This week’s lockdown forced Anna Rawhiti-Connell to reflect on having literally surrendered parts of her body to the ether through tears, sweat and breath
No matter how short and sharp lockdowns are, nor how many acceptance meditations you do, they trigger a maelstrom of memories.
My lockdown memories from 2020 are entwined with various stages of recovery from bariatric surgery and walking the strange and unfamiliar road of surrender. Surrendering to the unknown. Surrendering control. Surrendering identity. Literally surrendering parts of me to the ether through tears, sweat, and breath.
Tears arrived this Wednesday morning. It’s not unusual for me to be crying during a lockdown and I like to think I’m less perturbed by the having of emotions than I used to be, but these tears snuck up on me. I knew February 17 was the one year anniversary of having gastric bypass surgery and I didn’t expect to feel much about it.
When I signed off my last column on this topic in August, I said I was reticent in ascribing happiness to weight loss. I still feel that way and had no desire to mark this day with any triumphalism beyond a post in a Facebook group of fellow surgical travellers. But as I sit here trying to figure out why I was crying on Wednesday, I realise I’ve been mentally ticking off a list of reflections for weeks in anticipation of this date.
I started the day by looking at a photo of me, pre-surgery, legs encased in hissing plastic quilting, inflating and deflating for the sake of my circulation. There is almost nothing more vulnerable than surrendering yourself to weird science with little knowledge of what is about to happen to you. I regularly shun the label ‘brave’ in relation to having the surgery or talking about it because I just want that to be normal, goddamnit. But when I think about how scared I was on the day and in the days, weeks, and months before and after, I can allocate at least three tears to the new understanding of being able to cope with more than I ever realised.
There is also something painful in recalling all the times I never let myself be vulnerable, somehow trying to match my bigger, broad-shouldered physicality with a similar persona because big girls don’t cry.
When I think about how scared I was on the day and in the days, weeks, and months before and after, I can allocate at least three tears to the new understanding of being able to cope with more than I ever realised.
There’s a selfie in my surgical gown amongst the photos from the day. I am wearing red lipstick. This seems simple enough to unpack, a semblance of dignity in an environment where there isn’t much, but behind the Sunset Red smile are years of rules about my appearance. There are the bizarre rules like never letting myself get a fringe because I’d read on some website that it was unflattering for round faces. My face is technically oval-ish but to me fat equalled round and so bangs were off the table.
I would also never buy fine or delicate jewellery, believing it was for fine-boned, delicate people. Talk to anybody who’s fat about accessories and you’ll probably find a kindred spirit with a great collection of earrings, shoes and bags. Big earrings, big bags. Somehow all of us read the same shitty article about the optical illusion created by large accessories. Earrings also don’t care what size you are.
The red lipstick was always a statement. A specific shade that wasn’t too sexual, lest I accidentally exude any messy sexuality, but red enough to remind you that I was a woman. Understated so you know I don’t rate myself too highly in a world where I’m not meant to, but bold enough to let you know I take care of my appearance.
I always find it ironic when I see people accusing fat people of not caring about their appearance. In my experience, it’s the complete opposite. I was so careful about what I wore. Sometimes it was the fear of standing out. Of knowing that on a scan of any room, I would be the biggest person there and that the least I could do to protect my pride was to dress in a ‘normal, bland yet stylish’ manner. The sense of victory in finding something in a high street clothing store that ‘normal’ sized people might also wear was enormous, but I could quickly be robbed of it if I saw a photo of me in that carefully selected item, discovering it didn’t magically make me a ‘normal’ size.
There were other times when I desperately wanted to project a wealth of self-confidence and body-loving acceptance. Like nothing you think can hurt me and I will head you off at the pity-party pass by using clothing as a defensive weapon. This prompted phases of ‘bright, quirky’ dressing. When faced with the plus-sized ‘floral mauve sheet, hole for head cut out’ options ASOS sometimes offers, it’s understandable that many fat people turn to something that at least expresses a semblance of personality and power.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that wearing and shopping for clothes has become easier for me. My style feels more like me and less like something forced on me by the people who decide what fat people are allowed to wear. I know options have vastly improved but Denise L’Estrange-Corbet’s “clothes look better on skinny people” still angrily reverberates around my head on a regular basis, and I wonder how many designers and high street clothing chains feel the same. The ease with which I buy clothes now is less of a comment about my size or ‘achievement’ in complying with accepted body standards, and more about one of the many industries that ‘others’ fat people.
One of the strangest things I’ve encountered is people not recognising me. I don’t think I look that different. It’s unnerving, especially as someone who never forgets a face. The first few times it happened, I supposed that maybe they had face blindness but then it happened five times in one week. Because I struck pre-emptively in writing the column last August, I now just tell people why that might be, but this reminder of change in my outward appearance is a manifestation of internal change. If we’re back to counting the reasons why I was crying, I now realise that I allowed myself to be defined by distorted ideas about the way I looked and what I thought were the acceptable ways to navigate that.
From a young age, as soon as boys started to show interest in friends, I became an advanced level, defence mechanism friend-zoner. This possibly isn’t all because of my weight or what I assumed others thought it. I am a horrible flirt. Always have been. I do not like small talk and flirting is sexy small talk. I leaned into being the intelligent and funny one so hard that I came to think of myself of a brain in a jar. Zadie Smith uses this phrase in one of her ‘Intimation’ essays in reference to that being her preference over being a natural woman – tied to nature, at the whim of cycles and gendered ideals. This idea that I was just my brain and that my value resided solely in what it could do, was an active attempt to disconnect myself from my disappointing body. It also resulted in me feeling like I had to be the funniest person in the room, the loudest person at a party, the hardest drinker, and the last one to leave.
How to frame what’s been a positive change in my life without turning this into a ‘fat to fab’ story? How to talk about this without suggesting there is a state that’s better and a state that’s worse?
That has changed. I have had to slow down. I have always needed a lot of sleep but I now get tense if I’m not in bed by 9pm most nights. I really latched onto sleep as being vital to the surgical recovery process and haven’t let it go. I am quieter. I don’t feel like I have to manage or pre-empt people’s expectations as much. I have to take the time to exercise and prepare food, not because I am preoccupied with ‘energy in, energy out’ but for whatever physiological reasons, I am far more sensitive to what I eat. I like exercise and feel more connected to my body and the power it has.
In writing my post in the weight loss surgery Facebook group where milestones are frequently, necessarily and supportively marked, I felt the need to pass on wisdom to those at the beginning of this process. “Not everything you need to know about yourself and your body will be present from the start” is about as zen as I could get, but wrapped in that is the biggest gift I’ve been granted: embracing my capacity for change. In being forced to be vulnerable, at the mercy of what your body can and cannot do, there is a humbling. Things that I gripped, defiantly and stubbornly, as immutable totems, I hold more lightly. In some cases I have let them go. You do not have to be who everyone thinks you are forever. You do not have to be who you think you are forever either.
All this creates some difficult questions that aren’t just mine to answer. How to frame what’s been a positive change in my life without turning this into a ‘fat to fab’ story? How to talk about this without suggesting there is a state that’s better and a state that’s worse? Or that thinner is better than fatter while acknowledging that objectively speaking, I am healthier? How to not make this about an individual celebration of achieving conformity, and therefore, a condemnation of those who don’t ‘achieve’ and are failing at something when the deck is stacked so obviously against them?
There are two stark truths I have to acknowledge in grappling with this. The first is that I was granted a reset. A biological and metabolic reset. This surgery is not the whole answer to how we confront obesity, nor is it available or accessible to everyone who might want it. It’s expensive in the private system and waiting lists are long in the public system. The changes I have experienced would not have been possible without it. I could not have done it on my own.
The actual weight loss has only been the tip of the iceberg on this reset too. It’s given a starting point from which to construct a different life. One where I can prioritise feeling connected to my body and how I look after it. I think a lot about food now, more conscious of not just what goes into my mouth, but how the changes to our lifestyles since the days of only eating what we grow and catch, are exploited by industries that have turned basic need into multi-billion dollar profit. And look, I’m not advocating a return to hunting and gathering, I’d starve to death in a couple of weeks, but with every mass marketing campaign for the latest novelty co-lab chocolate block, we are being manipulated away from understanding what food actually is and primed for yet more ‘feels good initially, kills us in the long run’ fare.
The other truth is that this reset and the ability to make it work as well as it has, is partially a product of wealth. I am self-employed, doing well-paid work, at home. My husband and I are categorised as high income earners. This grants us a range of choices that many people don’t have. More than that, it grants me the time required to do all the things you’re meant to do. I do not have to commute for three hours a day. I do not currently have children. I track my working time every day and decided to roughly track the time I spent adhering to the basic healthy lifestyle guidelines set forth by the Ministry of Health. This includes ‘eating healthy food, being physically active, attaining and maintaining a healthy weight, being tobacco free, mental wellbeing, limiting alcohol intake, self-care and adequate sleep’.
To do this I spend eight hours asleep, 45 minutes exercising, 15 minutes meditating, 30 minutes planning meals for the week, an hour at the supermarket and an hour making three meals of healthy food for my husband and I. I am also now meant to take 30 minutes to eat each meal. I know that sounds bananas in a 2021 context but there is some biological and psychological merit in the idea that it’s good for us to not eat breakfast in the car in under five minutes.
Then there are the other things you’re meant to do as a functioning adult like a load of washing, keeping the dog alive, showering, putting on clothes, doing life admin and whatever constitutes self-care. If you throw in a three-hour Auckland commute, an eight-hour working day and allow an hour (at a minimum) for the functioning adult stuff, that’s a 25-hour day without factoring in care-giving, giving back, or doing something you enjoy .
People will have their own scenarios, workarounds and ‘life hacks’ and I look forward to the comments that point out the flaws, indulgences, and egregious errors in mine, but I am left wondering where the hell anyone gets the time to do all the things we’re told to do to be physically and mentally well, unless you can actively choose a lifestyle that allows it and can afford it.
It leads me to suggest that one of the best things we could do to allow people to be healthy is to give them back time. Reduce the working week. Get onto the future of work programme, Grant Robertson. Make the four-day working week a reality for as many people as possible. Simply prescribing them the recipe for a ‘healthy lifestyle’ isn’t enough.
One of the greatest questions I’ve been asked about my surgery came from a poet. As we were walking our dogs on the beach, she asked me where the weight went. I hadn’t thought about it. You lose weight but where exactly does it go? I googled it when I got home and the answer is both basal and suitably poetic. You breathe, sweat and pee it out. It’s fundamentally basic. A return to something simple. Maybe there’s something in that.