Strutter rarely gets personal on the site. This is a long-form #TBT. You’ve been warned.
Twenty years ago this month I had weight-loss surgery. While I don’t remember the exact date, I do remember the weeks of planning and prepping leading up to it. I met a doctor who was willing to listen to me and my history of weight loss (or lack of it). When I detailed failed diets, forgotten gym memberships, including time in a hospital to deal with my depression which caused me to binge eat, he was nothing but empathetic. "You are just a baby," he said, "You've been through a lot."
He was right: I was 23 and been dieting for 20 years. My earliest years were spent in doctors’ offices where I was weighed week after week, trying their best to help me lose weight even though I didn’t know it was happening. I was three years old and weighed 75 pounds. So why was I so heavy? After all the testings, the doctors ruled it was genetics.
The doctor agreed that I was a good candidate for the Lap-band. In loose terms, a plastic band goes around the lower part of your stomach with a port connecting it to "loosen" or "tighten" the band with saline via syringe, adjusted by the doctor. Something besides me can help me lose weight?! No more telling myself bogus cliches like “Mind over matter” or “it’s all willpower” to motivate me?! SOLD!
How did I hear about this procedure? In a very '90s way: On "The Montel Williams Show." I think the segment had to do with weight loss, a topic that will always stop me from channel surfing. Ever since Oprah's big reveal, pulling the wagon filled with beef on stage to represent her extra pounds in the late '80s, weight-loss shows gave me equal parts hope and despair. I was inspired by people who lost weight to vow once again to go on a diet, but it quickly led to a downward spiral of "Why can't I do this?!" After watching "Montel," a little voice in my head said, "Look into it." And I did: I pestered anyone who might have heard about the Lap-band, and a doctor knew another doctor who did this in New York City (a rarity then, since it was first done in Australia).
Through the years, I’ve heard it all. Doctors pleaded with me to lose weight even when I was just 10 pounds overweight, strangers suggested what I need to do to stay thin, self-appointed trainers recommended what exercises to do, unsolicited, to keep the weight off. And, oh, all those armchair nutritionists who'd tell me what food to avoid (a standout: the friend of a friend who picked the lunch destination—a diner known for its waffles— then told me right before putting my order in, "Maybe you should order the grilled chicken. We have a wedding coming up.") All the powdered shakes, pre-packed processed food, and pills doctors prescribed I willingly ingested in hopes of becoming thinner were all for naught. I was destined to be fat. It’s genetics. This surgery was my last hope.
While I was excited about the weight-loss surgery, not too many people in my circle shared my enthusiasm. "I just think you can go on another diet and lose the weight," said one friend. "You're taking the easy way out," said a family member. Both comments came from people who never endured the highs of losing five pounds only to gain ten back, or heard cruel jokes made about their bodies while walking down the street by strangers, or the embarrassment of getting winded by walking up the stairs.
The latter example was becoming increasingly problematic. My first job post-grad was pretty active (lots of walking around) but I began to take short-cuts like avoiding steep stairways, taking the bus around town, and hiding out at fast-food restaurants along the way (of course I HAD to order something). After work I was back on my BS, binging on anything I could get my hands. Most people who binge on anything will tell you they're filling a hole somewhere inside of them. I was not only filling the hole, the hole was overflowing my waistband. When I broke the arm off the chair at my desk, my colleague quickly said, "That happened to [the name of a much thinner colleague], too." It was a kind comment, but the damage was done, emotionally. The office chair didn't break due to a factory flaw, it couldn't hold me. My surgery was a month away, and it couldn't come soon enough.
Two weeks before surgery, I found out that my insurance company wouldn't cover the surgery for two reasons. According to the insurance company, obesity is a pre-existing condition, and the Lap-band wasn't FDA-approved. In order for the Lap-band to get FDA approval, there had to be a case study with several patients in order to track its success. I was part of that study. The doctor wouldn't do the surgery unless I was approved by insurance. After an appeal, I was approved.
To say I was terrified days before surgery would be an understatement. This was my first surgery, and I knew it'd change me forever. There will be something foreign in my system that only a few others will have. Plenty of people try new ways of extending their life all the time. Why should a new form of weight loss surgery be any different?
I couldn't tell you what happened before my surgery, or how many hours it took. What I can tell you I was a sickly mess post-surgery. Like, a bad case of nausea from the anesthesia, telling my mom, I "want this out of me, NOW!" in between gagging. Once I was assigned to a recovery room, I remember a nurse taking my blood pressure: "Wait, you don't need the extension for this!" A few weeks later, it hit me that the nurse thought I wasn't big enough to get weight-loss surgery and she let me know it.
A misconception is that bed rest is required post-surgery. But the doctor wants you up and moving to make sure you don't get blood clots. So, as crappy as I felt, I was walking up and down the hospital hallway. In the middle of my walkabout, my aunt (who accompanied my mom to the hospital) thought I didn't do enough. I apparently disagreed. She thought I was going to throw my IV bag at her. I have no memory of this.
It was a struggle to adjust to life with a Lap-band. My post-op diet was a month of liquids* and soft food. It was a drag, but I stuck to it. I was used to a lot of side glances by my coworkers during lunch (I don’t think they approved of me, at 220 pounds, eating anything.) This time, the looks were of confusion over my "lunch" of a packet of broth mixed with hot water. I ignored 'em and followed doctor’s orders. I can be disciplined when I’m on a new diet, and this was no different. I'm going to lose weight, I told myself. I’ll be worth it.
*Milkshakes weren't considered an approved liquid, but I'd learn later such "slider foods" were to be avoided. The post-op diet has changed throughout the years. The Lap-band procedure was new, so there were no other meal plan references available. We were paving the roads, so to speak.
The illusion about weight loss—in any form—is that you think your life will get better. It'll be easier to get out of bed in the morning. Walking down the street won't be met with shouts of disapproval (Oh, no. I'm FAT? Does it show?! Thanks for letting me know!). The anxiety of going to the gym only to be met with looks of contempt from others will dissipate. My family would finally be proud of me. I was thin, and that's all I needed to be considered successful in most people's eyes. I would quickly find out I would be wrong about all of this.
I lost some weight within two months, and people seemed to take notice. Colleagues who barely spoke a word to me for a year ago were now chatty in the elevator. One asked me if I changed my hair color: I did. I went from over processed blonde to brown. I tried to get rid of The Old Me as soon as I could. I even started working out, and the only looks I was getting were from impatient gym goers wanting to get on the Stairmaster I was occupying.
A few months out of surgery, I lost about 20 pounds. Then the weight loss stopped. Cold. People who knew I had weight loss surgery were now giving me head-tilted looks, probably wondering why I was still fat. Puzzled, I saw my doctor, who didn't know why I stopped losing weight either. Right before I left the office, he told me he was leaving the hospital and taking his practice down south. I was devastated. He was the first doctor I liked as a person. The first doctor who took my weight loss struggle seriously. And now, he was leaving his New York patients in the hands of his replacement.
Six weeks later, I met the new doctor. Right off the bat, he told me he didn't "respect the Lapband process," and his patients who did the more "extreme" forms or weight loss surgery were his priority. Before getting my adjustment (when the band gets more fluid in order to get "tightened") he announced to the room that I would probably need a revision to my surgery in the near future. He offered no other reason, and I was too embarrassed to ask why.
The downward spiral that I thought I was rid of came back. My food intake went up, and whenever I ate too much, I'd throw it up. I called it "reluctant bulimia.” I'd get gas pains so intolerable I'd have to lay down. I had what I thought was scar tissue building up around my scar near my port. So not only was I at a standstill with my weight loss, I also had jacked-up teeth from puking.
After a botched follow-up appointment with the replacement doctor (his receptionist scheduled my appointment HOURS before the office opened, then denied the goof) I decided to leave his practice. Three years post-op, and now FDA approved, there had to be another doctor who did the Lap-band procedure...right?
One of the reasons I wanted to get weight loss surgery because I noticed quickly how many people on staff seemed to get more accolades if they were thin. The kind of thin that would make a person a great representative for the company when sample sizes are within your reach. So I'd pitch ideas that I thought would play to my strengths, like researching nearby plus size stores. I came across plus size store owners who were size inclusive before there was such a thing. You can find a size 6 and 16 in their store, and they were super-kind to boot. When I needed an outfit to wear, I’d go to their shop. One day, I decided to pop in and browse the store when I noticed that the shop owner was considerably thinner than the last time I saw her about eight months ago. As I was getting the courage to ask if the store owner lost weight, another customer beat me to it. She got the Lap-band, done by a doctor at another hospital in New York City. Suddenly, I blurted out that I, too, had the Lap-band and was looking for a new doctor. The shop owner kindly passed me the number of her doctor.
When I met the new doctor, she was already familiar with my surgery. She was one of the interns at the hospital I had the surgery in, and even remembered some of the notes my former doctor made in my file. (He thought I was "awkward" and "nervous." Both accurate.) After a battery of new test (including an esophagogram), she discovered my Lap-band was crooked. It turns out that pain I was feeling for years (!) wasn't gas, but pressure from a Hiatal hernia that pushed the band up. I don't know when I got a hernia, but safe to say the replacement doctor who predicted I'd have a revision was right.
Seven years after my first Lap-band surgery, I was getting a new band. The doctor assured me it was now a routine surgery, and the nurses couldn't have been kinder. I still had to get out of bed to walk around, but I knew that was coming. The post-op diet was now two weeks of liquids, two weeks of soft food, then slowly introducing food I could chew.
After the revision, the weight started coming off again. I didn't regain the weight I lost the first time around, and within two weeks my clothes were getting loose. I changed sizes in a calendar month. My confidence was sky-high. I didn't think I'd get another chance at losing weight, but here I was, surprising people and mostly myself, with another transformation. I was 60 pounds thinner within 16 months. When I caught my reflection, I thought to myself, this is The Real Me.
Well, the powers that be not only were reading my thoughts but laughing at them. Three years after the revision, I gained some weight. This was typical, I heard, but 13 pounds in six months? When I brought this up with the doctor during my checkup, she too thought it was odd. After some blood work, we found out why I gained weight. I have an underactive thyroid. I used to wish for this diagnosis in my teenage years, a legit excuse for my weight that could be easily fixed with a pill. And now it came true. Can I get another shot at a wish, like winning the lottery?
Every time I bragged about my "weight loss journey" or swore "never again" to anyone who'd listen, I’d plateau or gain weight. My physical appearance changed, but all my other problems were still there. My weight loss didn't make me a hot commodity on the dating scene. Problems with my family didn't disappear overnight. At my thinnest, I was laid off from my job and working side gigs. I might have been thinner, but I was also broke, worried, and single.
Since the diagnosis, I stopped obsessing about my weight. I found a therapist. I worked out for peace of mind. During this transition, I wondered why I let myself think I wasn't worth love and respect at my heaviest. What made me think that I was so horrible that weight loss surgery was the only way out? When I hear of people who grew up with love as a plus size person, I am envious. That wasn't my environment. My weight was treated as a problem...medical, emotional, you name it. Most of my family had the same problem. It was an endless cycle of diets, losing weight, gaining weight, then resigning to the fact that we're unworthy as-is by consoling ourselves with more food.
I used to want to fit in. Today, I'm OK with standing out. I accept myself at any size. I won't let be fat-shamed, and won't let anyone do it to anyone else in my presence. Diet talk is shut down quickly. I have my off days, like anyone else, but I know now that being fat isn’t the root of all my problems. Nor do my problems shed like the extra pounds.
A few years ago, my passion for the plus-size industry was refueled when I noticed the new wave of body positivity influencers on social media. I also noticed that the plus size industry is filled with cheerleaders, and rightfully so. After years of being told we're not good enough, the last thing anyone needs in the plus size world is another skeptic. But are we like coaches who give out awards to everyone on the team for just participating? And does plus size coverage stop at clothing? There’s a big world out there. That’s why I launched Strutter the news site. There’s so much that affects our world. And, as 67% of the population, we're important in this world, too. We're slowly getting noticed for the right reasons, and I am here for it.
PS: That's yours truly at 22. A rare photo of my smile during that era.