My Secret History
I may be thin now, but that doesn't mean I share your opinions about fat people.
By Megan Northrup Newsweek Web Exclusive
Dec 6, 2007
It's almost surreal how I find myself privy to the hushed conversations thin people have among themselves. I'm part of this insider group, but I carry a secret identity that renders me an impostor to some degree. I spent most of my childhood and the entirety of my adolescence overweight, and eventually morbidly obese (a very difficult health category to own up to). My core identity was once tied to being an outsider to this camaraderie of thin people. But my identity shifted rapidly in February of last year, when I underwent the kind of "medical intervention" that Star Jones recently acknowledged was the reason for her own weight loss. People I've met in the last year don't know me as I knew myself before I underwent gastric bypass surgery. They take for granted that my physical presence—I am now 130 pounds, having dropped 135 pounds after my operation—has always been this way, and I let them believe this myth because I see now, more than ever, how much judgment is directed toward the overweight and obese.
My best friend Bea places nannies in elite homes in Los Angeles, and more than once she has been explicitly asked not to send overweight applicants, no matter what their qualifications. Recently she had a candidate of the highest qualifications and glowing references, but this particular candidate wore size 16 jeans. When she found the courage to share this last detail with the client, the client immediately justified her prejudice by explaining that there were a lot of expensive antiques in her home, and narrow hallways. Fat, this woman believed, was simply unacceptable. If I had been there, I'm sure I would have simply nodded in quiet acquiescence.
I did as much recently when I went on a date with a young doctor. As I batted my eyelashes and enjoyed my newfound attractiveness, he recalled his morning spent helping in the delivery of a baby. "The woman was morbidly obese," he leaned over and whispered. Who, he wondered, would have wanted to have sex with that nine months ago? I said nothing and just let him buy into the illusion of me as someone who has only ever known a normal, healthy weight range.
I survived the day-to-day humiliations of obesity, the looks of pity and the "you have such a pretty face" compliments. In a moment I consider emblematic in the story of my struggles, I was once even stuck inside a dangling car tire six feet off the ground. I was 19 years old, participating in a ropes course retreat with my collegiate peer group. Somehow my assigned "bonding" group managed to hoist my 265-pound body up and into the challenge element (goal: get entire group through car tire) where my hips promptly announced themselves to be larger than the tire's opening. Bea (thankfully present for this ordeal) pushed from behind. The strongest male pulled from the front. Nothing. I was completely stuck. After a few more minutes of audibly difficult pushing and pulling by the group, I was free. Weeks later I still had the bruising around my hips to remind me of this embarrassment.
Two years ago Bea was also thankfully present when a nurse in the hospital yelled across the nurses' station, in reference to my need for a chair, "Has anyone seen the extrawide wheelchair? You know, the really big one?" Under her breath, Bea responded to her with, "Has anyone seen my friend's dignity?" We like to re-enact this moment from time to time, overexaggerating the extent of the nurse's yelling and complete lack of consideration for me as a human being. It's funny and we laugh, but we both know that this day, the day of my medical intervention, was the most difficult day of my life.
I've had nothing but success, healthwise, from the decision to have gastric bypass surgery. I've even run a half-marathon since then (not a superhuman feat by any means, but one almost unimaginable to that girl dangling in that tire). But every day I struggle with who I am and what this new membership to the normal-weight group means to me.
When you take on a new identity, and you've let others believe that this is your one true identity, it's easy to find yourself completely disowning your previous self. Recently my mother and I were going through old pictures of me—all those years of photographs and truths that I've hidden from new people in my life—and, picture by picture, my expressions of disdain and disgust grew louder. Fully acculturated to the thin insider group, it took my mother's tears to shake me out of my judgment. With wet eyes she said gently, "Be careful what you say about that girl. I loved her very much." And although my words could never carry the power of my mother's quiet admonishment, the next time someone leans over to me in the assumption of shared judgment, I can only hope that I will not remain silent.
Northrup lives in Charlottesville, Va.