Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Better Dead Than Fat

When I was growing up, a little fat girl in a family of fat short women, I always had the feeling that someone was missing. Someone who was supposed to be there and wasn't. I was surrounded by uncles, great uncles, cousins, my brothers, my parents, great aunts, several grandparents and even my great grandparents. There was an abundance of extended family, but still somebody was missing.

That person was my great aunt Barb, my maternal grandmother's sister. She had died before I was born. My mother was barely a teenager when she had passed. And she died of one simple ailment, she died of trying to not be fat.

While the women in my family are generally fat, Barb was very fat. As my mother told me, she was a fat baby, a fat child, a fat teenager and a fat adult. At her most, she was over 300 lbs. She was never thin in her entire life. She believed in big, rich meals and filled the whole family with food. All the great aunts with my grandmother, under the difficult management of my great grandmother, owned and worked greasy spoon restaurants together through most of the 70s. Ours was a family built on hard work and food.

Barb hated being fat. HATED it. After a life time of yo-yo dieting, failed exercise plans, and crappy interventions she turned to the then burgeoning field of plastic surgery and medical science. She had part of her intestine removed, she had her stomach stapled, she had her breasts reduced. All of these surgeries were new at the time and largely untested. The doctors had little idea of what they were doing and my aunt was willing to be a guinea pig just to be not fat. She had extremely bad complications from the breast surgery and was left with terrible scarring. She had severe infections from the stomach staples. She had a very early form of gastric bypass surgery and this is what ultimately lead to her untimely death. She contracted jaundice after the surgery and never recovered. She was younger than I am now when she died.

My mom and grandmother cleaned out her things at her apartment after her death and they found on her calender the date for her surgery circled and the stretched out word "sssskkkkiiiiinnnnnnnnnnniiiiiieeeeerrrrr" written over the following weeks in red marker. She knew the risks of the bypass surgery and she said she would rather be dead than fat, and that is exactly what happened. The surgery was botched, the infection got away from the doctors, and she died. She died of not wanting to be fat.

She hated her fat self so much that she would rather be dead than see her niece and later great-niece grow up. She missed out on family Christmas dinners, late night bullshit sessions, birthday parties, drunken campfire stories and trips to the beach. Most of all, I missed out completely on meeting someone I feel I was really meant to know. Someone who should of been in my life and wasn't all because of how much society hates fat women, how that hate is internalized in the individual and the fact that its better to be dead than fat.

All the stories I have of my great aunt Barb are second hand. I know her sisters miss her terribly even 30 years later. My grandmother tells me she was great at giving you advice and could completely fix your life for you, but was terrible at keeping her own life in order and could be very impracticable. She was once supposed to buy a couch for her apartment and came back with a guitar. When my grandmother and her were kids they fought like cats and dogs and she threw a knife at my grandmother that stuck in the cupboard beside her head thunking upside her noggin as the handle wobbled back and forth. She had a big infectious laugh that filled a room and could cook like a fiend.

Though I look a lot like my mother, I have the long, thick hair from my grandfather's family, and my big hips from my grandmother, I have been told my personality is most like my aunt Barb's. I have the same tendency to blurt things out without thinking (or as we call it the Blat!), the ability to give really good life-fixing advice to others but have a really disordered life myself, maybe even the same mannerisms of a woman I never met but always felt the acute missing of. She was supposed to be there, giving me somewhere to run away to when I was an insolent teenager, someone to bake cookies with, someone to look up to, someone to admire, but instead there is an empty space where a fat woman was supposed to be.

When people tell me fat hate doesn't exist, or that gastric bypass surgery is the answer, or that fat people don't face discrimination, I think of my aunt and the fact that she would rather be dead than fat. That she died of trying to not be fat. It wasn't being fat that killed her, she was perfectly healthy but she was very fat. It was trying to not be fat that killed her, it was doctors trying to 'cure' her fat that killed her and the outcome of that mentality was a gaping hole in our family.

I wanted to post a picture of my aunt Barb with this story but my mother told me that she made herself the family photographer so she won't have to be in photos. The only time you could catch a photo of her was if she wasn't looking or if she was forced to pose. She destroyed most of the pictures of herself because she hated her fat body so. Only a few pictures have survived and are lost somewhere in the family photo albums packed up in my mother's recent move and not yet unpacked. It is going to take some serious searching to find them. I only remember seeing one or two photos among the hundreds of family photos of aunt Barb. A woman I barely know what looked like, that I never met, that died before I was born and I still feel the pain of her missing from my life. She was supposed to be there and a hatred of fat took her away. How can that be better?


  1. very moved by your piece..Ive always heard growing up women who'd say they'd rather be blind,deaf or amputed rather than being fat. Till this day I don't understand the hatred.Beautiful article..<3

  2. I've read some of your blog entries over the past year and they are really interesting. While they don't necessarily intersect my own issues (I am a white guy who is overweight and my husband is also the same, and we are okay with it), I had a friend who is in good shape recently tell me that she feels fat no matter how thin she is, and that is why she always asks me "Do I look fat in this picture?" I had always thought the questions were just part of her weirdness, and I didn't realize the extent she actually had body dysmorphia issues.

    I remember I wrote a poem in college where I wished I could cut off a finger if it would cut all of the gay out of me... fortunately I grew out of that pretty fast. Especially once I realized that being gay didn't mean I have to be "culturally gay".

    Anyways, I appreciate the read!

  3. Wow. I just read this. That's an amazing story. Thanks so much for sharing it, Sarah.

    For the record, I've always loved every inch of you, and I'm so, so glad that you don't feel the way your aunt did. You're gorgeous and incredible!