“Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.
After spending most of my adult life in a larger body, I woke up skinny on Christmas morning. To some in our warped, thin-obsessed culture, that may sound like a dream. Really, it’s been a nightmare.
In late October, I underwent major surgery to address a recurrence of adrenal cortical carcinoma, the cancer I’m doing everything I can, including sacrificing organs, to survive. My left kidney, gallbladder, spleen, and the tip of my pancreas were removed along with a grab bag of tiny tumors in my peritoneum (the gossamer lining that surrounds your abdominal organs). Eight months earlier, I’d had another serious surgery, to remove my left adrenal gland and the cancerous cantaloupe-size tumor that had hijacked it.
While I’d recovered quickly from that first surgery, the second was a different story. For close to a month, I couldn’t eat, didn’t consume enough fluids, became dehydrated, threw up constantly, and couldn’t keep my meds down. Shortly after Thanksgiving, I went into cardiac arrest at my mom’s house. My 7-year-old son helped her transfer me from the bed to the floor so she could start CPR, as instructed by the 911 operator. Together, they saved my life.
I don’t remember any of this. There are flashes here and there, friends who visited me after surgery, coming home from the hospital on Halloween to see my kids in their costumes, watching Law & Order: SVU in my mom’s bed, a visit from college friends while I was in cardiac rehab, admiring Christmas lights through an ambulance window, throwing up again and again and again.
My full memory kicks back in on Christmas Day. My mom had offered to bring me some new underwear, pajamas, and T-shirts. When she did, I couldn’t understand why everything was a size medium.
“These won’t fit,” I scoffed, confused and freaked out. “Are you not aware of how much weight you’ve lost?” my mom asked in a tone that indicated I should be as alarmed as she was at this drastic development. “Well, of course I’ve lost a few pounds. Anyone would on this food,” I said, gesturing at my picked-over lunch order. “Just go try them on,” she said wearily.
I refused to try on the underwear but dragged my IV pole into the bathroom and pulled on the pajama bottoms. They fit — and comfortably.
Prior to this, I had a big butt and pouchy mom belly. My arms were muscular from years of yoga but also plump enough that when a photo of me embracing my husband in my sleeveless wedding dress was published online, trolls made some horribly inventive comments about how they were the size of hams and should have been carved and served to our guests. In fat-community terminology, I was a small fat. I’ve always been solidly built; since I was in high school, I’ve worn a size extra large or bigger. Unapologetically living in a larger body had become part of who I was, though it took me a long time to get there.
I spent most of my adult life making various plans to eat less and go to the gym more to lose ten, 15, or 25 pounds. I started to heal that relationship with my body about ten years ago, when I realized that I actually really like exercise — I just don’t like running. I started doing yoga, taking a jump-rope class at my local YMCA, became mildly obsessed with spinning, and rode my bike everywhere. Then about five years ago, I started reading and writing about diet culture with the support of a like-minded editor and talking openly with women of all sizes about our fraught relationships with our bodies.
This work led me to follow and speak with weight-neutral nutritionists and activists, read work by Virginia Sole-Smith and Aubrey Gordon, and listen with delight to the podcast Maintenance Phase. I still participate in these forums, but I feel weird, like a lurker, more than someone who belongs in these spaces. I used to feel so at home in them. They were a form of shelter in a culture that constantly tells fat people they are lesser than because they are larger. Smart, funny people talking frankly about living in larger bodies allowed me to feel good about being a smart, funny person living in a larger body.
By the time I left the hospital after the second surgery and cardiac arrest, I had lost nearly 100 pounds, about 70 of it in just over two months’ time. I wasn’t fat at all anymore, and the loss of identity came as a shock.
Another mom recently sent me a photo of my daughter and me hanging out at a kids’ dance party at a local museum. I barely recognized myself. The halo of salt-and-pepper curls and lopsided grin I expected. The sharp shoulders, prominent collarbones, and long, slim legs I did not. Earlier in my life, I would have been elated to be this thin, to be able to walk into any store and find pants that fit. Today, looking at this slender body makes me think of everything I went through — and put my friends and family through — to arrive in a reality where I look the way I currently do.
I don’t always love every aesthetic element of my body, and I didn’t before I lost all this weight either, but I don’t consider its size — large or small — a moral failure. Most people who lose a lot of weight regain it, and I imagine I will, too. And that’s okay.
In fact, I miss my larger body. I miss my big round butt. I miss my wide thighs and lush belly. I miss the cup size I lost while in a series of hospital beds. I miss my clothes, most of them purchased from the Instagram resale account @selltradeplus, which now hang on my much-reduced frame. That body did yoga and HIIT cardio. It regularly walked a challenging rural loop at a brisk pace with friends. It ate what it craved and had boundless energy. Now I get tired making French toast or walking more than a few blocks at a time. And although my endless barfing has ceased, I don’t really have an appetite, even though I’m lucky to have a husband who is a wonderful cook and shows his love through fried-chicken sandwiches and Bolognese.
I’m trying to take a gentle stance toward my new body, even though baths are less enjoyable because my tailbone hits the hard bathtub floor and my suddenly prominent hip bones freak me out. I try to reassure myself that despite the cancer, the cardiac arrest, the strange transformation, I’m still here.
And yet I’ve felt a surprising loss of community. That dance party I took my kids to? I didn’t get down at all. I felt too self-conscious. There were other adults there with bodies like the one I once had, owning the dance floor in the same carefree manner I once did. Instead of feeling connected to them, I felt like an impostor in my body. I strongly believe that diet culture is harmful, that it tricks us into spending our precious time hating our bodies and doing things we don’t want to do, spending money that could be better allocated elsewhere, and denies us pleasure. Now my appearance suggests that I buy into all that crap and, worse, that I’m sitting, uncomfortably, on my bony tailbone, in judgment of others with larger bodies.
It’s like my body condescends to the bodies of my fat friends, even though I would far rather be fat and healthy than skinny and wondering if, or when, my cancer will return. Being thin for the first time in my adult life doesn’t just feel disorienting — it connects me back to my illness, it makes my body feel lesser than, even though I now look the way most people think I should.
I see so much fatphobia in the way people react to me when I see them. When I run into casual friends and acquaintances, people who missed the part where I almost died, all of them say the same thing: “You look amazing.” I find this somewhat embarrassing, like I went on a crash diet and lost a lot of weight and now I’m being praised for fulfilling bullshit societal norms in a way I haven’t since I was 15.
I’ve become accustomed to indignities of constant medical care, all the sticks and pokes and tubes where they shouldn’t be. But being valued based on the size of my body — that’s something I find impossible to square with myself. It’s not everyone, though. If there was one gift in being very sick, it was the reminder that so many people love me with a fierceness that defies societal expectations. These are people who have always seen me for who I am, not the size on the tag in my jeans.
Foremost are the many friends who gathered around me in the hospital at a time when I looked as sick as I was and it wasn’t clear whether I would live or die and, if I did survive, whether I would be able to do things like make French toast and write this essay. Now when they see me, their eyes fill with tears and they tell me how great I look. I believe it’s me they see — me, alive, thriving — not the weight loss. Their beloved friend is fully restored to herself in mind, if not body.
More From This Series
- I Tried It: Estrogen Face Cream
- What to Do (and Not to Do) When Your Friend Has a Newborn
- Surviving the Death Talk With My Kid