Once upon a time in an Internet far, far away, I was hired to host an online talk show for a website owned and operated by Condé Nast called Elastic Waist. You know this story, so I’ll make this quick. Almost a year into hosting, my producer called to ask if I’d like to start writing for the site too. Up until then the site had two writers: Weetabix and Ann. I was crazy intimidated by the idea of joining ranks with these amazing women, because both of them had this uncanny ability to open up their hearts and minds on a digital canvas and make people think and feel things and love themselves a little more—and well, that’s a lot of pressure to bandwagon up with.
Elastic Waist was an amalgam of self-acceptance and healthy living. A little confusing, considering the source: a magazine company that has notoriously been ridiculed in the media for promoting unhealthy self-image for generations of women. Still, I don’t like to look gift horses in the mouth, and I’m a huge fan of SELF magazine (Vogue, on the other hand has never profited from my hard-earned moolah).
From my perspective, Weetabix covered the “love yourself, unquestionably, just the way you are” angle—with a healthy dose of pop culture commentary. I’m pretty sure I woke up and wrote about whatever insecurity came to mind each morning—and over the course of a blog entry usually talked myself out of being insecure, if only for a few minutes. And then there was Ann, Ann’s posts were a live-account of life after weight-loss surgery. The dramatic, the funny, the awkwardly unexpected. Somewhere along the road Ann admitted that she’d been lying to us all about her name, her real name was Jen. Jen Larsen. Since the fateful demise of Elastic Waist, Jen has continued sharing her life with the Internet via her own blog. And recently she shared it in a big way, in her very own book.
Maybe you’ve seen it featured in PEOPLE MAGAZINE!
I just finished reading Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed with My Head, and I’m a little in love with Jen. And still a little intimidated by her. Because this book is amazing. First of all, she somehow manages to be simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking. Sometimes I felt robbed, like Jen was stealing all of the bad things I say to myself in my mind, but then there was the sad realization that other people say really mean things to themselves, too—and that just doesn’t seem right. I wanted to hug her and shake her, because as a reader I knew she was awesome, and yet she didn’t seem to grasp it—and then there was that whole personal introspection thing.
Don’t you just hate it when writers take their own feelings and turn them around on you, and then make you examine your own life? Gah!
Over the course of her memoir, Jen takes readers right along with her on the extreme choice to undergo weight-loss surgery, and the extreme results she underwent. Both the good (losing almost 200 lbs) and the not so good (crapping herself at a job interview, seriously physical distress, and the reality that you can’t escape yourself).
I don’t know Jen personally, but I have kept up with her blog over the years, and was lucky enough to get an electronic galley of her book a few months ago. She let me pick her brain about the writing process, self-image, and weight-loss surgery. And now I’m sharing that brain-picking with you.
Please note that I don’t I don’t have well-formed opinions about weight-loss surgery. I am not a doctor, and I would never assume to tell anyone what is a good or bad idea in regard to their own body. Jen’s book is about her personal journey, and within that journey she is not shy about highlighting both the positive and negative aspects involved. The questions and answers below are based on personal insight, not medical professional opinion.
You describe yourself as sort of jumping head first into weight-loss surgery, if you could go back and sit down with pre-surgery Jen what would you make sure she knew before delving into this experience?
Well, first I’d probably flick her in the forehead and tell her to slow the hell down. To stop panicking. To stop feeling so trapped and so worthless–or to try, anyway. It is so very hard to get any perspective when you are depressed, and struggling, and feeling like there’s no solution. And then I would hug her because Jesus, I know how hard it is. I would tell her that this is a huge decision; I would warn her that it has consequences, both emotional and physical, that she’s totally, deliberately glossing over and she needs to cut that shit out right now. And I would tell her that I love her even though she doesn’t think she’s worth it. And then we’d fall into each other’s arms and ugly-cry for awhile because it would be so very beautiful. And then I’d sign her up for psychotherapy.
She’d probably go ahead and get the surgery anyway, because she is stubborn like that. And because even though it is a fact that sucks so, so much, it really is far easier to be thin than to be fat in this world.
One thing that stood out to me in reading Stranger Here is how familiar your self-flagellating inner monologue is to me, and probably MANY people. And yet, a lot of us feel so alone in hating our bodies whether we are considered to be 0, 20, or 200 pounds overweight. Toward the end of your story you really drive home how important it is to stop the mental abuse. How have you learned to turn the volume down on the degrading voice in your head?
It is a daily struggle. An hourly struggle. A minute-by-minute struggle, on the bad days. But staying aware of it is the key, and cutting off the voice as soon as it starts to harangue and moan and bitch. Shut it down sternly. Beat it with a stick, and remind yourself of what is good and right and lovely that you have to offer. That’s what I try to do. It isn’t a magic cure, not by any means, but it helps.
While you’re describing eating cake in an ad agency where all the employees only eat salad, I have to admit I was kind of jealous. Do you sometimes feel like you have a secret cake-enabling weapon?
Oh, yeah, all the time. For the longest time when I asked for whipped cream on my hot cocoa at a coffee shop I’d feel guilty and want to explain that really, I wasn’t one of those people with an awesome metabolism, this is all surgery and you shouldn’t feel like your metabolism is inferior, not that you do I don’t want to put words about your metabolism in your mouth! I don’t want to assume that you have particular feeling about your body vis a vis whipped cream! It gets all very complicated. I think my main takeaway is that I have no right to judge or comment on the lack or addition of whipped cream on the cocoa of others.
In your Epilogue you write, “Being skinny is far, far easier in this world than being fat, and being skinny does not solve all your problems.” Can you expand a little on the things that are easier (because I feel like that’s a dirty secret that no one ever admits) and the ways in which the world doesn’t change at all?
In a very very basic way, the world is not built for fat people. Airplane seats and bus seats and roller coaster rides and cars and restaurants with narrow aisles and bathroom stalls and–well, pretty much everything. Clothing for fat people comes from special stores. And you feel like you stick out conspicuously in this tiny little world built for tiny little people who are not you. That you LITERALLY do not fit in. And people notice you. In a better world, no one would do a double take when they saw a fat person. No one would feel the need to comment on your body, or what you’re eating, or what you’re buying at the grocery store. Being thin essentially means being “normal.” Being thin feels like getting away with something–no one can tell what you’re really like inside. People assume you’re okay because you look just like them.
The world doesn’t change–or it didn’t for me–in that being thin, fitting into the world, still felt awkward. I still felt like an imposter. It didn’t change my personality or my depression or the bad things I thought about myself. It was easier on the outside, but nothing automatically changed on the inside to match.
Has the process of writing your story changed your perspective? Do you feel better, worse, or exactly the same about your story now that you’ve relived it all again?
The process of writing it was excruciating. I wanted to be as nakedly, violently honest as possible and reliving it was kind of awful. All the mistakes I made and all the times I screwed up. What a shitty friend I was. What terrible decisions I made. What stupid things I did. I sent it off to my editor and forgot about it for awhile, and then it became a book and people have been reading it and I’ve been experiencing that embarrassment and panic all over again–except that people are responding to it. People understand what I was trying to say, and they get what I want to tell them, that they’re not alone and that it’s possible to find happiness no matter how big a screw-up you think you are. And that’s huge. I’m grateful for that, the acceptance of my mistakes and the understanding, and the opportunity to let people know that I understand them too. It makes it all worth it.
You discuss feeling too thin, and how you have since gained about 30lbs from your low point. How much control do you have over your weight after weight-loss surgery?
Weight loss surgery totally looks like a magic cure, but it entails a lot of effort to maintain–some surgeries require more than others. If I exercise regularly and stick to primarily protein and avoid sugar, I maintain a pretty steady weight. As soon as I fall limp and sedentary and start eating processed crap, I start gaining weight almost immediately. So basically, it requires the kind of mindfulness that anyone should have in their diet if they just want to be straight-up healthy.
Did I miss something, what happened with Ben? He seemed dreamy. [Kim note to readers: If you want to find out how dreamy you'll have to read the book ]
We ended up dating for almost five years, actually! Long distance at first, and then he is the reason I ended up in Utah. He’s still one of the most important people in my life, and I am so grateful for him.
Knowing what you do now, would you recommend weight loss surgery to others?
Study after study after study shows that it is almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off without dramatic, sustained effort, and that the regain is more damaging to your body than simply being fat. You can be fat and healthy; you can be fat and active and beautiful and happy! But if you feel like you need to lose a significant amount of weight, I think weight loss surgery is a viable option to consider. But I’d also strongly, strongly recommend that you choose it for the right reasons, that you think carefully about why you want it, that you go into it with a realistic mindset and a very clear idea of what it entails and what the side effects are, and that you understand that while it looks magic (180 pounds gone in a little over a year! woosh!) it actually requires quite a lot of effort to stay healthy and well. Because thin certain does not equate to healthy and active and happy either.