When I told my dad I was accepting my mom’s graduation present, he said it was fine by him as long as I felt absolutely certain that that was what I wanted. I was. Any trepidation I may have felt about going under the knife was quickly replaced by excitement. I watched shows like The Swan and Extreme Makeover and saw the “magic” that plastic surgery could work for unhappy people like me. The people on those shows became so sexy and desired after their operations; their past selves were unrecognizable. I thought I would be transformed that way, too. I pictured myself in a line of women, like on a reality show, and thought, If I were smaller, maybe someone would look at me and say, “I want that one.” I obsessed over a future free of “thunder thighs,” dressing-room meltdowns, and bathing suits with T-shirts over them. I was moving from Michigan to California for college the following fall, and I thought after I had lipo, no one there would have to know I was ever fat. In mere months, I would be lying on the beach in a bikini, waving at surfers as I dug my toes into the hot sand.
At my first pre-surgery consultation, the doctor told me the procedure wouldn’t change my actual weight by much; it was more about “shaping”—a push in the general direction of thinness, as opposed to an instantaneous Swan-like transformation. But as the doctor drew circles and Xes on my body with a blue marker, all I heard was that I was about to get rid of fat. Even when he warned me about the potential health risks—including death—that came with such an invasive surgery, I wasn’t afraid. I was ready to do whatever it took to make my visions of thinness and the emotional fulfillment I thought would come with it a reality.
The surgery removed fat from my thighs, arms, and stomach. But guess what? It didn’t make me happy. For one thing, I didn’t look the way I thought I would after liposuction. My arms were the same size, but with extra skin flaps, little white stretch marks, and oozing scars. My stomach had loose skin in new places, and I couldn’t see my belly button without moving folds of hanging flesh away with my hands. My thighs were smaller, but my knees now looked swollen instead of just chubby. The physical post-op pain was extreme, but it was nothing compared with how heavy my insides were with confusion and regret. After all I had hoped for, I felt worse about myself after liposuction.
I recuperated for a few months at my dad’s, who still lived in our family home after my parents split. I thought I would feel more comfortable healing in my childhood bed, but my sister’s family was staying with us as they moved houses, and so was my brother—along with, mortifyingly, his best friend, who was working for my dad. This guy was incredibly attractive, funny, and kind, which deepened my self-consciousness, especially when he saw me in my post-surgery compression garments (tan spandex shorts that hugged my thighs and stomach tightly while my wounds healed). Before my operation, I’d imagined that I would soon feel sexy and desirable; now the very thought of a guy wanting me seemed ridiculous. I stayed in my room as much as possible and cried myself to sleep. On the rare occasions when I would venture out and interact with my family, I pretended everything was fine. I was supposed to be old enough to make this choice for myself, and I tried to prove that by showing no signs of regret.
After my body had healed a bit, my mom came around to take me shopping for new clothes. I don’t remember her saying I looked beautiful or thin, but she was proud that I could fit into a smaller-size shirt. I didn’t tell her that I thought my body looked weird—that although my arms, legs, and stomach fit into reduced sizes, they didn’t seem to fit me, and that I was more embarrassed about my body than ever. I reluctantly bought a short pleated skirt from Old Navy, which I never wore once. Instead of the tank tops I had fantasized about, I wore long-sleeved shirts that covered my new stretch marks.
I moved away for college that fall. At parties, other people talked about making out and having sex, but I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to kiss me, let alone have sex with me. But I laughed along with everyone and tried to fit in, partially by drinking heavily. Since I was suddenly was free to eat whatever I wanted, I went overboard with the foods that had once been off-limits. Inevitably, I gained weight. As I watched the number on the scale go up, that old childhood fear came back: What if I keep getting bigger? I told myself that if I ever reached a certain specific weight, I would kill myself. I can’t stand living in this body, I thought, and if it gets any worse, I won’t. I never reached that number, so I don’t know if I would have acted on this urge, but it felt very real to me at the time.
My college major was acting—which is kind of ironic, given how looks-focused that field is. During my second year, I got a note from a professor following a practice audition. It said I looked like I was not “in” my body. Of course, I interpreted this as a criticism of my weight. Stung, I talked to another instructor, one I trusted, about it. To him, the note seemed like it was about the way I was carrying my body, not its size. I probably looked insecure during my audition, he said. Being comfortable in my body didn’t mean losing weight, according to him—it meant not apologizing for my physical presence. You guys, I was legitimately baffled by this. How could I be comfortable in—even, as he suggested, proud of—an overweight body? What would it look like to be OK with my body the way it was? What did it mean to be “in” one’s body?
He urged me to stop being so mean to my body and instead to try to care for it and, by extension, myself. This was seriously a revolutionary notion to me, and I was a little bit scared to think about it, but also excited to take it on. That’s when I decided to make peace with my body. The first step was to catch myself whenever I started an internal stream of negative commentary about my shape, my weight, my personality, my value. The second was to let go of long-held resentments, the most pressing being the ones I had about my mom.