A memoir about what happens when turning your insides around doesn’t turn your world upside down.
When she was barely 17, Anne H. Putnam underwent Gastric Bypass surgery; in the subsequent year she lost over 100 pounds. Nine years later and ten sizes smaller, she's still facing down the monster in the mirror, and she's finally starting to understand that just because the body changes doesn’t mean the mind (or the world) will naturally follow suit.
Straightforward, honest, and oftentimes shameless, Navel Gazing is the no-holds-barred story of one woman’s physical and mental journey from morbidly obese to unpleasantly plump, with all the stops along the way: the funny, the painful, and the downright awkward.
UK Jackets (Faber&Faber):
Author's note: This excerpt was originally published in the 2011 City University Creative Nonfiction Anthology.
I pull the canvas skirt over my butt, stuff my hips in under the waistband, and start buttoning the snaps that run up the front of the blue patterned fabric. I fasten the safety pin where the material gaps open, right over my crotch, and suck in my breath a bit to get the top three snaps. The tank top I picked out earlier is lying on the unmade bed; it’s one of my favorites, a racerback style with green and black curlicues on it that look like snails. I lean over to grab the tank and pull it on, stretching the cheap cotton so it sits just right and covers all the little bits of flesh that are doing their damndest to poke out of the top of my skirt. And then I make my first mistake: I look in the mirror.READ MORE
When Guy comes into the bedroom five minutes later, the small expanse of floor is strewn with clothes– he has to push to get the door all the way open, because it gets stuck on a pair of inside-out Bermuda shorts. The skirt I used to love so much has been relegated to dust bunny duty, shoved under the dresser so I won’t have to look at it anymore. The tank top that once made me feel so confident and curvy is inside out, squashed into a ball and hurled into the farthest corner I can find in our tiny London flat. Three or four more outfits, tried on in an attempt to cling to the last shards of my sanity, litter the floor around my bare feet.
I look up as the door opens, and Guy’s face says it all: You look like a hot mess. My mascara is probably running all over my face– the tears started around outfit number three– and I know my hair is crazy and my face red and a little sweaty. I should just stop this nonsense and put on some freaking clothes. But I can’t.
“Anne, what on earth?” Guy picks his way over the detritus and around the bed, coming towards me with his arms out, ready to hug the insanity out of me.
I leap out of his reach.
“Don’t! Just don’t touch me.” I try to take deep breaths but my heart is racing. I feel wound, sprung, as if in order to survive I need to explode out of my skin in every direction. I shift my weight quickly between my feet, back and forth, my hands shaking. Guy’s eyes widen.
“Okay, okay,” his palms go up as he takes a step back, almost bumping into the full-length mirror that started it all, which is leaning against the wall by the dresser. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s happening and we’ll sort it out.”
I hate how calm he sounds. I want to hit him, but instead I just shout.
“What’s happening is I don’t have any CLOTHES because I’m too FAT FOR EVERYTHING and I know we have this thing and we need to leave in five minutes but I CAN’T GO OUT THERE BECAUSE I’M A MONSTER.” As I say this last part, I start sobbing again, and fidgeting even more. I pace back and forth in the tiny space between the bed and the front windows, desperate to go anywhere, be anywhere but inside my own skin.
“Look,” Guy is approaching me again, but I give him a wild-eyed look and he backs off, “look, what if I just picked something and you put it on and then we go, and you don’t look in the mirror, we just go. Would that work, do you think?”
I’m hiccoughing, and I try again to breathe but my lungs are shuddering and my nose is running. I shrug, as if maybe his idea could work. It won’t work. It won’t make me thinner. I’ll still be disgusting and huge and rolling out of whatever he gives me to wear.
Guy scans the room. As he turns to look behind him, he spots the edge of blue patterned canvas peeking out from under the dresser, and he bends down to retrieve it.
“I thought you wanted to wear this today. You looked so lovely in it last weekend–”
I rip the skirt from his hands as he tries to dust it off, and throw it back on the floor.
“No, I couldn’t have, unless I’ve gained like thirty pounds since then, because I look hideous in it now! I put it on and my fat spilled out and it’s too short and I hate my fat legs and my knock knees and my stupid fat cellulitey skin! I HATE IT.”
I’m starting to hyperventilate now, I can feel my chest tightening. I back away from Guy’s reach again, but I bump up against the windowsill and he catches me and holds me tight against his chest. He’s warm, and strong, and normally this is exactly where I need to be when I’m losing my shit, but right now I just feel tense and my neck hurts from the way my head has to turn and his slow, steady heartbeat in my ear just makes mine race faster with fury that he can be so calm when I’m falling apart.
I shove back.
“We don’t have time for this bullshit! We have to go and I have be normal in front of my friend and–” I dissolve into tears again. By now I’m barely breathing at all, and what little air I am getting is laced with asthmatic wheezing.
I try to push Guy away again, but he pulls me in tighter.
“Shh, just breathe,” he says, his hands stroking my back, “we don’t need to be on time. We don’t even need to go. If you don’t think you can face it, we’ll just call and cancel.”
At that, the fury wells up in me and I direct it at him, again.
“We can’t just CANCEL. She’s come all the way from fucking ASIA to see us! ME. Why does this shit always happen when I NEED TO BE SANE? I just want to hack it all off with a cleaver!”
I’ve broken free of his embrace, and I’m grabbing at my flesh when I say this last part, pulling great handfuls of hip and butt away from the bone, showing him how loose and flabby and disgusting my body is. Wanting him to see what I hate so much, while at the same time hoping he can’t. Hoping he sees only good things, even if that means one of us is totally unhinged.
Guy’s face goes pale and he puts his hands on my arms, forcing me to drop myself and stand still for a second.
“Anne. Look at me, Anne.”
I can’t. I look at his chin.
“Anne, don’t ever do that. Please, don’t let yourself talk like that. I couldn’t stand to watch you hurt yourself.”
I nod, slowly, but inside all I can think is that what I do or don’t tell him makes no difference. I’ll still think it. I’ll still want to do it, still wish I weren’t so goddamn practical and concerned about blood and scarring. I’ll always think it would be endlessly satisfying to slice a chunk of flesh off my thigh and feel all this anxiety turn into physical, treatable pain.
“Good. Now lie down.”
I obey, letting him push me onto the bed and get behind me. I claw for the covers, hating the way my hip slides over the elastic in my underwear when I lie on my side, and for once he helps me cover up. Guy’s left arm stretches under my head, and his right arm wraps around my ribs, pulling me in as tightly as he can. I’d be afraid of suffocating if I weren’t already halfway there.
“Now,” he says, his voice hot in my ear, “I know it’s difficult, but I really need you to breathe. Just take it one breath at a time, following me.” He breathes in and out in exaggeratedly long, deep breaths, his chest pressing into my back when he inhales, and releasing me when he exhales. I try to follow. My torso is shaking, hard, and I can only get tiny gulps of air, which I exhale in low wailing sounds. It’ll never work, I think, I’ll never breathe again. I’ll never feel normal again. I may as well just let myself suffocate. But somewhere in my mind, my logical self fights back. Stop it. Just stop it. Just do as he says and breathe.
I lean back into Guy’s warm chest and put all my strength into the simple process of inhaling and exhaling. I try to keep my mind from focusing on the hot, sticky feeling where the flesh is folding at my waistline, or the tickle on the bridge of my nose as yet another tear slides sideways out of my eye, or the fact that Guy’s right pinky is drifting dangerously close to the puddle of skin where my belly meets the bed. The only way to stop myself from thinking about those things is to think nothing at all. And the only way to do that is to copy in my mind the loudest sound in the room, to mentally mimic the sound of my own ragged breath:
Hu-hu-hu-huh whooooooooo hu-hu-hu-huh whoooooooooo hu-hu-hu-huh whoooooooooo…
At some point, when my tears have dried into itchy patches of salt all over my face, when my wailing exhale has gotten smoother and quieter, Guy leaves me alone to go cancel our lunch date. Without his arm around me, I curl tighter into myself, pulling my bent legs up by my chest and squeezing them until my hip muscles hurt. I bury my face in my knees, relishing the feeling of forehead on kneecap, bone on bone, savoring the pain of something hard that’s actually a part of my body.
I stay like that, breathing in the smell of my skin and trying to control my shaking, for a long time. I fall asleep, and only wake up when Guy comes in to check on me. He asks if I’m okay. I manage to shake my head. I fall asleep.
* * *
I’d like to say that breakdowns like this happen rarely these days, but that depends on your definition of ‘rarely.’ A good year, for me, is one in which I have only one or two days where I’m so miserable and depressed and furious about my body that I have to miss school or work or a date with friends. A year entirely devoid of these occurrences is a dream I have yet to realize.
The weird thing is, I don’t remember having this violent reaction to my body when I was fat. I mean, I was frustrated, and I felt helpless and sad, even depressed, but I don’t recall anything like what I often feel now: fury.
I get so angry it’s scary. Not just for the few people who’ve seen me in this state (actually, pretty much just Guy, the poor dear), but for me too. I watch myself become this insane beast, feel my hands itch for some instrument with which to harm my body. I feel this uncontrollable urge to manifest myself in some other body so I can go to battle with my own. My soul and my body want nothing more than to split from each other, which is the one thing that’s impossible to do.
When I was fat, I wanted to change my body. I tried diets, exercise, and complaining; none of it worked. But I also knew on some level that nothing slow-acting would ever work for me. I gave up too easily. And so I didn’t really have a right to be mad at my body, because my mind was too much of a wuss to really try to change it. And while I still felt upset that it was my lot in life to struggle with weight, I was more depressed and resigned to the world’s unfairness than I was angry.
But that all changed when I made my first real effort to control my body. When I had the Gastric Bypass, I really thought I would finally have some power, some agency over my own hulking form. I didn’t expect to look like Gwyneth Paltrow or Angelina Jolie, I just expected to be smaller, thinner, more normal. And I was sorely disappointed when I discovered that it wasn’t that easy. I stood naked in front of the mirror six months after surgery comparing my body when I lifted the excess skin with the saggy mess when I left it hanging: normal, gross, normal, gross.
Still, I tried to tell myself that it would be okay. I would still have more control over my body than I had when I was obese. The playing field had been leveled, I told myself: normal people try to lose weight all the time, but the difference is they need to lose ten pounds instead of 110. Now I could be one of those normals! I could work out hard and see results within a month; I could diet and lose three pounds in a week; I could go up or down a size in clothes, and continue to shop in the same store.
I was right: the playing field was leveled. But that didn’t mean I had control. My body seems to defy rational action; diet and exercise sometimes cause me to gain weight, and often when I stop obsessing over it– if I’m on vacation or a roadtrip, or somewhere else where a gym and healthy food are unavailable– I’ll actually lose weight. I lost fifteen pounds when I stopped calorie counting last year. In nine months of 1700 calories a day, with three days a week at the gym and yoga on my off days, I’d lost ten pounds, six of which I’d gained in the first week of the new regimen. It doesn’t make sense.
And it’s the senselessness that drives me mad. When I was heavier, I understood that I was more than just the victim of an unfortunate inheritance; I knew that I didn’t try hard enough to exert control over my eating, my exercise habits, or, yes, my genetic tendency to put on weight. But because I knew I wasn’t trying to control my circumstances, I didn’t get so angry when I couldn’t control them with wishes and what-ifs. Now, when I’ve had four surgeries and spent countless amounts of time and money on a million different diet and exercise routines, when I’ve spent months counting every calorie or trying not to slip in pools of sweat at bikram yoga classes, every day is a struggle not to think about how little control I truly have over this body I’m stuck with for the rest of my life. If I can’t force my body to bend to my will, I have to find a way to control my mind. I have to be able to get on with my life.
And sometimes I lose that battle. Sometimes all it takes is standing in front of my closet in the morning, trying to find something to wear to work. One article of clothing that won’t show the bulges where the elastic in my underwear presses my soft skin, or the little dimple where my tummy-tuck scar meets in the middle, or the shelf of flesh above my butt that sticks out when I push off my back leg as I walk. On days when I can’t find something to wear, as shallow a problem as that sounds, my mind enters dangerous territory, where every moment teeters on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Once I get into these moods, nothing can help bring me back for a long time. Logic, the knowledge that I’m not as hideous as I think, is useless in the face of my own reflection. The loving boyfriend who can’t keep his hands off my body becomes more of a reminder that my body exists (in all its foulness) than a reassurance that it’s attractive. Friends and family are completely powerless against my own self-sabotaging mind.
I think when I was heavy I often wanted to be told I wasn’t fat. I hoped for reassurance, even as I knew it wouldn’t be the truth. I was desperate for compliments, even as I brushed them off and denied them. I knew I was fat, but I still craved the kindness of other people’s lies.
Now, though, despite the fact that some sane part of me knows I’m not fat (or at least, no longer an objective definition of the term) those once-comforting words just make me angry. My boyfriend’s constant promise that he really doesn’t think I’m gross falls on deaf ears. How can he not see what I see? How can his hands, skimming over the dips and folds that we both know so well, not feel the revolting cellulite I feel? How can he not be as repulsed by me as I am?
Instead of fighting my own mood, I find myself fighting the rest of the world, daring them to open their eyes and see what I see, challenging Guy (and all other men) to flee from my hideous form and even more hideous emotional baggage. If a man stares at me in the street, I instantly check to make sure my bra isn’t showing, or touch my teeth with my tongue to see if there’s a bit of spinach lurking in there, waiting to embarrass me. I almost never assume I’m stared at in a good way; every look is an assault, an accusation. You’re not one of us, they say, looking me up and down, you’re a fraud. A big, fat fraud.
So I’ve become contrary, and sometimes kind of a bitch. People say nice things to me, and I brush them off awkwardly, or if I’m a bit drunk or in a bad mood I might call them liars. I’ll tell them not to insult my intelligence, or beg them not to spare my feelings, even as they protest to have no idea what I’m on about. I confuse them, because I’m confused. I have no idea what my body looks like, really; some part of me believes what other people say, knows that it’s my mind that is distorted, but I can only go with what I feel to be true, and assume that the ugly, bloated, jiggly form I greet every morning must be what they see.
One of the more ridiculous habits I’ve developed since the surgery is the constant comparison. Before I met Guy, I at least kept it to myself, reading trashy magazines and comparing celebrities’ ‘cellulite’ to the dimply mess where my thighs should be, or sitting in a coffee shop and trying to gauge the difference in depth between my tights-roll and that of my neighbor. But when I let Guy into the world in my head, I unwittingly signed him up as objective observer. Judge.
We walk down the street and I watch every woman that passes. When I see one whose hips look like they might resemble mine, or whose arms seem just a touch meatier than most, I tug Guy’s arm and point the lady out. “Okay, her. Is she bigger or smaller than I am? I mean, I know her boobs are bigger, but just ignore that and look at her hip width. Similar?” He rolls his eyes, but I press on. “I’m serious. This is important!”
He turns, reluctantly, and gives the woman a quick once-over. Far too quick, if you ask me– he should be studying her ass. He turns back to me with one of three looks: discomfort, disgust, or disinterest. Which means either: she’s smaller than I am, she’s much bigger than he thinks I am, or she’s sort of the same, or similar enough that he feels safe brushing it off as sorted.
The problem is, I don’t stop there. Once I know his reaction, I dissect the clues that I assume have led him to his judgment. Unfortunately, I often do this out loud:
“It was the hips, right? I mean, I don’t think my thighs are that small, but…”
“Wait, so I know she’s smaller but was the texture of her butt at least similar? It seemed kind of square like mine…”
“Oh, okay, so I’m smaller than she is, but that last woman I pointed out was about my size? But they looked the same to me!”
I’m sometimes asked whether Guy is a saint. To that I can only say: maybe. In fairness to me, he does have his quirks and annoying habits, but in fairness to him (in objectivity, really), he does put up with a lot. I don’t harass him about other women all the time– and I do like to defend myself by joking that at least I encourage him to look at other women’s bodies, unlike most girlfriends– but I can get pretty obsessive. The thing is, I need Guy to help me translate, to help me find some common ground between what I see and hate and what most of the world sees and accepts. Sometimes I worry about what I’ll do if Guy and I ever break up; how will I ever find anyone else who’s willing to liaise between me and this hostile captor of mine?
My body and I just can’t get along. It doesn’t understand me, and I can’t even begin to understand it. It responds to my attempts to change it like an unruly teenager, usually doing exactly the opposite of what I want. It won’t listen, it refuses to communicate its needs in any constructive way, and it inconveniences me at every turn. In the end, though, it’s all I’ve got, so I have to find a way to learn its language.
January 2013: Navel Gazing has now been released! You can buy the print book in the UK and Commonwealth (excl Canada) on Amazon.co.uk or Foyles.co.uk or Waterstones.com or in your favorite local bookshop. The audiobook is available worldwide.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone at Faber & Faber and Hardman & Swainson, and to all of you new readers out there who regularly make my day with your feedback and discussion!
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2019: I realize that having had Gastric Bypass surgery at a young age and written a book about how it didn't make me thin enough might indicate that I'm pro-weight loss, and I feel the need to state clearly that I am very much pro-body acceptance at all sizes. You'd probably be able to read that (at least for others, if not for myself) between the lines of anything I've written, but you'd have to be willing to read between the lines...
In recent years, especially, with a lot of therapy and some stellar fat-positive influences, I've become much more active and outspoken in my belief that all bodies are equally worthy of respect and care – I still have plenty of internalized fatphobia to conquer but I want to state for the record that the phobia is the problem, not the fat. Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.