Today I speak with beloved blogger Jen Larsen, whose recently-published memoir Stranger Here details her experience losing almost 200 pounds via surgery – and her discovery that weight loss is not a magic bullet for happiness.
Larsen was the featured blogger at Condé Nast's now-defunct Elastic Waist, and her columns have been syndicated on Yahoo!'s Shine Network for Women. She is a contributor to Big Fat Deal, a blog about weight in popular culture. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Word Riot, Emprise Review, and South Loop Review, among other publications. You can read a lot more about and from her here.
Why did you use a pseudonym when writing for Elastic Waist?
I was ashamed of being fat in the first place, and then I was ashamed of having felt so fat that I needed surgical intervention to fix myself. I was still at the point where I was half-convinced that weight loss surgery was the easy way out, that I was lying to people in real life about how and why I was losing weight. I couldn't stand the idea of someone knowing any of it, because it felt like they'd have a brutal, painful insight into me and parts of my psychology that I never wanted anyone to have access to.
It's so much safer to write under a pseudonym, and it helped me for a long time. I was able to be as honest as felt possible, and as true to myself and the story as I could. Of course, it became a fairly open secret not so long out, with all my friends and half my family reading. But I still clung to the name out of a sense of comfort.
It has to be more difficult now, with your book out there in the world, but do you have days when you simply don’t think about food, weight or size? What is going on that prohibits you from thinking about those issues on those days?
I wish I could say every day was sunshine, and every day I am just me, Jen, out in the world being Jen-like. But I think about it every day. I think about how my jeans fit and if my boobs are going to go off and disappear on me. I think about what other people think about my body, and if they think it's OK. But I'm happy to report that it's not a grinding, endless chorus in my head; they're fleeting thoughts that I chase down and kill as quickly as possible. I'm getting better at it.
Food, though . . . food I rarely think about, and that's always been the problem. My weight came from my food issues – not so much binge eating as endless, mindless, thoughtless consumption. Which pissed me off. Who wants to be an evil, f*cked-up cliche of the fat person used to dismiss and ridicule all fat people? I still struggle to be mindful about food, even though I kind of hate the word "mindful" because it makes me feel like I smell like patchouli and whole wheat flour. That's also something I'm working on getting better at.
One thing about the weight loss surgery: It forces me to be more aware when I'm eating mindlessly. My little stomach fills up quickly and I go oh, right, why don't we cut that out? But it doesn't always work, because the complex emotional insanity around food is an incredibly powerful force.
The Internet can be great at bringing people with weight issues together, but there’s a lot of disturbing and negative crap out there, too. What do you think are some of the worst weight and body image trends online?
The "obesity epidemic" shrieking is hideous. Oh, we're worried about the children! It's about health! Right. . . .
I guarantee you there's not a person on earth who has ever said, "Oh wait, I'm fat and that offends your aesthetic sensibilities? SH*T LET'S GET ON THAT RIGHT NOW," and goes and subsists on carrots for the rest of her days.
Let's turn the conversation away from shaming fat kids. Let's talk about that mindfulness thing. Let's talk about good food that isn't processed crap, about not feeling shame for eating, and about exercising to feel good about our bodies and to be as active, strong and bear-wrestlingly fit as we want to be. That would be rad.
I'd also really, really love to stop talking about our flaws. It's supposed to be a radical thing to say, "Well, you are beautiful despite your flaws! Love your flawed body, with all its flawed flaws and ugly bits!" The definition of "flawed" here is "not the body of an airbrushed swimsuit model." Your legs must be This Length to be unflawed and your ass This Wide and your t*ts This Perky; otherwise you have to force yourself to love those sad little misfits, and hope that someone else will accept them, too.
The fact that this is pushed as a positive, uplifting message – that pisses me off. How about we talk about how our bodies are awesome and how we need to have all sizes, shapes, scars, lengths and heights represented, so no one feels like there's only one real model of the human body, and all the rest are defects?
If you could go on a food binge right now without any physical consequences, what would you ingest?
I guess I lied when I said my weight loss surgery doesn't always stop me from eating beyond the point of comfort. The idea of a real-live food binge made me kind of cringe – the physical and emotional consequences and then the endless, sweaty nap. It is hard to pretend there aren't physical consequences. But I do like Oreos an awful lot.
Why do you think some people are so gullible about weight loss promises? Before I went to therapy I tended to believe anything that said “results guaranteed!” But I was infinitely more skeptical about anything else that made fishy promises like that.
The promise of weight loss is paired with the promise of happiness. It's supposedly a real, tangible path to actual happiness. Can't you see the lights shining bright in the eyes of the After Photo people? There's physical proof of the result: They are skinny and grinning, and you look at that, like, I could be skinny and grinning, and you believe it could actually happen. The Before and After Photos were what sold me on weight loss surgery. Those were the most powerful promises.
As you spend more time in your "new" body, do you find that it’s harder to recall life pre-surgery? If so, is that a good or a bad thing?
I remember what it's like every single time I notice a specific difference between then and now. I still think about it when I go through a turnstile. It's a flash of a memory, having to turn sideways to fit through. I remember when I'm on an airplane and the seats are narrow but I fit with room. I remember when I do my laundry and the pants still seem impossibly small. I try not to forget. I don't want to forget the person I was, especially because I was so cruel to her.
I’m curious whether you made a conscious decision to use the two pictures I see in your interviews and online. In your “before” photo you look like a wilder, more outgoing person than the “after.”
You are the first to notice that! Yes, I was really glad to use that "before" photo, because I was so tired of people assuming Before is bad and After is awesome. I wanted to use a Before photo that wasn't a cliche, that didn't pander to the idea that all the smiling has to start happening in the After photo. The fact that I look kind of terrified in the After photo is actually kind of an accident. I am really not good at taking posed pictures without looking stiff and awkward.
Did you view overweight people differently after you lost weight?
There was a point, not too long after I got the surgery, about 80 pounds down, that I was struck with this exhilaration. I felt lighter, like there was nothing better than that, and everyone should feel that way. And sometimes, sometimes I wanted to tell other overweight people about it. Not say, "You are overweight and you MUST be unhappy and HERE is a way to fix it." But to say, "Look, if you are sad and you think it's your weight, if you feel like you're trapped in your body, I found out about this thing. Let me tell you about this thing I am experiencing, these feelings I am feeling. I need to share this with you."
Now that I've experienced [life] in all the sizes you can be on the spectrum, I am angry for hating myself when I was fat, and for assuming everyone felt exactly the same. I don't assume that someone who is fat hates themselves the way I did. I don't think we were all in this together. I don't ever want to assume that I can decide how someone ought to feel in their body and what they ought to do about it. And it pisses me off that it happens so often – strangers deciding how other strangers ought to look and ought to feel.
I used to think that once you hit a certain weight you never had to worry about it again. I would look at thin girls and figure they lived on easy street and never had to torture themselves over whether or not to eat the cookie. Then there are starlets who blatantly lie and act like staying thin involves nothing more than the occasional hike in the canyon.
But we don’t think twice about going to work on days we don’t want to, or walking the dog when we don’t feel like it and so on. Why do you think struggling with making choices in terms of weight gets such a bad rap?
I think because weight and size have become so inextricably linked to your worth as a person, your moral strength and fortitude. You're told, "You want to be thin? Well you have to be disciplined. Those girls who don't freak out about cake? It's because they're stronger than cake and smarter than cookies. They're not as weak as you, with your craving for ice cream, you sad person. Your weakness shows in the size of your thighs and your envy of people who are more successful than you." (In this scenario, success = thin, natch.)
"Good people don't have issues with food because food isn't an issue. Your failings are the issue."
Etc., etc. flames on the side of my face, etc.
What did you feel most vulnerable about when you put the book out?
The mistakes I made. The book is essentially a catalog of the stupid sh*t I thought and the stupid sh*t I did and the ways I screwed up. It is also essentially an apology to the people I love and the people I hurt. And, I suppose, to myself.
Still, to this day (I guess not so many days later and it is likely to change, I hope) every time someone whose opinion is important to me reads [the book], I cringe a little, waiting for their opinion of me to change. My boss is threatening to read it right now. That's all kinds of nervewracking.
Does the book make you feel differently about food or weight? Do you feel more accountable, or is it time to celebrate?
I spent about two years writing the book and I thought a whole lot about my own story. Then I sent it off to the publisher and decided not to think about it at all. And then the book comes out and I have to talk about it every day, and it's becoming less and less about my own story and more and more about the issues of size and weight and self-acceptance and happiness and health. It's become this thing that's so much more important than just me and my feelings about weight loss surgery. I feel more accountable in that when people say, "Yes, what you said resonates with me and I am trying to be happy." I want to not disappoint people. I want to keep trying to be happy alongside them.
How many tattoos do you have, where are they and which one is your favorite today?
I have six tattoos! A beautiful sparrow on my foot, which nearly made me pass out and is still not colored in to this day; a stylized distelfink on my right calf; an anchor with a yellow rose on my inside right forearm, for my dad; a foo dog on my left forearm; a pirate ship on my right upper arm; and my pirate flag, on the back of my neck. I have a handful more planned. Right now and always, my favorite is my foo dog, which makes me feel fierce. But I love them all.
What are you working on now that is not Stranger Here related?
I meant to be a novelist, not a memoirist, so I am working on a few of novels: one young adult, two literary-flavored but with fantastical elements. And I want to write a book of hilarious essays, not just about food and body issues. Though food and body issues are pretty hilarious.
How does it feel to be the 342nd person to be interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
It feels pretty goddamn awesome, since I've been a fan of the site and the site-writer for years. Thank you so much for having me!