For the Obese, Alone Even in Public

By Samuel T. Stanley
stanley april22 subway post.jpg

Photo by tan8b/FlickrCC

This winter, a writer living in Washington, D.C. underwent gastric bypass surgery, which he discusses in this ongoing series, written in real time.

"Wait...was that guy just looking at me? He can't have...No, I'm still too fat for that. He's still looking. Not smiling. But he doesn't look disgusted...he knows I'm looking at him, and he's not looking away. Huh."

You'll pardon me, I hope, for the Glenn Beckian internal dialog I'm sharing, but my mental cartography brings me full circle. At a support group, I mentioned to some fellow bariatric patients that I had noticed--or thought I had noticed--that people were looking at me differently. When I was fat, I avoided meeting people's gaze. That's because I felt that I did not want to subject them to my ugliness. Occasionally, I would glance at a pretty person, but the moment the person glanced back--there is a spooky action at a distance at work in the glance dance--I would snap my head and look in a neutral direction. Gay men notice each other this way; I had trouble, as a single gay man, finding the confidence to participate in this elaborate and vital mating ritual.

Trouble is, my visual disability extended beyond the realm of dating and courting. In any crowd of people, in a group conversation, in an interview, I always got the sense that my counterpart or counterparts were doing their best not to look at me. Why? Because they considered me to be ugly. And humans don't like to look at ugly things.

This horrible, circular, vicious, irrational interiority plagued me for 30 years. And then I began to look at people with confidence, and they began to look at me. Of course it was mostly a projection of my self-image; I knew it at the time. But as my body began to change, my brain began to rewire itself. The homunculus that forms the sum-total of my self-image was thinner. Positive psychology could not accomplish what changing my physiology did. Without changing your body, it is incredibly difficult to change your mind. Pop-mental health gurus teach the opposite, and I think that consigns extremely obese people to a life of self-loathing.

I wasn't skinny. But for the first time, I didn't perceive that the person standing in the mirror across from me was fat.

So when I pointed out this change of attention to my fellow patients, one woman laughed. "Honey," she said to me, "that's the first thing we all notice."

My internal map of physical space is changing, too. On the subway, I used to mark my territory a bit, estimating how far I needed to stand from someone to maintain my comfort and their right to personal distance. I discovered last week I was overestimating. On the tight Red Line trains, I could stand a little closer to people.

I've written before that the self-awareness arises gradually, but I did experience a single moment of joy. Last week, after a shower, I looked at myself in the mirror. I turned to the side. I turned to the other side. I pulled my chin forward. I tried to sink my head into my chest. Well, I wasn't skinny. But for the first time, I didn't perceive that the person standing across from me was fat. A little chubby--a ring around the tummy, and some neck fat that'll take a while to get rid of--but I looked ordinary. I could smile, and my eyes would focus on my smile, and not on some other attribute of my body.

I did notice how pale I looked. That's a common problem among bariatric patients. We're a bit malnourished, and those of us--like me--who have trouble eating more than 600 calories a day tend to visibly manifest this discrepancy. The solution is to eat more, ironically, but I'm not very hungry.

So I've started to use make-up. Many male bariatric patients seek help at the cosmetic counter. A little bit of bronzer and some expensive cream to shrink the ruptured blood vessels under your eyes can transform a face.

I work in journalism, and I'm used to colleagues wearing TV makeup all the time. It's very noticeable. Mine isn't. There's a stigma attached to males who wear make-up--even to gay males--and I'm not sure I want anyone to notice.

Well, I want them to notice me. Of course I do. My malnourished ego demands it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/for-the-obese-alone-even-in-public/16415/