The needle the doctor was holding was about the length of my forearm. He was right, I shouldn’t have looked down. I was standing in his office in Glendale, California with my shirt off and my pants down to my ankles. My stomach was on full display to every doctor, nurse, assistant, and nurse who came and peeked in to see the procedure up close. It was 2010, and track tape was still considered an exciting “panacea” for obesity around Los Angeles. You couldn’t drive down any freeway and not notice the “1-800-GET-THIN” billboards.
A tummy tuck is like putting a rubber band around your stomach. No internal surgery (big pro) and your stomach remains intact, unlike gastric bypass surgery where the stomach is cut and the intestines are rerouted. The saliva strip fits tightly in the upper arch of the stomach and forms a small upper pocket. Basically, it tricks your body into thinking you have a stomach the size of a pigeon. Eat a lot less and get full faster – all of these were big selling points. Of course my body would have to play tricks. I knew that at that point in my life, I wasn’t going to drop a single pound easily.
I was only 19 years old when I got the band, but I had already been put on a diet at the age of 7. I was tired of being fat, tired of spending my life training for one goal and nothing else, tired of waiting for my life after that. fat to begin with. So I had the doctor insert a needle into the port behind my ribcage and inject a full cc of saline. I felt the sides of the band swell and completely enclose my stomach. Slowly he pulled the plunger back and my stomach opened up for the tiniest bit, enough water or other liquids. I had already lost 30 kilos – only 80 to go. Only 80 more until my life can finally be mine.
Little did I know then that the lap band would not be a portal to a new life. It was just a trap sold to me for $6,000 – an eating disorder I bought into and now I can’t escape.
I got a lap band because a girl was mean to me. Ok, this is the short version. But that’s not true. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 and 320 pounds. I fell in love with my roommate who didn’t mind the attention but never took me seriously as a date. He also didn’t mince words on the subject: I was too fat. Not too fat to fool around, but too fat to see, too fat to fall in love with.
The long version is much longer. My mother was obsessed with my weight and put me on a diet throughout my childhood. By the time I was 18, I had been to fat camp three times, I was a hardcore member of Weight Watchers, and I could tell you the basics of every fad diet since 1997. I drank cabbage soup, avoided carbs, skipped lunch, had a liquid breakfast and had a personal trainer two, three, five days a week. No expense had been spared and I was still fat. (One night when I was at my thinnest, my dad decided over dinner to calculate how much each pound of my weight loss had cost him. It was meant as a joke, but I don’t think I laughed much.)
We paid out of pocket for the lap lane and I qualified based on the BMI requirement – I was at the far end of the chart in the “why aren’t you dead yet” section. I didn’t need a letter from a therapist or more than one consultation with my chosen surgeon. One down payment, blood, urine and a CT scan of my insides and I was scheduled for surgery. I drank only liquids for 10 days before surgery. I spent them chain smoking Marlboro Reds and drinking orange juice. I lost the first 10 kilos.
Under anesthesia, I dreamed that I was kissing Catherine Zeta-Jones. When I came around, the pain was thick and rippling, pulling my chest in and knocking the top off. It took weeks to walk fully upright again and days to sleep comfortably. Then it was worth it to me. I felt myself shrink and enjoyed the compliments that came fast and fast.
I always remember the first days after surgery. I lay in bed and ate only handfuls of ice chips, popsicles and fingerlings of chicken broth. The world felt empty and strange without the ritual of food – coffee at breakfast, drinks with friends. But it also felt open, new, possible. I didn’t need any more food. I had won it. I would kill every memory of my fat self and start anew with a slim shiny body that everyone would love.
The first thing I threw up was an apple. It’s not on the billboards – puke. Nor possible hair loss or tooth damage or symptoms of general malnutrition. The salivary gland is a real physical barrier – it literally blocks food from entering the greater part of your stomach. If you don’t chew slowly enough or often enough? Vomit. Too fibrous things? Are you eating too fast? Or in bed? All of these make the food come back. And sometimes that happened if I drank water too fast or ate food that was too cold or too spicy. Sushi, pizza and hot dog buns were all banned. I’ve thrown up in a trash can, out of a car window, halfway through a date behind a tree, and on the corner of Notre Dame Cathedral when I couldn’t help it. But the very first time was an apple.
After my tape was filled with saline (this is called an adjustment), I was put on a completely liquid diet. Adjustments began to be made approximately two months after surgery, when the band had detached from the original implant. Saline was injected through a needle into a port behind my ribcage in a humiliating ritual that I then had to repeat every 30 pounds or so. The adjustments were basically resets – they shut my stomach off to everything but water and broth.
Weeks of broth and plum juice (to try to keep my bowels functioning) finally gave way to a soft food only situation. As the saline in the band evaporated, the band loosened up and I was able to try food that a toddler could handle. The sheets I was given suggested cottage cheese, plastic-flavored baby food, and sugar-free pudding that gave me the shits. Some nights I would go to the deli and order a side of hot sauce and slowly sip it with a spoon, carefully spreading each morsel on my tongue.
I soon ignored the suggestions and ate any flavor and got creative with the word “soft”.
I decided that the “soft foods” included Whole Foods’ homemade pico de gallo with some great blue cheese for punch. I sliced fresh avocados and put them in sweet soy sauce to stop sushi cravings, ate smoked salmon with lemon juice and thin cream cheese when I wanted a bagel. I drank miso soup like water and was obsessed with young Thai coconuts for their tender flesh and vitamin-rich juice.
Eating at home wasn’t the problem though – going out was. Every social event suddenly seemed to revolve around food. It was everywhere—everything I didn’t have. At first I sipped a latte while my friends enjoyed cheeseburgers. I reminded myself that I am now out of food. Above the cheeseburgers. Months passed and I was hungry (literally) for something with bite and texture. I lost weight quickly, new clothes fell off me just weeks after purchase. I finally stopped buying new jeans and just got a belt that I made my own holes in when I ran out. I felt like I was constantly under siege—everywhere watching people eat and drink and go about their normal lives while carrying bottles of Pedialyte and protein shakes to school to keep me from passing out. Eventually I realized I could eat whatever I wanted and then put it back in the toilet.
I was hungry and threw up. I’m used to throwing up. I threw up a lot. I couldn’t do it before the band—not by myself. Now I knew exactly what was coming back and how fast. I could throw my head back like a pigeon and not eat the whole meal. I started eating things that I knew wouldn’t stay down. Why not? What did it matter? I was still losing weight. No one cared how it came off as long as it came off.
I lost 100 kilos and then about 20 more. And then I stopped making adjustments. And then I got 50 back – and they don’t budge.
The lapel is not as popular as it was. No more billboards. The gastric sleeve is the most commonly performed weight loss surgery in the United States today (a procedure that simply cuts out a large portion of the stomach and leaves the smaller abdomen intact). While other people may have had success and been completely satisfied with their strapping experience, it is reported to result in less weight loss than other bariatric procedures and in 2019 accounted for only 0.9% of all bariatric procedures performed in the United States. With injectables like Mounjaro and Ozempic flooding the market, weight loss surgery may soon be a thing of the past.
I understand the appeal of silver bullets. At my worst, I would have given an entire limb to be skinny, and I mean that literally. But miracles are not real because people need food. We have to eat. It is not negotiable. At my heaviest, I was lonelier than I had ever been or would have ever been. Life felt like it was happening all around me – to other people. I was stuck on an island trying hard not to take up so much space. I want to tell you that I wouldn’t buy the band again, but I can’t promise that. I was so desperate.
The world wants fat people to be desperate, apologetic and invisible. The body positivity movement may have changed things a bit, but we are still relentlessly searching for a “cure” for obesity. It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t need to be cured. That my body and stomach were doing what they had developed over the centuries – to keep the weight on and keep me alive. No amount of plastic tape changed that – not really.
I don’t judge anyone who takes these new “wonder drugs”. I wanted that miracle too. I just know now that miracles aren’t real. However, your body is. And it’s worth loving, no matter what.
William Horn is a writer living in Boston. You can find him on Twitter @WillsHorn and read everything he’s ever put on the internet here. He is currently working on a memoir and book about a professional fat guy.
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