Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Stranger Here: A memoir on weight loss surgery

Jen Larsen gives a stunningly honest account of her weight loss through surgery in Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed with My Head. With a publication date of February 19, 2013, her book is still making its splash and I'm glad I came across it. It's just one woman's experience and cannot be taken as representative of what people go through with weight-loss surgery, yet I suspect it is representative of how women constantly judge our own bodies and find them pathetically in need of huge improvement that feels impossible.

The first part of Larsen's memoir shows her filled with shame about her body, barely able to make herself leave her apartment and putting up with a less-than-ideal relationship. Eating and drinking are her main coping mechanisms. The next part of the memoir shows how Larsen struggles with all that self-loathing even as she becomes a thin person. The big lesson is that becoming thin does not does not solve all your problems.

Larsen has said in interviews what she says in her book: being skinny is much easier than being fat. She expresses no regret about getting the surgery, even though her book describes a nightmare of adjustment to her new digestive system: lots of vomiting, gas, diarrhea, queasiness and even a crapping-her-pants story. But her narrative points to a better way that she could have gone. She eventually sees that she has "dishonored" the beautiful, accomplished person she was before surgery by trying to "wipe out" that person. She writes, "I wasn't brave enough to address the physical and emotional realities attached to being fat in a world that doesn't like fat people." She admits that grappling with her emotional issues before heading into surgery would have been a better way to do it.

Larsen urges others to do it differently than she did, but seems to think this was the best she could do. Part of the beauty of this book is her honesty in laying out for us her suffocatingly negative thinking, her bad decisions, the relationships she strains and the humiliating details of having a body that doesn't digest food in a normal way anymore (weight-loss surgery seems to cause permanent stomach flu symptoms). She's impressively candid about her denial of the dangers of surgery and her delusional terror of what others think of her (she has trouble being honest with even her closest friends).

In all it seems to be a pretty well-balanced statement about weight-loss surgery: Larsen describes a terrible experience, but it's her terrible experience and she takes complete responsibility for it. My interpretation of her message is that ideally we would all face our problems head-on and deal with them directly before allowing our inner organs to be permanently damaged, but if radical surgery is what you need, then radical surgery is what you need.

Maybe part of her message is also that we not criticize someone's choices as she tries to change the parts of her life that aren't working. I know I've had to reach unbearable amounts of pain (emotional and physical at different times) before finally taking steps to heal myself. Larsen's refusal to consider the long-term effects of weight-loss surgery and headlong plunge into the decision when she was at her most depressed are terrible moves in hindsight. But Larsen's story points to how society brainwashes women into thinking that causing ourselves pain and damage is worth achieving the cultural standard of beauty. Hell, we go through all kinds of pain just to achieve an ordinary appearance. Larsen makes clear that being skinny is her ideal, but just getting down to "normal fat" instead of mordibly obese would be a dream. She just doesn't want to draw attention to herself anymore.

Stranger Here is painful to read, especially if you've been where Larsen is at the beginning of the book. I'm very glad I read it because it affirmed for me that whenever I harshly judge my body, those are subjective views I learned from American culture and they are bullshit. This book reminded me of how little it matters what size I wear and how much it matters that I feel happy with my life, my choices, my own company and myself.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano puts it well on her blog The Beheld: The mirror is a reflection of how we feel, not how we look. I've only begun to learn this lately as my self-esteem goes up at the same time that I'm gaining more weight than ever before. Startlingly, I love my body more now that I've outgrown most of my wardrobe, while for most of my life I had hated my body even though it was thin.

It truly doesn't matter what you $%^damn look like or what size you are if you just don't like yourself. Likewise, it doesn't matter what you look like if you're happy with yourself. The lesson that complete self-love is separate from physical appearance is one of the hardest lessons American girls and women have to learn. Larsen's book shows us one way not to go.

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