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Losing weight, losing myself

20th December 2007

Losing weight, losing myself

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.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 20th, 2007 at 11:49 am and is filed under Body Image, Eating Disorders, Fat Bias, Personal, Pop Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 16 responses to “Losing weight, losing myself”

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  1. 1 On December 20th, 2007, Michelle said:

    Rachel, this is a great blog but I am disgusted at the thoughts of the writer. It’s beyond as to how people feel that losing weight unleashes a missing part of you – isn’t that an indication of superficiality? You held your “real” self back when you were fat. So were you not honest in anything you did as a fat person? Did you withold your true self while waiting? What if you were never able to lose weight? Perhaps I may be misunderstanding her point, however I understand that new transformations can cause an array of confusion for a person who was dealing with body image issues for a long time. I just think as a person who has dealt with indirect and direct issues as such you would be a little bit more vocal in protesting the mistreatement.

    Just a thought ;)

  2. 2 On December 20th, 2007, Michelle said:

    Holy bullocks. So many typos. Ah well… you know what I meant ;)

  3. 3 On December 20th, 2007, Melsky said:

    Maybe the article was the first step to her speaking up in real life. I know I have an easier time saying things in writing than in person, especially at first.

  4. 4 On December 20th, 2007, Tari said:

    I have met Tari and she exudes self-confidence and assertiveness

    Gah! You’ll give me a reputation! ;)

    Seriously, I do get that not everybody is made for shooting their mouths off, especially when doing so in contrast to dominant social standards and in direct confrontation. Those are both difficult tasks, exponentially so in conjunction. I think what boggles my mind is her choice of venue – calling someone out in a national publication doesn’t seem any less gutsy to me than calling him out in person.

    I mean, people are infinitely complex, fat or thin (and their attendant social complications) notwithstanding. I don’t expect everyone to be a spitfire activist. This particular instance (Northrup, that is) just genuinely confuses me with (what I see as) its paradoxes.

    I just want to say that I’m really glad you’re shooting your mouth off, to assholes in person and via the written word alike.

  5. 5 On December 20th, 2007, Sarah said:

    It’s been my experience that these prejudices get expressed in front of heavy people too. My friend was rambling about the topic, and I ask him if he noticed I was fat.

    He said, “Shut up! You’re not fat!” And he was serious about it too. He actually seemed offended that I thought I was fat!

    Well, seeing that I’m 300+ pounds…. Eh, I don’t get it.

    Me, I’m just naturally pessimistic about others accepting my fat. I’ve accepted that it’s not going to happen. Somebody is always going to think I’m am gross or “morally irresponsible.” But I am still curious as to why so many people get offended that fat people exist.

  6. 6 On December 20th, 2007, Sarah said:

    This is a great post, Rachel, about a very complicated issue. Thanks for writing it.

  7. 7 On December 20th, 2007, Rachel said:

    Michelle writes: You held your “real” self back when you were fat.

    Actually, I don’t think you quite understood what I was trying to say, Michelle. I didn’t hold my real self back at all when I was fat. It was in the process of losing weight and experiencing life as a newly thin person that I felt I lost parts of what made me, me. I’ve been fat my entire life, and only for a very brief period have experienced life as a thin person. My true identity, therefore, has been directly influenced and formed as a fat woman.

    Others I’ve spoken to who have lost a great deal of weight also report feeling somewhat conflicted in terms of their identity as a fat person and their identity as a thin person. The world treats fat and thin people differently, and for me, I found the contrasting receptions to be confusing and even disconcerting. As a thin person, I could finally fit in on the outside, but I still felt like the same fat girl on the inside. As a result, I felt very conflicted as to who I truly was and who I wanted to be.

    I think Northrup is wrestling with many of the same self-identity issues I wrestled with and to a degree, still wrestle with. She had WLS and lost weight in a very short amount of time, as did I (I didn’t have WLS). One’s body might be able to change quite rapidly, but the mind is very slow to catch up to the physical changes.

    Tari – I think you rock and I only wish I had an iota of the self-confidence you seem to have.

    I think what boggles my mind is her choice of venue – calling someone out in a national publication doesn’t seem any less gutsy to me than calling him out in person.

    See, as one who’s always retreated to a world of words, I don’t see this as puzzling at all. I would much rather write an article for the whole world to see than engage in a personal confrontation with one person. I think this is the same reason why trolls feel free to say hurtful things online that they would never say to a person’s face.

    I think many people over at Shapely Prose misconstrued what I feel is Northrup’s larger, more overarching point. I don’t think she’s reveling in her weight loss nor is she saying “If I can do it, so can you!” I think she’s genuinely trying to sort out who she is and who she wants to be. Clearly the discrimination showed towards fat people bothers her but I don’t think she knows how or is armed to confront it.

    I have to admit: After I lost the weight and became a newly thin person, I didn’t tell many people who I just met about my weight loss, and just let them assume I’d always been that skinny. I did this primarily because I obsessed enough about my weight and how I looked and didn’t need the added emphasis, and also because I wanted people to see me as more than my weight. But I also did it because I had always been so criticized for how I looked, so ostracized and even harassed that I wanted to get as far away from the stigma of fat as I could.

    This is what I see in Northrup’s article and this is why I can’t find fault with her. Yes, I wish she would speak out against injustice, as I try to do now. But the courage and ability to do so varies by the individual. I see her published article as perhaps a first step in this process.

  8. 8 On December 20th, 2007, MrsDrC said:

    I’m really torn on this. I too feel I express myself better, more fully in writting. Also being that I HATE confrontation I cant really argue with her not speaking up, as I tend not to when as a fat woman I am treated like a pile of steaming sh*t. I tend to just shrink away. This is something I have been working on for a long time.

    I dunno, I think maybe I’ve been in denial for a while that people talk behind my back simply because I havent caught anyone in a while. My oldest son has this year entered the public school system and the “mommy cliques” are in full force already. I fear to know half of what is said about me, or assumed about our lifestyle or how I raise my kids. I’m going to catch one of these uber moms sooner or later and I really hope I have the fortitude to completely crush her spirit, then grind it into the dirt.

    Okay, back to the story. Somehow I feel like she missed her own point. She hinted at it, but never hit on it. More like this was an effort to out herself as a fat person to those who dont know her horrible past. To me it sounds like she was never able to accept her fat self, so now she’s lost in not knowing who she is now that she’s skinny. What her Mom said should hold true for her too, but I dont think it does. I personally take issue with her comments of “normal” and “healthy” weight. Normal is totally relative and weight is NOT a measure of health. Sounds to me like Megan is stuck believing all the weight fear talk. The overall tone I got from the story was how she escaped, not how she’s been accepted into a new group.

    On a very general note. Greeeeat, another gleaming WLS story. Just what we all need. Pump the fat people full of stories about how they can lose weight and be “normal”. Megan is NOT the norm for WLS, most people do have problems and only a year out from surgery I dont think is a good indicator. But of course stories of all the people who die, or the surgery eventually fails dont sell.

  9. 9 On December 20th, 2007, Carmen said:

    Thank you for this post! I think it can be hard to hang onto oneself through any kind of transition if your estimation of yourself depends on what’s reflected back to you by other people. I also think this is true to varying degrees for most people, which is probably part of why transitions are difficult.

    You also bring up an important point about the paradigm shift that occurs when someone drops a bunch of weight – it is glacial both in size and in speed. It’s likely that Ms Northrup is somewhere in this process, which is a vulnerable place to be and she needs to be able to deal with it in whatever way works best for her. I agree that it would have been nice if she had spoken up and that it’s frustrating that she isn’t sure she will be able to do that when faced with a similar opportunity, but she’s speaking her truth.

    Some of us are fortunate to be fat and have the confidence to speak up. Others aren’t so lucky and the ability to do so will not be miraculously granted to them when the fat falls off (as though it was buried underneath adipose tissue). At least we’re talking about it.

  10. 10 On December 20th, 2007, Fatadelic said:

    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.

    That must have take a great deal of courage at that time in your life. Yay you!

  11. 11 On December 20th, 2007, Devi said:

    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 lost a great deal of weight and one of the things which suprised me was that it almost seemed like people really expected my personality to change – almost as though they couldn’t comprehend that losing weight wouldn’t change who I was.

    After an employee review at the company I was working for when I lost the weight, the HR coordinator commented about how much I had come out of my shell since losing weight, noting how much more talkative and social I was. It had nothing to do with my weight, they had just doubled their staff and there were more people with whom I had things in common and that I enjoyed talking to.

  12. 12 On December 21st, 2007, charlie. said:

    I have sympathy for the writer of the article which you have completely articulated for me. Thanks.

  13. 13 On December 21st, 2007, Michelle said:

    Rachel, thank you for clarifying that! I can understand that confusion that can be casted on to one’s conscience when you are no longer associated with being overweight. It definitely does take courage to speak up in instances like you mentioned and I am glad that you did. As for her, perhaps it was her first step in rectifying the conflict inside of her. I am beginning to understand how difficult it really truly is.

  14. 14 On December 25th, 2007, Fat Girl said:

    Thanks for linking me to that great article. It was wonderful- of course, until I read the comments people had left.

  15. 15 On December 27th, 2007, Rachel2 said:

    That transition is one that I am grappling with. I’m losing weight, yet I’ve been this weight for so bloody long that my body simply doesn’t know what to do with itself. It’s making me eat more. This is a very weird experience, and I’m sure that as my weight drops, it will get weirder as I go. All I want to do is to smoothe out the ‘ripply bits’. My head spins from the thought. I definitely identify with this transitional thing.

    I used to be 200 lbs. I was not comfortable in my skin. There was too damn much of it for my liking!! Right now, I’m more comfortable with my skin. If I ever smoothe out those ‘ripply bits’, I dunno what I’ll do!

    I really dislike this stigma attached to being fat. Has anyone here seen “I now Pronounce you Chuck & Larry?” The movie overall was pretty funny, except for the part when they were helping the morbidly obese guy in the fire. There were all kinds of jokes and innuendos against fat people that just really, really irked me in that scene. It pissed me off to hell, actually. Why, why, WHY are we still the butt of jokes?!?!! Non-heterosexual people are no longer such the butt of jokes. ERGH.

    Anyhoo. End Rant!!

  16. 16 On June 23rd, 2009, Exorcising “phantom fat” » The-F-Word.org said:

    [...] a significant weight-loss, some people didn’t really understand her crisis in self, but I did.  My own sister often remarked during and after my own transformation that it was like I had [...]

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