Weight Loss Surgery and the Unbearable Thinness of Being
I learned the quiet heartbreak of losing someone who truly understood what it meant to live in a body like mine
I was 18 the first time I met a fat sister in arms. It was my first semester of college, and we immediately gravitated toward one another, buoys in the choppy waters of an unfamiliar sea.
That year, we became closer than either of us expected. Both of us had been the fattest kids in our high school classes, held at a distance from classmates by virtue of our bodies. We’d both hoped college would be easier, but most of the time, it felt familiar. The desks weren’t built for us. Classmates stared openly at our bellies and thighs. Lengthy diet talk among our peers, bemoaning the fat on their slight frames, 100 pounds lighter than our own. Professors’ penchants for using obesity as a metaphor for capitalism and excess. Our bodies were always unwelcome and never our own, a symbolic stand-in for some epidemic or a terrifying future.
In the face of all that, we made a radical decision: We decided to like each other, and we decided to like ourselves. We became two of the few fat people who no longer feared our own skin. We were alone in it together, and we were so gloriously free. There was such reckless joy in our time together, such fearlessness in our hearts. We learned of our thirst for understanding only as we slaked it.
That was when I learned to love and admire bright and shining fat people, the ones who vibrate with joy, who refuse to reject their bodies as character flaws or moral failings. The ones who resist diet talk; the conscientious objectors to bemoaning thunder thighs and bingo wings, rolling bellies, and wide hips. The ones who wear clothing that is bright and tight or billowing and dark — whatever they feel like wearing. The ones who happily, loudly embrace their bodies. The ones we were becoming.
These, I learned, were my people.
When we returned for our sophomore year, she told me the pressure had become too much. She feared for her partners’ shame, feared for more bullying from her tough love parents, feared for the jeering her thinner friends had to endure when they spent time with her.
So she got weight loss surgery.
But her body wasn’t the only thing that changed. As she lost weight, so much more fell away.
I told her I was happy for her, and I was. She’d made a decision about how to engage with her own body. We’d often talked about how often our bodies are taken from us — from unsolicited diet advice to fatcalling, unwelcome comments about our orders at restaurants to bullying in the name of “concern.” Thinness was the only way she could truly end all that.
But her body wasn’t the only thing that changed. As she lost weight, so much more fell away. She gushed over her new straight-size clothing and relished the femininity she was now allowed by those around her. Her attention drifted to thinner friends. She grew out her hair and dyed it. At her thinnest, she started talking about how much she hated her thighs, even at the smallest they’d ever been.
That was how I lost her. She disappeared into the warm sunlight of thinness. I returned to the role I knew best: the fattest student in class. And I learned the quiet heartbreak of losing someone who truly understood what it meant to live in a body like mine.
There’s a quiet adjustment of expectations that comes with being very fat. You learn that you’re unlikely to be welcomed where your body can be seen: in sports, acting, sales, communications, politics. You might apply for a restaurant job as a server and be offered one as a dishwasher. You might audition for a play and be redirected to join the crew.
Sometimes people tell you kindly, sometimes cruelly. Sometimes you find out by seeing another fat person rejected in public, sacrificed as an object lesson. But no matter where you go, someone is always there to teach you a mandatory lesson: Your success will always be contained by others’ willingness to see your body.
In recent years, a handful of fat people have slowly but surely chipped away at the stone walls faced by fat people who want to be seen, who want to ascend to the heights normally reserved for those who have earned visibility through thinness. As an adult, I’ve seen four women my size become household names: actors Gabourey Sidibe, Melissa McCarthy, Chrissy Metz, and plus-size designer Ashley Nell Tipton.
I know well the pressures of daring to live, and to be seen, in an undeniably fat body.
For me, as a fat woman, these were not just breaths of fresh air, but indicators that more might be possible. That people who look like me could find their way into places we weren’t expected and often weren’t welcomed. That people who looked like me belonged in front of the camera just as much as behind it. It is extraordinarily rare to look up to someone with a body like mine. It is rarer still for those women to be lifted up in media. That moment — of seeing and knowing bodies like mine in media — became a fleeting one.
McCarthy underwent significant weight loss. Metz was famously mandated weight loss in her This is Us contract. And Sidibe and Tipton both announced in 2017 that they’d had weight loss surgery.
I know well the pressures of daring to live, and to be seen, in an undeniably fat body. I know the long stares, the cutting and unwanted advice, the strangers who tug at your clothing to conceal a body they can’t fathom having, much less liking. But I don’t know the pressure of dealing with all of that in the public eye on television or in movies. And as a white woman, I don’t know intimately how all of that anti-fat sentiment is supercharged by the racism faced by women of color like Sidibe and Tipton. I cannot pretend to judge their experiences; I have not lived them. And even if I had, who does that help?
Some — mostly thin body positivity activists — have congratulated Sidibe and Tipton for what they see as positive choices to benefit their health. Others — mostly fat activists — have responded with frustration or anger at losing two of the very few, very fat people who have ascended such great heights. These losses cut deep — not because of their individual decisions about their own bodies, but because it reminds fat people of how we’re seen and, often, how we’re forced to see ourselves. The ways in which we are expected to sacrifice our bodies for the comfort of those around us.
No, I cannot judge other fat people for the decisions they make to care for themselves and fend off a seemingly endless onslaught of bias, judgment, and bullying. But I can — and do — feel lonely when they, too, disappear into thinness.
I am reminded of all of that and of what it means to lose someone you’ve loved and looked up to — the familiar drift of formerly fat friends into the poppy field of thinness. I’m bracing myself for the loss.
This essay was previously published in the late, great The Establishment in 2017.