthy body. I’ll refrain from quoting the statistics that show how much money the weight loss industry collects from women in their vain attempts to lose weight and keep it off.
I will even take a deep breath and avoid getting hot and bothered as I explain to you the way doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the Surgeon General’s office manufactured the so-called obesity epidemic overnight — simply by changing how obesity is defined. I will not be getting up on my soap box to rail against the arbitrary, sexist, and scientifically questionable charts and indexes that our society uses to define whether a woman is “healthy” or “overweight.” I won’t be sending you to the Flickr photostream that shows photographs of real people alongside their weight definition on the BMI charts.
Nor will I be getting on my high horse to tell you that companies who try to market their products to women by playing on their insecurities should be rounded up and forced to watch MTV and the Fashion Network for 48 hours straight.
I will simply tell you that I am a healthy, active woman with no need or desire to “lose 10-15 pounds in three weeks.” And I will ask you to immediately remove me from you mailing list. If I continue to receive your mailings, you can expect to hear more from me and from the FCC.
A while back, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she wanted to indulge in some “emo femme shopping,” but that she was resisting the impulse. And she summed up the post with a phrase I wish I were uninhibited enough to write: “world love me NOW!”
I knew immediately what she meant. This friend and I have a lot in common. We’re both queer femmes, we’re both plus-sized girls, and neither of us had Mrs. Cleaver for a mother. Her post also made me aware of how I’d been indulging in my own emo femme shopping for quite a few weeks. And what, pray tell, is emo femme shopping? It’s an attempt to lift one’s mood via the purchase of a pink/fluffy/sparkly/cute/fashionable item. And given the nearly unlimited number of pink/fluffy/sparkly/cute/fashionable items available via the miracle of the Intartubes and Paypal (not to mention the nice bump in salary I enjoyed when I came back to work full-time this April), it can reach dangerous proportions.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of attempting to change our moods via some outside mechanism. Some of us use booze. Some of us use food. Some of us use sex. And some of us use things like this! or this! or this!. I’m actually not very interested in any of these items, but they do a good job of representing the kind of twee, impractical things I tend to crave when I’m in a particular kind of mood.
Emo femme shopping can very quickly turn into the hell of the hungry ghost — a hell of intense craving that’s impossible to satisfy. A tiny mouth and a huge belly. Like most hells, it’s an illusion. In this case, it’s the illusion that more material possessions will fill the god-shaped hole inside of me.
My latest emo femme shopping streak started with a bona fide attempt to supplement my summer wardrobe. Since my initial shopping list came from one of my rare (and incredibly useful) visits with Julie Foley (consultant of style!), it had a patina of legitimacy. But the impulse to buy can very quickly run out of control. Recently I’d decided to give up completely on brick-and-mortar retail outlets. The few stores that even carry clothing in my size inevitably make my brain boil after 20 minutes. At Macy’s or Kohl’s, I traipse past endless rows of fashionable, reasonably priced outfits until I find the tiny corner reserved for “Women.” Apparently, most clothing retailers think “women” prefer polyester tents in unflattering colors. Compared with with the increasing number of online retailers offering on-trend clothing with decent deals (and free shipping), it’s a no-brainer. Of course, online shopping isn’t ACTUALLY more convenient. It just offers a different kind of inconvenience. When I shop for clothes at a store, I try on about six items for every two I buy. With online shopping, I have more options, but I also have the unlovely hassle of returns and exchanges via mail.
The unfortunate result of this new paradigm for shopping is that I never feel quite done. And this is where the emo femme shopping phenomenon — the hungry ghost — can quickly get out of control.
There’s nothing wrong with shopping, just as there’s nothing wrong with eating, or sleeping, or having sex, or watching TV. The problem arises when I start to think that shopping will give me things that it won’t.
Shopping will not give me peace of mind.
Shopping will not make me feel more empowered.
Shopping will not give me a sense of connection.
Shopping will not make me feel pretty (at least not for very long).
Shopping will just give me more stuff.
I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world who’s had this experience. Have you ever had the emo femme shopping urge? Or tried to fill yourself up with things that won’t satisfy you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. My blog gets lonely and it wants to be your friend.
This flickr set is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. It does a good job of illustrating the amazing, beautiful variation of the human form. And, in my opinion, also illustrating why the BMI is just a marketing tool for gastric bypass programs. Which can kill you a lot quicker than diabetes and a heart condition can.