This guest post comes from Elna Baker, a writer and performer I've long admired. You may know her from myriad storytelling podcasts, her work on This American Life, or as co-host of The Talent Show. 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. This story was originally published on July 13, 2015. — 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.
But, I did it. I walked out onto the dimly lit patio, naked, in public, for the first time in my adult life. To my dismay, it wasn't an "every-body" kind of spa. Instead, I was surrounded by the types of people you'd expect to see in an advanced yoga class in LA. As I walked through the center of them, I felt incredibly self-conscious.
When I'm uncomfortable, I make faces — big, mugging, obvious faces. Walking toward one of the group baths, a kiddie pool sardined with the beautiful people, I instantly reverted to my middle school self, rolling my eyes at the hot women. To cheer myself up, I invented a song, which I sang in my head as I passed people: You got that super-fly body; I got that octo-mom body.
My boyfriend had never seen me behave like this, and asked if I was okay. I just scowled, acting like a sullen teenager. After about 10 minutes, I couldn't take it anymore and excused myself to one of the solo baths. I sunk down in the tub, letting the water hide me like a blanket. Everything was covered except for the perfect, white circle of my knee poking out of the water.
I don't have very many memories of my body when I was big. I actively never looked at it. When I looked in the mirror, I only ever saw my face. Freshman year of high school, I got so big that when I took a bath, I could no longer cover myself completely with the water. I remember the first time this happened: My whole body was covered except for a circle of white — my stomach, bobbing out of the water. I looked at it and decided it was not a part of me. I called it an island. Then, I took a mini shampoo and conditioner and pretended they were a boy and a girl meeting on the island and falling in love. I played in the bathtub like a toddler. It's not a sad memory. But, it does remind me of what it felt like to be a big girl — like I was an island.
I've joined the world of average-sized people now. But, it doesn't mean I'm fixed. Sitting in that tub at the "spa," I thought about all the things I've done to my body: hating it, hiding it, starving it. Cutting it open. Hurting. Healing. Promising myself that every time I looked at that scar, I'd feel grateful for my body — and then forgetting that promise.
How am I still struggling with this? I thought. How am I back at the very beginning, just trying to have a relationship with my body?
I think there is this idea out there that you either love and accept your body, or you're trying to fix it. I am in neither camp. Or, maybe I'm in both simultaneously. I try to accept myself, but I struggle. I want to be in better shape (but, I don't want to go to the gym). And, my weight fluctuates, so that doesn't help.
A girlfriend recently pointed out that so often, when we look back at photos, the times we call the happiest of our lives are usually the times we were the thinnest. And she's totally right. The summer I consider the happiest goddamn time of my life actually sucked. I was going through a terrible breakup and had lots of anxiety. But, I looked great. I wasn't happy; I was happy I was thin — that there was a frozen moment I can now hold up and show to the world that says, I was here, and I was beautiful. For two seconds.
I left the bath in a funk. The next day, we went to what's called "open seat," where a person sits in a chair in front of a group of strangers and talks to a trained therapist about something he or she struggling with. (You know, like you do at a spa?) I hadn't been to therapy before, but I do comedy, so I told myself, This is basically the same as stand-up. I stood up and talked about my body. It was really raw. The weird thing was, the room of strangers — all those beautiful people I'd been naked with the night before — said that they struggled with the same things.
The advice I got was this: Stop using the past to poison your present. Don't let who you used to be prevent you from getting the things in life that are available to you now.
It really hit me. I can see my body however I want to. I choose to dislike it. And I do so because after all these years, disliking the way I look has become a part of my identity. Instead of owning my body, I let the world tell me who I'm supposed to be and how I'm supposed to look. I feed off the downward spiral of shame and self-hatred, because it gives me something to strive for.
I don't know about you, but I am so sick of striving for fucking beauty. It has taken up 10 to 20% of my time and thoughts on a daily basis for the past 20 years. It has robbed me of doing more important, loving, honest things. And, after all this time, I'm not even that good at it.
Sure, there's an "after" picture here, and in it, I look fine (I hope). But, I wouldn't let them take new pictures of me for this story, because I weigh about 20 pounds more than I did then. So, I feel like a hypocrite writing something that is supposed to tell others to accept themselves when I don't accept myself. The truth is, I genuinely think everyone should accept themselves — everyone, except for me. This is the disease I am still trying to overcome.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Anti-Diet moments, too!). Got a question — or your own Anti-Diet story to tell? Email me at email@example.com.