Fillyjonk at Shapely Prose has linked to and commented on a personal essay submitted to Newsweek’s My Turn feature. The article is titled “My Secret History: I may be thin now, but that doesn’t mean I share your opinions about fat people,” written by Megan Northrup.
In the article, Northrup recounts a lifetime of humiliation and deprecation, both inflicted by herself and others, that too often and tragically comes hand-in-hand with being an overweight adolescent and morbidly obese adult. Last February she had gastric bypass surgery and has since whittled herself down to 130 pounds.
Yet Northrup now feels torn between the person she once was and the person people now think she is. Her “newly thin” status now admits her to clubs of sociability and humanity to which her former fat self was once denied admittance. She seems genuinely torn about her passive acceptance and even endorsement of the discrimination of others towards fat people. She writes:
It’s almost surreal how I find myself privy to the hushed conversations thin people have among themselves. I’m part of this insider group, but I carry a secret identity that renders me an impostor to some degree… They take for granted that my physical presence—I am now 130 pounds, having dropped 135 pounds after my operation—has always been this way, and I let them believe this myth because I see now, more than ever, how much judgment is directed toward the overweight and obese.
…But every day I struggle with who I am and what this new membership to the normal-weight group means to me… When you take on a new identity, and you’ve let others believe that this is your one true identity, it’s easy to find yourself completely disowning your previous self.
As a fat acceptance activist, Fillyjonk’s first reaction is naturally one of indignation. She writes:
Are you seriously writing a whole article about how you’re too much of a sniveling wuss to pipe up when the people around you are acting like flaming assholes? You’d think that she’d go on to say that she’s a little ashamed of her meekness, but it doesn’t really happen. She does end on the note that she “can only hope” she won’t keep her mouth shut next time someone talks shit about fatties, but after several paragraphs detailing “the day-to-day humiliations of obesity” and the splendors of gastric bypass (which hasn’t caused her any health problems AT ALL!), you can’t help but think that perhaps hoping isn’t quite enough.
And in the commentary there, Tari asks:
…I find it incredibly confusing for this chick to be all “I can’t say anything to an asshole when he’s being an asshole, but I can pen an article with my name and picture and have it published in a nationwide newsweekly.” Say what?
I understand both the reactions of Fillyjonk and Tari. I’ve never met Fillyjonk, but I have met Tari and she exudes self-confidence and assertiveness. But I also completely understand and empathize with Northrup. When you spin on the furthermost arm of the social galaxy, the need for inclusion can be overwhelming. And though Northrup’s physical metamorphosis came about rather quickly, the transformation of the mind can be glacial.
I have never understood these women who lose weight and lay claim to some newfound self-confidence that has just laid buried beneath fat, like a diamond waiting to be mined. After I lost a drastic amount of weight and even lodged myself in the “too thin” category, I found I was more meek and timid than ever before. I hate personal confrontation, even now, but as a writer I am 10-feet-tall and bulletproof. While I might not engage in debate or confrontation face-to-face with a person, I can write about it with aplomb. Perhaps this is true for Northrup, as well.
I also completely understand the willful disassociation between the self as before and the self as after. After my own transformation, even my sister, the person to whom I was closest to at the time, remarked that I was like a new person. I sometimes wonder if self-erasure is what I was going for all along.
Several years ago while in recovery for the eating disorder, I took a class on memoir-writing. The assignment was to write about a revelatory event in our childhood and how the incident has impacted who we are as adults. I wrote about the time that I – a tormented, socially harangued fat girl – stood up to a teacher who said women were historically insignificant. When I was 15, I had the courage to speak up to injustice, whereas at the time of writing, my inclination was to shrink away. Here’s a snippet of the piece I wrote:
In my zeal to recreate myself, in my vain attempts at total erasure of the body, I have succeeded in eradication of not just weight but also, the best parts of myself. Through the threshold of hindsight, I mourn for the loss of the girl who learned to speak her mind although she wore her weight as a shield. The strive for perfection is a double-edged sword and a journey whose destination I have not even reached. I may have chipped away at the physical mold, but in doing so, I have lost the characteristics that made me, me.
The past at times seems like a bad dream but like the nights of Gethsemane, they were always lived through with the promise of morning within reach. Our delusions contain within them an ability at times that allow us to live but they can also kill us. It becomes necessary not only to lie, but to believe the lie. But when we look past our delusions, at times we find that the reality isn’t as horrendous as we once thought. The realization, however, often comes too late for salvage to be made of the ruins.
One of the most defining moments in that slow process I call my revelation of self occurred after I returned to college after taking a several-year hiatus. I became friends with a group of artsy popular kind of folk, the kind who have an unspoken weight requirement for admittance to their clique. I was newly thin, thanks to the same eating disorder, which I was still actively battling at that time.
One afternoon, the ringleader of the group began regaling us with stories of his past work as a sales clerk at Torrid, the bulk of which centered around derogatory mentions of the clientele there.
After a few minutes of listening to the group laugh at women much like my former self, I took a deep breath and said, “I’ve spent a lifetime battling my weight and body image issues and its assholes like you who are to blame.” I spun on my heel and walked off and never spoke to the group again.
For me, this small act of protest marked a turning-point in both my self-consciousness and my decision to eke towards recovery. And on a less dire end-note, I’ve managed to find and reclaim some of those parts of myself I feared once lost. I only hope that Northrup’s article, in some equally small way, is just as influential for her.