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.
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.