I connected with Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin after reading her excellent article, “A Feminist Defense of Cinderella” and tweeting about it. We began a conversation over e-mail and she mentioned that her own body image issues had worsened after losing 140 pounds due to a gastric bypass procedure. I immediately asked if she’d read “Stranger Here” by my girl Jen Larson, and she said her experience had been quite different. When she filled me in on the details, I knew I had to convince her to share her story here. I’m honored that she’s agreed to do so. Read on to hear about Shoshanna’s surprising before and after experiences.
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I’ll never forget the first moment when I realized that I had passed over. I was standing in an overly crowded holiday package mailing line at my local post office in December. It had been five months since my gastric bypass weight loss surgery and I was down almost 100 pounds. “Sweetie, let me help you with that package!” the helpful clerk ran over to me as I attempted to lug my heavy package. “Who is sweetie?” was my first thought. “Oh, wait that’s me!” Something was different and that something was me.
Unlike people who choose weight loss surgery hoping that the procedure will radically change their lives for the better, I was quite happy with my pre-op life. At the age of 29 I had already traveled the world, successfully pursued several degrees in Women’s Studies, was in the process of developing a meaningful career, married the love of my life, and had three beautiful daughters. Yes, I was obese –morbidly obese according to the doctors’ charts – but I had never let my weight stop me from pursuing my dreams. In fact, my weight was part of who I was and had been part of my journey up until that point. I have always believed that beauty can be found in all sizes and spent many enjoyable hours styling my plus-sized self.
I made the decision to undergo weight loss surgery while I was leading a trip of college students on a service-based “alternative spring break” to the north of Israel. I had travelled to Israel many times previously, but this time was different. To begin with, I barely fit into the airplane seat and spent nine hours in horrible discomfort. When we arrived in Israel and began the fast-paced trip – which included hiking and sight-seeing as well as community volunteering and service – for the first time in my life, I could not keep up. The truth was staring me in my profusely sweating face. I couldn’t deny the inevitable anymore, my weight was catching up with me. “My knees hurt, my back hurts, I just CAN’T live like this anymore,” I thought to myself. Something had to change. I was ready. Or so I thought.
With many failed attempts at serious weight loss under my belt and a father who’d had a highly successful gastric bypass four years earlier, I pursued the weight loss surgery approval process with a passionate vengeance. Nothing was going to stop me. I never gave much thought to the reality of my post-op life. I wanted to be able to get up off the couch easily, I wanted to be able to prepare Thanksgiving dinner without stopping for sitting breaks, I wanted to run after my kids at the park, I wanted to be healthy.
My surgeon was the first one to shock me into reality during our final pre-op visit. In typical overachiever fashion, I had exceeded the requisite 20 pound pre-surgical weight loss, and feeling particularly brazen, had decided to ask the surgeon “how low” he thought I could get. “Oh, you could easily get down to 130 or so. Are you prepared for that? People will not recognize you. Is 130 too thin for you?” Ha! I laughed in his face at the pure disbelief that I could actual be 130 pounds as an adult. 130 pounds … impossible! Too thin? Who ever heard of being too thin?
The surgery took place on July 12, 2010, and as expected, the weight fell off. By New Year’s Eve I was down 100 pounds to 165. I was both thrilled and convinced that the weight loss would slow down, that I could somehow control it. My weight eventually settled at 125 pounds – a size 2 – with what one of my doctors unprofessionally referred to as a “Barbie body.” But it wasn’t just my appearance that changed. My entire life began to change as well.
Around the time the weight settled, we moved several states away and I began a new life as a thin person. My speaking and teaching career began to take off with flying colors. Suddenly I was much “better” at a career that I had already been in for over 15 years. I began to notice an acceptance and approval in people’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. And wouldn’t you know? My trip leader reviews on the next trip I led to Israel – only 18 months post-op – showed drastic and remarkable improvement.
After having spent the first 30 years of my life working on my own self-esteem to try to be the most fabulous plus sized lady I could be, now as a thin person I began to discover the cold truth of obesity discrimination. I’d been good, but I’d never been “the best” because I was fat. The more I succeeded in my new body the more I wondered how often I had not succeeded in my old one. How many opportunities had I missed because of my weight? How often had my weight really held me back? As an adult, the only life I’d known had been as an obese person, so I had no idea how badly I was being treated and judged until I was given the chance to “pass over” to the other side. Now strangers smile at me more on the street, grocery clerks call me “sweetie” and “honey,” even my student reviews and classroom registration numbers have drastically changed. Just this past spring semester my “Biblical Hebrew 2” class held the highest registration on record at my university for a second semester of this very niche subject.
I am no longer invisible or ignorable. When I step on stage or in front of a microphone and smile at the audience as my Speech 101 teacher taught me to do so many years ago, I can feel a difference: I’ve already won over the crowd before I begin to speak. It wasn’t so long ago that I had to work hard to win over my audiences and it was a challenge that I loved; slowly drawing in the audience with my wit, personal stories, and knowledge of complex subject matter. I still work hard to engage my audiences and students as I always have. It’s the only “me” that I know how to be. But I’m still consistently amazed by the instant approval that I feel from my audience as I watch them give me the once over. Thin is instantly acceptable, fat needs to prove itself. I’ve always been a woman with a lot to say, but now everyone appears to be more interested in listening.
Another drastic change was in the way I was treated by healthcare professionals. As a morbidly obese woman, any sort of doctor’s appointment created several weeks’ worth of anxiety, mostly at the thought of being weighed and the resulting fat shaming and insulting conversation that was sure to follow. Oh really? At 5”4 I’m not supposed to be 265 pounds? I had no idea! I have had doctors sneer at me, call me lazy, roll their eyes at my explanations for my obesity, and more. Worst of all, I have had some doctors use my vulnerability and desperation to lose weight to try to convince me to shell out hundreds of dollars for their special weight loss “supplements.” Since the gastric bypass, doctors have given me nothing but warm congratulatory smiles at my continued weight loss success. You are such an inspiration! Good for you!
I’m intrigued, but as a professor of Women’s Studies I am also disgusted and bear tremendous guilt at what opportunities “thin privilege” has opened up for me. Worst of all, I’m not even sure that our society is conscious of the discrimination that is inflicted on obese individuals every single day. It’s no coincidence that so many people become involved in the “size acceptance” movement after successful weight loss surgeries. The only way to change what is commonly referred to as “the last acceptable form of discrimination” is through exposure, education, and self- love. Weight loss surgery may not for everyone, but size acceptance is.
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Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin is the Director of Women’s Division, Israel, and Overseas Programming for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and serves on the faculty of the departments of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Shoshanna earned her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Jewish Studies from the University of Maryland and a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies with a focus on Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Shoshanna’s writing elsewhere: