The Big Idea: Jen Larsen

Back in the day — by which I mean the last millennium, y’all —  Jen Larsen and I were part of a loose group of “online diarists” (what we called bloggers before blogs were called blogs) who chatted and sniped and busted each other up over the early Web, with Jen being one of the wittiest of us all. I never doubted that one day she’d be an author and write a terrific book, but I would not have expected that book would be the memoir, Stranger Here. But that’s all right, because as Larsen explains, it was a surprise to her as well.

JEN LARSEN:

So the thing is, I was never supposed to be a memoir writer. Memoirs are for people who have things to memoir-ize. Who have lived rich and interesting lives of length and breadth and have something beautiful to show for it at the end. Or at least a cautionary tale, right?

I was going to write fiction. A lot of it. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be about, but what I did know was that my name would someday be lasered into the side of the moon. I wasn’t sure how that followed, but really you have to dream big or you’ll never get anywhere.

The other thing: I was fat. I have been varying sizes, all of them larger than I thought I was supposed to be, for the majority of my life. There’s this picture of me from when I was maybe eleven years old, wearing little red shorts and a tight aqua polo shirt. My body is slouched in an S-shape, with my belly sticking out one way and my butt sticking out the other way and I am the very image of the incredibly awkward, pudgy dorky kid. It’s a picture that makes me cringe. Not because I look so dorky and awkward—I mostly find that hilarious. I cringe because I remember my reaction the first time I saw it. I was a weird little eleven-year-old girl who genuinely had no idea what she looked like right until that moment. And I realized I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how I looked. I didn’t look like any of the girls in my school. I had these drumstick thighs and a chubby face and that belly. No one had a belly like I did, round and soft and poking out like a mound of vanilla ice cream on a plate.

That’s the first time I remember ever thinking something bad about my body, my size, my shape. That’s the first time I remember realizing I didn’t look like other people. That was the first time I started to dislike—even hate—myself for not looking right.

You know where this is going, right?

I didn’t write a weight loss memoir, though. Not really. What happened was this: This dislike of myself and my body, this sense that I had nothing to offer if I didn’t work hard to be a good enough person whose qualities and helpfulness would make you forgive me for being fat: it was my conjoined twin. It was a passenger in my head. It was such a huge and pervasive and persuasive notion that it eventually overwhelmed my actual self and became who I was—a fat girl. A fat girl who was funny, who wrote because she was afraid to talk to people, who tried really hard all the time. Who was always acutely aware that the world is simply not built for fat people: airplane seats and roller coaster rides and bathroom stalls. I didn’t fit and it felt like the world was as aware of it as I was—obvious, an eyesore, so vulnerable to attack.

I tried to lose weight. I could never lose the weight. Diets don’t work, science says. I am a failure, I said. In 2006, I weighed about 300 pounds and I had a job and a master’s degree and a boyfriend who adored me and I was worthless and drowning in it, not really entirely sure I could do anything but be dragged under. And then I stumbled into the idea of weight loss surgery. A surgery, that would make me lose weight. A miracle that would transform my entire life. A way out.

A year and a half later, I had lost about 180 pounds. Like I had stepped out of a suit and discarded it at my feet. I was scrawny-skinny. I loved it. I laid on my bed and traced the outline of my ribs and my hips and I was fascinated by all the biology I had never experienced before. Bones and muscles and hidden angles I didn’t know my body had.

I also lost everything else: my sense of self. My sense of proportion. My sense of dignity, of maturity, my ability to function. I was skinny, and my life wasn’t perfect. The nature of the weight loss surgery I got is that you can completely ignore the things the doctors tell you to do—exercise, don’t drink, don’t smoke, eat well—and still lose weight. 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—my fat—was suddenly gone.

It sounds stupid, that someone would buy into this fairy tale of weight loss. That all you need to do to be happy in life is be thin and everything else falls into place. Skinny = beautiful, beautiful = happy, sign me up for weight loss surgery.

But I bought it—so many people buy it. Unconsciously, subconsciously, ridiculously we buy into the idea that our worth has something to do with our pants size and our happiness has anything to do with the width of our asses. And it infuriated me. It still does. It is still something I struggle with, for god’s sake, at the normal size I am now. I catch myself thinking—I am unhappy and I need to lose weight.

When I was at my heaviest, I felt isolated, and convinced that I was the only person who was as big a screwup as I was, who was as foolish as I was, who was as lonely and messed-up and awful as I was. And I wanted to write a book that talked about those feelings. That said hey, wait, no.

I lost 160 pounds, or thereabout. I am very, very happy, in many, many ways. Strangers don’t find me disgusting and feel the need to share the roots of their revulsion. I don’t stand out, and I can fit just about anywhere, in this world that’s built for a specific size of person. I can breathe more easily, walk more easily, I have been known to break out into a run. Things have been good, in a lot of ways. So many ways. Enough ways that I do not regret having gotten weight loss surgery, even though I deeply, absolutely regret all the years I spent hating myself for something so stupid, and waiting for my life to start and things to get better once I found a way to not be fat any more.

I don’t think I gained weight in order to hide from the world—I think that weight and size are much more complex issues than that. But I think it was comfortable and easy to let fat be my whole problem. And when I was left with no fat, but plenty of problems—I was the only one left to blame. It’s like I’ve cleaned out the flooded basement, which is great and all, but now I have to actually address the cause of the flooding, and it’s harder than you think. It’s so much harder than I was led to believe.

I should have known; I mean, I did know. But I didn’t believe it. I think the feeling is so much more common than anyone thinks. I think the focus is “lose weight! lose weight now! lose weight fast!” but no one ever, ever talks about what happens once you’ve lost the weight. You’ve spent so much time being fat, trying to not be fat any more, you never had a chance to really think about what it meant to be skinny. You’ve spent your whole life with a fat-person identity, and then you’re left as a skinny person and no idea how to reconcile the two parts of your life. You’re supposed to forget all about the person you were, and just be happy and thankful.

I’m not asking for pity and compassion and tiny golden tears rolling down the struts of your tiny golden violin. What I am trying to say is, yes, I am glad to not be fat, to not have to deal with all the physical and emotional realities attached to being fat, because it is truly hard. But being faced with the blunt, raw psychological reality that I’ve still got problems to work on—that losing weight was just the beginning, and never was anything but that—is more disheartening than you can imagine.

I don’t regret getting weight loss surgery, I don’t. I can’t. But I do wish I had been a stronger person. A braver person. Someone who could learn to love her body and say fuck the haters and work fiercely and tirelessly and bravely to change a hateful, prejudiced world and promote self-love and positive body image and health at every size. But I ducked out the back door instead.

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Stranger Here: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

22 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Jen Larsen

  1. I’m not normally a big memoir reader, but I will definitely pick this one up. I empathize with the description a lot. Although I never looked particularly large, and was always perfectly happy with my weight, a few years ago I got very sick and lost about 40 pounds – dropping from the size 12 I’d been all my life to a size 4-6. Suddenly I went from being unconcerned about my body image to thinking about it all the time. I didn’t like it very much, and as much as I appreciate the aesthetics of my new body (and how much easier it is to do aerial stuff – less to lift), I still don’t like how much I THINK about it. (Although to be fair, a good portion of that is health-narrative rather than weight-narrative.)

  2. Wow. I need to read this. Her description of her self-image and social isolation sounds a lot like mine… except I’m not fat.

  3. I’ve read this book and it’s really beautiful. The experience of extreme weight loss is the event that frames the story, and learning about how that worked is definitely a pretty harrowing education; but beyond that, it’s a story about being kind of messed up and human and wanting to transform your life when you’re not sure how. It’s moving and funny and raw and emotionally true. I loved it.

  4. I probably should read this book since Jen has learned lessons that I need to learn. But I’m terrified of reading books that will deeply affect me.

  5. Oh man. That whole thing about how your life doesn’t really begin until you’re thin, or that things are magically better when you lose weight? That’s something that was hammered into my poor little fat-kid brain by my parental guardian, who (surprise!) still struggles with her weight and can only talk about her body in terms of extreme self-loathing. It’s sad. She’s 84 years old, for pete’s sake. And she’s poisoned us both with this terrible, senseless idea that we’re not worthy of happiness because of how we’re built. Aaaaanyway. This book just shot to the top of my (giant, cumbersome, damn near pulsating) reading list.

  6. Wow. As much as I’d like to, I just don’t have time to get to most of the Big Idea stuff. But if your book is written anywhere near as well as this segment is… I’m going to have to make some time.

  7. I attended a support session for post-bariatric surgery patients as part of my doctoral education. I’ll never forget what one lady said during the session: “The doctor fixed my stomach. I realize now, four years later, that he should have fixed my head.”

    Your book title reminded me of that and I’ll definitely be picking it up. Thanks Jen!

  8. But you didn’t duck out the door, Jen. Or you came back in through that door. You’re here with your book now. A book you thought might be fiction. Well, let the next one be. Control is such a pretty concept, but the reality is it’s as fleeting as the wind. And all the while life can blow by unattended. Like a man with a strawberry hanging from a cliff by a single root while a hungry tiger waits below. In the end, you’re better off enjoying the strawberry. Hang in there. I’m doing my damnedest too.

  9. I am thankful that my experience with bariatric surgery was so much different. I think I came in with a different mindset, but I certainly understand your description. I was very lucky in two ways. The first is that my insurance plan required a minimum of 6 months of pre-surgery nutrition counseling, attending a monthly weight loss support group, and a psychological screening. In my case, this process lasted an additional 6 months, due to a snafu with the part of the insurance approval. So while I initially came to the surgery with the hope that it would finally help me get control of my weight, the year of support from both my medical team and the group members gave me a strong emotional anchor that made me feel confident that I could handle both the physical and emotional changes.

    Weight Loss Surgery can be a powerful tool, but it is just a tool. Getting your head right is an ongoing process that requires support from family, friends, and those who have been through the surgery.

    Good luck Jen!

  10. Jen is my favorite new person I’ve met this year (through Charlie Finlay)!! Okay, online only, but we are going to meet up in WASHINGTON DC or New York and WEAR FANCY HATS AND GET RIDICULOUS.

  11. Sounds like an amazing book. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone write about weight loss surgery in this way before. It’s such a unique standpoint. Most books about weight loss are full of triumphalism (“I took control of my life and blah blah blah”). This one is exactly the opposite. It’s that fairy tale that so many of us fat people dream of: the one where you just wake up looking thin and beautiful. I’m interested to see how that plays out in real life.

  12. “I tried to lose weight. I could never lose the weight. Diets don’t work, science says.”

    No, they don’t. Not without a serious amount of exercise, which can be dangerous in & of itself if you’re morbidly obese. So I’m curious – why didn’t diet + exercise work for you? Because scientifically & physiologically it should (basic chemistry/physics – calories in vs calories out). And pls don’t come back with “read my book” – I’m here for the science fiction! ;)

    (I am very sympathetic btw, so pls don’t misconstrue my terseness)

  13. I remember my online diarist days very well, and I’m not at all surprised that Jen’s written a book. I can’t wait to read it!

  14. So far, I’ve known four people who had weight-reduction surgery. All of them were extremely heavy, all of them were desperate. Of the four, three are now dead. One died on the operating table, completely devastating his partner and dozens of other people who worked with and loved him as he was. One essentially starved to death because the surgery and a subsequent infection ruined her entire digestive system and her organs finally gave up the fight. One lost the weight, had ongoing problems with nausea, and slid into depression when the weightloss didn’t solve all her problems. She turned to alcohol and ultiimately died of liver failure. Ironically, by the time she died she had gained back nearly every pound she lost.

    The remaining person was doing just fine when I saw her last.

    I’m heavy enough to have considered that kind of surgery. But a 75% mortality rate among my acquaintances who tried it has made me decide that it’s not worth the risk.

    I’m glad that your experience was better than that of so many others.

  15. @ Elizabeth

    Although to be fair, a good portion of that is health-narrative rather than weight-narrative.

    When I worked as a part-time assistant nutrition counselor in college, the greatest hurdle was overcoming the almost pathological mindset that health = weight. Even when presented with the contrary evidence in non-technical format, many people (even athletes) were so ingrained with that cultural indoctrination that they often simply refused to accept reality. I even had one student call me a hypocrite because, in her words, you’re thin – which was patently false. I wasn’t fat; I maintained a balance between BMI, muscle-mass/density and exercise so as not to deprive my body of what it needed to do what I required of it, and that is not the same thing as being “thin” (which is more or a societal disease than an actual body-type, IMO).

    @ Wendy

    And she’s poisoned us both with this terrible, senseless idea that we’re not worthy of happiness because of how we’re built.

    That sucks. But at least you’re sufficiently self-aware to break the cycle of abuse. Many people tragically never reach that stage at all.

    @ Nostromo

    No, they don’t. Not without a serious amount of exercise, which can be dangerous in & of itself if you’re morbidly obese.

    This is simply wrong. Fad diets don’t work because starving yourself just encourages your body to store more calories. Changing from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet (altering what your eat, not merely how much), however, while it will not make you into society’s warped image of health, can in fact, gradually and with patience, make the difference between unhealthy obesity and a BMI that isn’t terminally detrimental to the cardiovascular system. Yes, mild exercise certainly helps, and should be done under the guidance of a medical professional if you’re starting from a BMI over 40 or (ideally) even 35, or you risk doing far more harm than good. However, eating a balanced diet is beneficial regardless.

  16. Of all the things one can use to beat one’s self up over, making a decision to get HEALTHIER has to rank as one of the dumbest ones.

  17. @Guliver: “This is simply wrong”. Ummm, which bit…? Considering you said pretty much the same I did (diets alone don’t work, exercise is needed) – the ‘serious’ amount of exercise that I was referring too wasn’t meant to suggest preparing for a triathlon, but sitting around just ‘healthy dieting’ will probably take many times longer to lose the weight.

    Serious exercise for someone with BMI over 40 might initially just mean walking up & down a dozen stairs/steps a half dozen times a day in the first week or going for a 500m-1km stroll for 20mins. But that’s still probably far more than they’ve done for years, so point taken – medical advice in all cases if any uncertainty at all, sure.

  18. @ Nostromo

    Ummm, which bit…? Considering you said pretty much the same I did (diets alone don’t work, exercise is needed)

    Nope. I said, paraphrasing, that diets alone don’t work as well. Diets (real ones, not un-nutritious fad diets) do indeed work, and will even enable most obese individuals to lose weight, albeit at a fraction of the rate, because they will be expending the same energy on both normal activity and digestion while storing fewer calories. It is, however, essential that they actually add nutrition to their diets, as merely cutting calories indiscriminately will simply slow down the body’s metabolism. Even that is a bit oversimplifying matters, but a blanket assertion that diets don’t work without exercise is false, whether by work you mean improve overall health or just decrease BMI from physiologically deleterious levels.

    And yes, you are absolutely correct that someone who is obese should begin their exercise regimen gradually and not push themselves as pushing it will lead, at best, to not sticking with it and, at worst (and more probably), to serious medical complications. Meatheads who tell novices to feel the pain are a plague and about a fucking stupid as someone who tries to build a house on quicksand without laying any foundation – they can’t OD on their ‘roids soon enough, IMO.

  19. I don’t know if there’s any consolation in it but I was that woman who was strong & brave & said fuck the haters while being fat. It didn’t keep me from doing ANYTHING (unless there was a weight restriction). I was happy & confident. I had weight loss surgery only because my health finally went to hell and my knees gave out and I was on crutches, rapidly heading toward being on a scooter – and I didn’t want that. But I also suffer from ongoing bouts of clinical depression and one started up several months before my surgery. Now 5 months out, 60+ lbs lighter, and massively stronger, my depression is worse than ever… because I no longer drink, I no longer enjoy going to clubs, and I’m in that viscous cycle of knowing I need to socialize in order to improve my mood but being too depressed to put in the effort – despite meds.

    So, I guess I’m trying to say that even though you thought your issues were linked to your weight, and now you’re seeing that they’re not, please keep in mind that those of us lucky enough not to have our depression linked to our weight issues also suffer from ongoing depression. It gets better – just never as fast as we want. Talk about it (it’s amazing how many people have similar issues but don’t talk about it unless someone else starts the convo), take meds if you need them, and do your best to be patient. In the meantime, take pride in YOU.. skinny or fat, happy or depressed, active or sedentary… there’s only one YOU.

  20. Bought the Kindle edition yesterday; started reading last night and am through the first nine chapters. It’s an absolutely terrific read so far and I’m looking forward to more.

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