Middle school was the first time I can remember actively hating my body. I constantly felt bigger than other girls, and that was when I learned my body was "bad." The girls who were quiet, small, and thin were praised as being beautiful, and I was none of those things. As a result, I started my first diet.
By high school, I not only hated my body, but I was also deeply ashamed of it. I saw how people treated me differently because of it—girls made catty comments and boys saw me as a sex object when I was thinner or ignored me when I was heavier. Yet I still kept trying to be the "ideal" woman that society told me I was supposed to be. I don't even remember how many diets I'd done by the time I graduated.
College brought new challenges. During my first week of school, I was raped by two men. After the assault, I had a very hard time coping, and one way I managed my feelings was with food. I was caught in a cycle of bingeing, purging, and blaming my "broken" body for everything that went wrong. My weight went up and down during this time... but mostly up.
Finally, in 2011, at 263 pounds, I decided I'd had enough of failed diets and hating myself. I'd tried diet and exercise, and while I'd lose a few pounds, I'd always put it back on. If I was going to lose weight, I was going to have to do something major—like surgery.
There were several options, but I decided on a vertical sleeve gastrectomy, a type of weight-loss surgery where they remove 80% of your stomach. I chose that one because it doesn't affect the intestines; with other types of weight-loss surgery, most of the small intestine is bypassed. As a result, you can end up with problems like vitamin deficiencies and bowel issues. Because of my history with eating disorders, my insurance wouldn't cover the surgery. So I made the incredibly risky decision to have it done in Mexico and fronted the $10,000 myself.
The week before the surgery I had to follow an all-liquid diet, which was awful. But I felt amazing. For the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful. I was finally doing something about this issue that had plagued me my whole life. Even though I was a little scared, I saw the surgery as a rebirth of sorts, the solution to all my mental and physical pain.
Immediately afterward, I was in a lot of pain, which lasted for about two weeks. After that I could pretty much go back to my regular life, but the full recovery was a slow process. I could only eat a little bit at a time, totaling less than 1,000 calories a day. I would experience dizzy spells and feel weak. But I still felt good because it seemed to be working.
In the year after the surgery, I lost 100 pounds, getting down to 165. The next year, I celebrated with an arm lift to remove some of the excess skin. That wasn't covered by insurance either, as it's considered cosmetic, and I paid an additional $6,000 out of pocket.
While I was happy with the results, everyone around me was ecstatic. Everywhere I went, I was praised and lauded (one person even called me a "hero," as if losing weight is akin to pulling someone out of a burning building) and I got addicted to the praise. I wanted everyone to validate me—and as long as I was losing weight, they did.
Then, I slowly started to gain the weight back. Not all of it, but enough that it was noticeable. Within two years, I'd gained back half of what I'd lost, and the compliments dried up along with my self-esteem. My eating disorder, on the other hand, had never really gone away and was now back in full force.
Physically, I was supposed to be healthier, but I didn't feel healthy at all. Mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, I was a wreck. While the surgery had worked in the sense that I'd lost some weight, in the end I felt like it failed. Overall, I felt less healthy than before. I ended up obsessed with food and counting calories, my blood pressure and cholesterol remained the same as before, and, worst of all, I still didn't love my myself. Losing weight wasn't the magic pill for self-love that I'd thought it would be. If anything, I only hated myself more.
One day in 2015, I happened across My Big Fat Fabulous Life, a TV series centered around the life of Whitney Way Thore, a plus-sized woman and fat-acceptance activist, and a light went on. In the show, Whitney talked often about loving herself. I finally realized that I'd been putting my life on hold, making everything else contingent upon my weight. I didn't have to wait until I was skinny to be happy, I could be happy and love myself exactly the way I was.
From that point forward, I embraced the body-positive and fat-positive movements, learning everything I could about detaching my self-worth from the scale and loving my imperfect-but-innately-beautiful body. I pored over blogs and books and became active in the online communities.
As I started to heal from decades of self-abuse, I started to see my surgery and relationship to food in a different light. Everyone's experience with weight-loss surgery is different, and some people see amazing improvements in their health and life. But for me, the surgery wasn't life-saving, it was damaging. I needed to heal myself from the inside first. Food wasn't an enemy to be conquered and thinness wasn't righteousness. I could be happy with myself and I was worthy of love and respect, regardless of the size or shape of my body.
Now, honestly, I'm sad I had the surgery. I can't even describe my feelings when I see my arm-lift scars in the mirror; it's a special kind of heartbreak knowing that I hated my body so much I would mutilate it to try to fit some unrealistic mold of what a woman "should" be. I've learned the hard way that you can't take care of something you hate, so loving myself has been the first, and best, step back to good health.
I started with getting help for my eating disorder, doing therapy for several years through The Emily Program, and while I'll never say I'm cured, I have a much better relationship with food. I eat intuitively, listening carefully to my body's signals about what it needs. I don't label food good or bad, and I don't label myself good or bad.
I've thrown out my scale. And, ironically, over the past two years, I've lost some weight—about two dress sizes—as my body has started to stabilize on its own. If you saw me on the street, you might not even consider my body to be fat anymore, although "fat" is still a word I identify with. Personally, I see my weight fluctuations as a neutral process, something my body is doing as I take good care of it and listen to it, and I don't really care where my weight ends up.
Yet there are still some people who think that now that I'm losing weight again, it's a sign that my surgery is finally a "success." Not so. The real success is no longer hating myself. The real success is how happy I am now.
By: Leah Kinney & Charlotte Hilton for WH