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I still hated my body

Anne Putnam
Tuesday, January 01, 2013

WHILE my boyfriend sleeps, I get dressed in half-darkness in front of my bedroom wardrobe.

I stare at the rows of dresses I should be excited to choose from - bright colours, fun prints, different shapes. So why do I still feel as if I have nothing to wear?

I've recently started working full-time in a publishing office rather than two days a week from home, and feel that I have already worn my 'professional' dresses too often.

Then I remember the box under the bed containing all my office clothes from when I got my first job five years ago - smart skirts, button-downs, little blazers.

I scramble for my favourite, a mustard wool pencil skirt, and pull it on, zip it up (holding my breath) and turn to look at the shadowy figure in the mirror. Not too bad!

I look curvy but held in, and I'm chuffed that the skirt fits. But then I remind myself that I'll spend all day sitting down. So I hold my breath again and sit down on the bed to check my reflection.

And that's when the picture falls apart - the seated figure has a huge belly overhang from the unforgiving high waistband of the skirt and my soft, saggy skin.

I rocket to my feet.

The skirt is thrown to the floor. My throat's tightening, skin flushing, breath quickening and tears are forming. I force myself to put on something else before I lose myself in a body image meltdown.

If I didn't have a job to get to, I would have spent the morning (if not the day) in bed, crying and raging against the injustice of being saddled with my body. I can't remember a time when I didn't feel uncomfortable with my shape.

From the age of eight I knew I was chubby, and that was a problem. My doctor had spoken to me about my weight; my mum, who worked as an accountant, had tried endless tactics to get me to eat more healthily; and I'd been teased.

My dad, an investment banker, was overweight, too, and while his health was a concern for the family, only his looks ever seemed to bother him. My weight, however, and the unattractiveness I felt began to affect my self-esteem.

The problem grew as I did - I made it through middle school in XXL skirts (my mum had to move the buttons to make them fit) and oversized men's jeans, but by secondary school I'd outgrown normal shops. I did my best with the nicest things I could from plus-size stores, which were few and far between in the late Nineties.

Most options for people who were bigger than standard size were for middle-aged women who had 'let themselves go': sack-like dresses, high-waisted trousers and square-shaped tops. Not what a teenager wants to wear to school.

Throughout my school years I was on different diets and exercise regimes, such as Slim-Fast, Atkins and Tae Bo kickboxing. I went to a children's weight-loss camp twice. If I was diligent I might lose a bit of weight, but I always gained it back - with interest.

I spent far more time trying to work out how to lose weight than figuring out why I put it on in the first place. When I did think about the reasons for my ever-expanding body, I usually failed to come up with anything definitive.

I knew I had a persuasive sweet tooth - when I wasn't on a diet I'd go on sugar binges behind my mother's back, eating chocolate, crisps, biscuits and sweets - but otherwise I was not unhealthy. I walked everywhere or took the bus, and the meals my mother cooked were lean meat and vegetables, with a big green salad.

But when I fell off the wagon the consequences were dire. I couldn't understand why friends who ate a lot less healthily stayed slim. Eventually, I realised the 'why' wasn't important - I needed to figure out the 'how' to fix it.

The solution came when I was 16, in the form of an article about gastric bypass - a new surgery for the morbidly obese. By this point, I officially was 'morbidly obese' (my Body Mass Index was over 40) and I wanted more than anything not to be.

It sounded like a miracle answer: a reduced stomach that could hold only a small portion of food and wouldn't tolerate too much sugar or fat. It would remove the potential for falling off the wagon, a 'diet' I couldn't fail again.

I wanted that surgery more than I'd ever wanted anything. It was the only way I could see to get rid of the body that kept me from enjoying life.

I spent most of my free time in my room, reading or watching films. I felt trapped inside my body and hated looking at myself. I had one, small bedroom mirror hung high up so it showed only my head and shoulders, and I'd take uncomfortably hot showers just to steam up the big bathroom mirror so I wouldn't see myself naked.

If I could only lose the weight I would be happy, I thought. Maybe if I wasn't hidden by a thick layer of blubber I could be attractive.

So I left the gastric bypass article open on the table - it featured a colourful illustration of a thin man inside layers of fat. I knew my parents would be home soon and I couldn't wait for them to see it. When they did I took a deep breath and made it clear this was something I was serious about trying.

Soon afterwards I went with my parents to a weight-loss surgery centre, where two doctors explained the procedure, its side-effects and expected result: 70 per cent of excess body weight lost within the first year.

My head was swimming - all I could think about was how much my body would change if I could get my parents to agree to it - and pay the £17,000 (F$ 49,077.96) cost.

My dad seemed as excited as I was, but my mum looked nervous. The lines around her mouth deepened as the doctors discussed the recovery process, the possible complications and the death rate (one in 200 back then).

I was terrified she wouldn't let me do it. In the end, she did - but I think she thought I should have tried harder with diet and exercise first. Thankfully, the surgery worked: I went in at 20st 8lb and a year later weighed 13st2lb - not too bad for my 5ft8in frame. I'd gone down ten dress sizes and could finally wear normal clothes. My 'miracle cure' had worked.

But it wasn't easy. The recovery was long and uncomfortable - for the first two weeks I was on a liquid diet, though I hurt so much I didn't want to eat anyway. After that I moved on to soft foods - scrambled eggs and soup - then introduced more protein and vegetables, but much of it wouldn't stay down.

It was painful and embarrassing - I'd vomit after lunch at school. I thought after slimming down I'd look 'normal', but I was like a saggy balloon. Losing weight so quickly meant my skin didn't bounce back from being stretched.

I became obsessed with staring at my body, seething at it, lifting and dropping my excess belly skin. I tried to imagine what my body should look like without this side-effect (the doctors had warned me it could happen, but as I was so young they didn't think it would be a problem. They couldn't be sure, though, as I was one of first under-18s they'd worked on).

'Watchingmy boyfriend Guy's face when I had a body-hatred meltdown I finally understood that I need to accept myself as I am and let go of the self-loathing'

Still, I was happier than I'd been for years. I found good control underwear to hide the belly, and little cardigans to cover my bingo wings. I went to university and made new friends. I even found a boy to kiss - one who wasn't disgusted by my body, even when I showed it to him. I lost my virginity, lived with room-mates and went to parties - I was beginning to understand what it meant to be 'normal'.

But I couldn't stop obsessing over my excess skin. It horrified me: I felt it kept me from fully enjoying the new body I had underneath. So I begged my parents to help me get the skin removed from my belly, arms and thighs. Mum was reluctant - she believed there was nothing exercise couldn't fix - but Dad was supportive. The plastic surgery cost about as much as the gastric bypass, but my parents knew it was important to me and found the money from their upper-middle-class income.

The operations were brutal. The tummy tuck was more painful than the gastric band surgery. I was sliced open from hip to hip, and the skin was detached from the muscle and fat. For days I had drains sticking out of me and could barely move.

For weeks afterwards I walked hunched over, afraid if I straightened up too fast that the stitches would split.

As difficult as the surgeries were, though, tightening the skin on my stomach, arms and thighs made a huge difference. As soon as I could remove the post- surgery compression sleeves I had to wear on my arms, I pulled on cardigans. I bought hipster jeans and felt gleeful when I had to pull them up instead of tucking my belly into them.

Yet the surgeries didn't 'fix' me. I still felt like the fat girl in every room and still assumed men didn't fancy me.

Now I'm smaller my life is easier. Plane seats are more comfortable, talking to strangers is less terrifying. But I'm still not small enough. I'm 28, around 14½ stone and a size 16. My BMI marks me as obese and I'm still the biggest of all my friends.

It's only recently I've decided the solution isn't to keep striving for a perfect body - it's to strive for acceptance in my mind.

It was only when I was 21 and got serious with my boyfriend, Guy, that I started to see how messed up my mind was.

Watching his face when I had a body-hatred meltdown - seeing the fear in his eyes when I threatened to slice off bits of myself to make my body conform - I finally understood that I need to accept myself as I am and let go of the self-loathing that's become such a part of my life.

I have a healthy body that can hike through the Highlands, a lovely family and friends who enjoy my company, and a wonderful boyfriend who finds me beautiful.

If there's anything wrong with that picture it's the lens through which I see it. I think it's finally time to change the filter.

nSource: DAILY MAIL





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