Really, society? You're putting your expectation of a 'perfect' body on me?
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Seeing your mother waste away happens slowly at first and then all at once. One day she is whole and round, the same body you’ve known your entire life. Then day by day she has whittled away, like a woodworker chipping away at a block of wood to sculpt the body underneath.
I would be lying if I told you the gastric bypass surgery was inexpensive or not a big deal. It consumed everyone around it: my mother, my father, my newborn sister, my pre-teen brother, me. Choosing to have gastric bypass surgery is not an easy one. It’s often seen as giving up. A sign of weakness you aren’t strong-willed enough to put the pint of ice cream down and jump on a treadmill.
The gastric bypass support group
I went with my mother to the first support group meeting pre-surgery. We drove 45 minutes in rush-hour to a dimly lit hospital conference room where 30 almost middle-aged women and one man sat uncomfortably in folding chairs. The weight of their lives straining the thin metal legs. They may have all taken different paths to get to that room. But they were all there for the same reasons. They wanted to lose weight. They needed to lose weight. If they lost weight, they would be happier, healthier, have a better sex life. They would be able to buy only one airplane seat, not be stared out when they ordered anything other than a salad at a restaurant and most importantly – be accepted.
Gastric bypass surgery involves severing the stomach into about a fourth of its size by using staples. The idea behind this is to decrease the amount of food your stomach can hold, thereby allowing you to eat less and unable to consume as many calories. Then the small intestine is permanently rerouted and connected to this new “stomach.” Once food enters your mouth, it goes into this tiny holding chamber. From there it is sent directly into the small intestine in a matter of minutes, a process in a normal person’s body that would take hours.
Suddenly tired of being fat
As I saw the world growing up, there were two kinds of people—skinny people and fat people. I was never a skinny person growing up, but I was also never a fat person. I lived in the middle ground, this no man’s land that I now know to be called normal. My mother had tried her entire adult life fighting the notion that the skinny people were somehow superior, were somehow better. She was confident, she was proud, she was resilient.
She never shrank herself down or forced her body to squeeze into one seat. She expected the world to accommodate her, not the other way around. I’m not sure if this portrayal of confidence was my way of viewing her or a defense mechanism she used to move through the world. All I know is one day, as she was creeping up on the age of 40, something snapped. She announced to our family that she was tired of being a fat person and was going to have a doctor remove her stomach.
We supported her because that’s what’s expected of a family living in a pro-skinny society. A decision to make yourself contort into the skinny mold, whether that decision is eating more salads, buying a gym membership, or going under the knife, is seen as a positive step towards self-improvement. And so, I went with my mother to the numerous support meetings, collected brochure after brochure that began to pile up on our kitchen counter. Smiling women, skinny and wearing workout attire, stared back at me as I was eating my cereal.
The journey gastric bypass surgery
Getting gastric bypass surgery requires a lengthy and intensely personal process. It’s similar to applying for a job, but instead of your skills and experience being questioned, it’s your body and inner thoughts. My mother was a candidate for surgery among the 30 or so other nearly 40 women in the room that first night of support group. As each week passed, there were more and more empty chairs creating a void in the room. An echo whispered into everyone’s ears “you could be next.” The failures, among the failed, were the ones who weren’t mentally fit enough for the surgery, the ones who were high risk and were doomed to a life of being a fat person, and eating low-fat ice cream sandwiches, and sugar-free pudding.
For the months leading up to the surgery, all our family could talk about was my mother’s body. What it was doing, what was going to happen to it, the gory, bloody details of the surgery. Where would her stomach end up once it was removed: a trash can, in the garbage disposal, a freezer? Could we keep it?
The week before the surgery came and I once again drove the 45 minutes with my mother to the weekly support group meeting. By this time there were only 10 or so people left standing, like a reality show, these were the ones that had not been voted off the island. My mother was still in the running for the prize, but instead of a million dollars, it was the chance to be thin.
At this meeting, the skinny doctor in slacks and clogs told us, for the thousandth time, the hard facts. There was a 65 percent chance that you would lose some weight with this surgery, a 10-15 percent long-term failure rate, meaning you may lose some weight, but you will eventually gain all of your weight back and possibly more. And then, of course, there was the matter of the 5 percent complication rate and 0.1 percent mortality rate.
Fear of others: avoiding the uncomfortable questions
When my mother found out she was approved to have the surgery, after undergoing multiple different physical and emotional evaluations and tests, she was ecstatic. She was also worried. Not worried about the possible failure rates or even the 0.1 percent chance of dying, but concerned about what everyone would think of her. What shapes the faces of her friends and family would take on when they asked her what her secret was to her weight loss and she would have to say, there is no secret, I failed at it for years, and then a doctor stapled my stomach together.
To her having to admit her failure was too much. So, she decided to keep it a secret. She swore us to secrecy; no one was to know about this surgery except her children and her husband. She wouldn’t even tell her mother. The secret was not so hard to keep, she was a stay-at-home mom, so she didn’t have any work-related obligations. And she just had to successfully avoid her friends until she healed enough to appear normal. Part of me understood why she wanted to lie to everyone, the part of me that was terrified of ending up the same way. But another part of me was confused as to why my effervescent, confident mother was suddenly ashamed of her body. Part of me wondered if it had all been a sham.
After four days in the hospital, my father finally brought her home. She looked pale and ghastly but still the same size as always. I’m not sure what I was expecting, probably for her body to instantly transform into the wispy torsos of the smiling women on the brochures.
The physical recovery from gastric bypass surgery
Eating became a painful ordeal in our family. We felt bad for so much as the crunch of a cracker echoing through our silent house. My mother was on a strict liquid diet as if she had reverted to being a newborn. For weeks our fridge was filled to the brim with orange and red jello packs and bottle after bottle of Pedialyte. My mother was confined to her bedroom, unable to walk down the flight of stairs to the first floor of the house for at least two weeks. Gurgling, almost gagging noises could be heard through the ceiling of the living room which was directly under her bedroom and the upstairs bathroom. She laid in bed surrounded by books from the Twilight and the Hunger Games trilogies, old People’s magazines, and empty jello containers, wasting away.
Slowly things started to get better. She began to reintroduce solid foods into her diet and had to go out to buy new pants every few weeks. Pictures from that time show her body morphing and changing, the roundness becoming flat, her jawbone jutting out from beneath a sag of skin. She seemed happier and lighter. For what it was worth, it appeared she had the luck of the 65 percent, and her doctors were carefully calling her weight loss surgery a success.
My mother’s body, it’s internal functions, and outward changes were the focus of my family for a long time. It made me more aware of my own body in a way that I had never thought of before. It made me realize the sheer strength of societal pressures and of expectations placed on our bodies. I was 16 when she had the surgery, and now, nearly a decade later she still can’t enjoy a carbonated beverage or an ice cream sandwich without almost puking. But she’s happy. I’m glad she did it because it made her feel good about herself again, but I’m saddened we live in a world where she felt like she had to.