The public radio program The Story, which I love (favorite prior episodes–you’re welcome –include “John School,” the story of a former prostitute who now works as a speaker in an awareness program for convicted johns, “‘Roid Rage,” about a steroid addict, the recurring “Ahmed’s Diary” feature from Iraq, and “The ‘Manny‘,” about the role a nanny played in a family when the husband and father was dying of cancer) featured a story on Friday about a San Francisco writer named Katy St. Clair, who recently underwent gastric bypass surgery.
I highly recommend listening (you can download the mp3, or subscribe to the show’s podcast, at the above link). I found St. Clair to be an incredibly elegant, engaging speaker and storyteller, and many parts of her “fat experience” resonated with me in a way that most interviews about fat certainly do not. (Part of this was also probably due to the fact that some of the childhood experiences she evoked–like growing up in a home with no treats allowed, where the bar cookies that her mother occasionally made for school functions were definitely not for the family, and where a child who uses food for comfort learns to binge on saltines or cinnamon toast because “where there’s a will, there’s a way” even in a house with no junk food–were exactly my experiences.)
Although I have some of the usual issues with the episode, in which the OMG OBESITY EPIDEMIC and THE DIABEETUS made their appearance, I also thought the host for the most part stayed out of St. Clair’s way and I thought I could sort of hear him actively trying to let her story play out, versus letting his own assumptions and understanding of fat play a significant role in the conversation.
I wanted to touch on some thoughts I had about St. Clair’s story.
1) St. Clair described that she recalls becoming aware of her body during first grade, when the children were asked to trace their bodies on a roll of paper and color them in. In the course of this exercise, St. Clair noticed how different her body shape was from the other children’s. What I found noticeable about this was that the host shared that he, on the other hand, remembered lying down on the paper but recalled nothing else after that, which to me shows, as a young fat person, how conscious you are of your body all the time. For all that thin people think they’re more “health-conscious” than fatties, many don’t know what it’s like to know what you weigh from, like, the age of 5 (and to know that this number is bad, of course) and to have a constant awareness of the unacceptability and ugliness of your body and self as a backdrop to your entire life.
Similarly, she made the following observation about the mixed blessing of working as a fat journalist:
I did kind of want to keep it a secret, that Katy St. Clair was fat, um, and I hated that about–even when I was a regular journalist, I hated showing up to interview people, and, you know, there are stereotypes about fat people. And I don’t think I was taken as seriously–which sometimes is good when you’re a journalist, ’cause especially–this is gonna sound sexist–but I kinda used that to my advantage, someone thinking I’m kinda stupid, ’cause you can get a lot more information out of them.
And the host asked, sounding surprised: “You mean people would react to you as a big person, that you were somehow not as smart as a thin person?” No, REEEEEEALLY? [/Jon Stewart] Again, it just goes to show how life as a fat person can be very hard to really “get” if you have never been fat yourself. And that’s not a bad thing, but I think it is a good thing to be aware of.
2) St. Clair’s observations on bulimia were very direct and evocative:
And one thing that I don’t think people really talk about with bulimia is that it’s… it’s a violent act. And you tear up, um, but it feels good when it’s done. It gave me that same calming feeling, I suppose, that the cinnamon toast did when I was little. […] You finally have beaten yourself down in a way that is satisfactory to you, like, great, I hate myself and I’ve just done this thing, plus I’m getting rid of the bad food… It’s just a real sick mixture of a lot of different things.
3) St. Clair describes the pitfalls and benefits of therapy by describing her first therapist, who prescribed weight loss to cure St. Clair’s depression and comforted a crying St. Clair, who had just gained 1 lb. on vacation, by saying “It’s OK. It’s not like you gained five pounds.” On the other hand, a later therapist helped her to understand that if inanimate objects (clothing, airplane seats, etc.) were not comfortable for her, it was not necessarily her body that was “wrong.” Instead, the objects were wrong for her body. I wish we could all hear that message a little more often. stitchtowhere’s take (via Shapely Prose) is excellent.
4) St. Clair says of a time when she started dating a man who accepted her as she was:
And I sort of allowed myself to embrace that a little bit, to say, like, huh, maybe I’m OK this way, maybe this is the way God made me, and that’s when I started getting really really fat. And I don’t have a lot of memories, I mean I have memories of when it was happening, but I don’t–I don’t remember overeating. I do remember finally saying, alright, yeah, I’m gonna have cream cheese on that bagel. I’m not gonna have it dry. That kind of stuff.
Call me crazy, but this doesn’t sound like a person who suddenly initiated around-the-clock donut binges. This sounds like a person who just started eating normally. The fact that her weight skyrocketed as a result of this could mean that she was way below her setpoint to start with–which would not be the least bit surprising given her history of anorexia and bulimia–or perhaps that she had or has a medical issue. There’s no way of knowing, but I found her description of her eating interesting and similar to what I’ve heard from so many other fat women–most do NOT appear to be pigging out 24/7, regardless of what it makes thin people feel comfortable to believe. Anyway, around this time, she also notes, she had to start shopping at plus size stores. So, not that it matters, but incidentally, she was not even “that” fat at this point.
5) St. Clair made some other observations about living as a fat woman that I’m sure feel familiar to many of us.
My career is going really well, I had kind of a hip job–I was a music editor at a large weekly out here, and, um, I really didn’t hold myself back. Um, I was living the life of an interesting thin person.
The host, again, doesn’t really seem to “get” what she’s talking about, or why she would differentiate her perception of the life of an “interesting thin person” from her actual life, which is just incredible to me. After all, the Fantasy of Being Thin is so ingrained in most fat people that it would seem impossible not to at least on some level believe that life as a thin person is more colorful, more interesting, more accomplished, less impeded, and happier than life as a fat person, and this fantasy prevents many of us from doing things we really want to do until we get thin (so, you know, usually never).
6) This quotation I just found amusing and so true:
This one guy in Mill Valley, which is this really nice section of Marin, where everybody’s super-healthy and rides bikes and eats apples and stuff?… I went to look at this apartment, and I loved it. And I could just tell he was just a little uncomfortable with me. And there were some stairs up to the apartment. He’s like ‘Are you sure you’re gonna be OK on the stairs? Will the stairs be a problem?’ And I was just like, ‘What are you talking about?’ Like, I would forget that I was fat, you know. That got really old.
Ha. No kidding.
7) St. Clair was told by her doctor pre-surgery that it would not be safe to get pregnant in the future because “gestational diabetes is a real risk.” First of all, I’m not sure the case is closed on whether this is a valid enough concern for a doctor to take the rather startling stance that a fat patient should simply never have a child unless she loses weight. Personally, I don’t really think so. Everyone is different and not every fat woman is at risk for gestational diabetes. And incidentally, what is your cutoff? Is it only 350-lb.+ women who are forbidden to reproduce, or is it maybe 250 and up? Or anyone who’s “overweight” or “obese”?
But if I can be allowed to go on a bit of a possibly paranoid tangent here, it seems to me that thin women can also face all kinds of risks and–leaving aside that fertility treatments can be very hard to come by–are still encouraged to try and get pregnant, come hell or high water. And of course, not to abort except in the most dire, life-threatening circumstances. But take someone fat, though granted 360 lbs. is not just slightly fat, and all of a sudden doctors are encouraging her to wait until she loses the weight to get pregnant (which for many people will not happen, and even if you can temporarily force the weight off, dieting puts a lot of stress on your body at a time when you are about to add the even greater stress of a pregnancy. Who’s to say that’s actually safer than just conceiving while fat if you can?) or, just to be safe, maybe not get pregnant at all. Or at the very least to for god’s sake lose some weight while pregnant. It would almost be enough to convince a paranoid person like myself that some doctors don’t consider it such a tragedy if someone like me doesn’t breed. Ahem.
My absolute favorite quotation of St. Clair’s, however, was the following:
I hated my body because that was an easy target. You know, you watch on Oprah, the people that have body dysmorphic disorder where they hate their nose, and they’re obsessed with their nose, and if only their nose was different. And we view them as these interesting creatures, oh, those poor things, you know, what’s it like to really hate your nose, and you can’t leave your house, and… but there’s women, millions of women, that hate their bodies, and it’s just sort of an accepted part of being a woman.
This is why WLS is never, ever just about health. I’ll just leave it at that.