Jen Larsen is a fiercely real, funny, and honest writer. In her new book, Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed with My Head, she explains how losing 180 pounds and getting skinny wasn't all she thought it would be. Here, in an essay for R29, she explains what it's like to live through surgery — with unexpected results.
The doctor said, “It’ll be nice to be able to walk down the aisle of an airplane, right? To fit down the aisle, and to not see that look of horror when someone sees you coming.”
He said that because I weighed 300 pounds. He said that because he thought that all I wanted in life was to not be that creeping horror, shuffling sideways to the back of the plane, trying not to make eye contact with anyone because I didn’t want to see their relief when I passed by. Trying not to make eye contact with the person in my row because I didn’t want to see horror, and I really didn’t want to see pity, and I really didn’t want someone to lean over and explain to me that I was fat and that there are things I could do about it. Like water and jogging, or carrots and the Thighmaster.
He said that like it was a fact about all fat people. All fat people hate themselves. All fat people know that what’s good in life is really only accessible to thin people. Thin is the most important variable in of life’s equations. Thin equals happy, thin equals beautiful, thin equals a life worth living.
The most embarrassing fact of my life — and oh, how many embarrassing facts there are in my life — is that it was true. I was angry at him for saying it, for buying into the cliché of the fat person. For assuming that my life would transform immediately. Because he was saying all the things I had secretly thought. He was reinforcing all the secret fantasies I had about the way everything about me would be more amenable and lovable and acceptable to the whole rest of the world. To everyone on airplanes and everyone in my life. To myself. When I lost all the weight. When I got weight loss surgery.
He was my psychological consultant, the doctor who was tasked with clearing me for surgery. He signed off my mental and emotional fitness to get a surgery that I genuinely believed was going to save my life. Not just physically — though I was actually damn healthy — but emotionally.
And, three months later I got weight loss surgery. Seven months later I had lost over a hundred pounds; a year and a half from my surgery date, I had lost about 180 pounds.
Photo: Courtesy of Kristin Brandt
I lost a lot of things along with the weight. I lost my sense of self. My sense of proportion. My sense of dignity, of maturity, of control. I was skinny, but my life wasn’t suddenly and magically perfect—and that completely astonished me. It sounds ridiculous, having really fallen for the fairy tale of weight loss. But I had fallen for it completely, and then was blinded by the egregious lack of a happily ever after.
The nature of the weight loss surgery I got is that you can completely ignore the things the doctors tell you to do. They say, exercise, don’t drink, don’t smoke, eat well. And you don’t bother to do any of that, but still lose weight. You still lose every pound you want to lose, and then some.
The problem was that I lost all those pounds, but I didn’t have to change a goddamn thing about my self. I didn’t have to address any of the emotional or psychological issues. I didn’t have to figure out why I had been depressed — why I was still so, so depressed, despite the fact that the one thing I thought had been ruining my life was suddenly gone.
I was skinny, finally, and I was fascinated by the physicality of it. It was like my skeleton had floated up to the surface from the bottom of a murky pond. I had muscles and tendons and bones and in the shower I’d soap the ridges of my ribs, the knobs of my hipbones, and be amazed to make their acquaintance. It wasn’t pretty—I lost so much weight that I didn’t look like myself, and then I lost past that, to the point where I looked like a sick stranger. Briefly, I was a size two. Sometimes I was disappointed that I couldn’t be a size zero.
It doesn’t go away, you see. I thought that my body was wrong when I was obese; I thought my body was wrong when I was thin past the point of health. I thought there was something wrong with my body whatever I looked like, because there’s always just one more thing to fix before I look perfect, feel good in bed with hands on my body, feel sexy in a dress or a bathing suit, feel comfortable in my skin.
Photos: Courtesy of Jen Larsen
I felt helpless before. I tried to dodge out of the feeling by getting weight loss surgery, and now I’m angry. That I wasn’t fixed, yes. But also that so many people deal with this, this exact and pervasive struggle at whatever size they are, whatever shape, whatever they do. That we’re not good enough, with the implication that the best we have to offer to the world is an appropriately sized pair of jeans.
Magazine articles about body image talk about loving yourself despite your flaws. Sometimes they get really radical and they talk about loving yourself because of your flaws, and that is supposed to be empowering. And it pisses me off, because we’re talking about flaws here. A body that doesn’t look like the body of a Victoria’s Secret model is a flawed factory reject. My thighs aren’t the thighs of a figure skater, so they’re not good enough, but I should love the flubby little things anyway because I am so incredibly self-compassionate.
I want this: I want to say, don’t love yourself even though you’re not perfect — love yourself because you have a body and it’s worth loving and it is perfect. Be healthy, which is perfect at whatever size healthy is and at whatever size happy is.
And of course that’s totally easy and I have just caused a revolution in body image. Let’s all go home now.
Right. So, I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t know how to make it happen, and I don’t know what to do except keep yelling about it, wherever I can. Saying there’s no magic number, and there’s no perfect size — and of course you know that, but we have to keep telling each other because it’s hard to remember sometimes. We have to keep saying it. We have to figure out how to believe it.