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Navel Gazing: One Woman's Quest for a Size Normal Q and A with author Anne H Putnam

Most women want to lose weight at some point in their lives, but Anne H. Putnam's book Navel Gazing is a memoir about the further reaches of obesity and weight loss that may help put struggles to lose a few pounds back into perspective. At the age of just seventeen, weighing in at over twenty stone, Anne Putnam opted for gastric bypass surgery.

Surgery is an extreme but effective way of losing weight - yet despite dropping ten dress sizes, Putnam found that her self-esteem didn't miraculously improve as the pounds disappeared, and that losing weight wasn't the answer to all her problems. The new, slimmer Putnam still doesn't feel attractive, and still feels judged for being large.

Navel Gazing is a very honest account of the effects of surgery and dramatic weight loss and of the crippling effects of a lack of self-esteem. The memoir doesn't delve into what lies behind Anne Putnam's lack of self-confidence, but even so is a thought-provoking book about our attitudes to food, weight and ourselves,

Anne H Putman spoke to Contented Baby about her book and her story...

What made you want to write Navel Gazing?

Honestly? It chose me. This topic had been eating its way out of me in small ways ever since college, when I first started trying to explain the surgery and my body history to people who hadn't known me for very long. I also found that every time I wanted to write (and I always wanted to write: fiction, essays, long-winded emails, even terrible poetry), it was usually because I felt the need to explain myself: my weird tics and screwed-up body image, my reasons for taking such drastic measures at such a young age, why I was so awkward around guys and so reluctant to join in at parties or go out to eat in mixed groups. I felt like an alien, and writing this book helped me sort out where I fit in the world; it was like an Anne manual, something new friends (and still-confused family members) could refer to when I did something weird or inexplicable.

I also really wanted to use my experience, and my natural comfort with talking about my weirdness with strangers (not always comfortable for them!) to help people in some small way. It's not that I think this book will cure anybody's self-esteem issues or anything, but I do think there's a pretty significant comfort in learning that you're not alone, whether that assumed loneliness has to do with weight problems, fears about never being loved, or just strange obsessive behavior - I'm there with readers who feel any and all of that stuff, and more. And if my conversations with friends (and strangers) are any indication, it makes people happy to know that I've been through, and am still going through, some of what's troubling them.

It's a very open account of your experiences - did you have any qualms about revealing so much of your personal life to the world at large?

Um - the short answer is 'no'. But the longer answer is: I really didn't think it would be published! I have an extremely cynical outlook on life. I grew up with very realistic goals for myself: become a teacher or maybe work in publishing (both of which can be achieved with hard work); hopefully meet someone who will overlook my looks and maybe even marry me (but I never got so cocky as to plan a wedding in my head or even make a list of desired traits for a future mate); hang out with friends and family as long as they'll have me. When big dreams like writing a book and having it published tickled the back of my mind, I squashed them - so few people really get lucky enough to achieve such things, and I knew I wouldn't survive the fall if I set my expectations so high. So it was easy enough to be completely honest while writing the book, because I genuinely thought only my classmates and teachers would ever read it, and maybe a few friends once I'd finished it and polished the writing. I was even in denial the whole time I was signing with my agent and accepting the contract with Faber - it wasn't until I finished the manuscript with my editor and started seeing cover images that I realized how many people would know all about my self-hatred (and my sex life!) in a few short months. And now, of course, I’m panicking.

But I don't regret being so honest. It's how I operate in life, even with relative strangers, so why should I be coy in writing? I just hope people read it with a bit of kindness, since I've flayed myself open so vulnerably, but if they don't then I guess I'll just have to toughen up!

You had weight-loss surgery at a very young age - do you think in retrospect that it was the right decision?


I do. I think it was the right decision for me. I've always been an old soul, in terms of emotional maturity, and I think in an odd way the surgery actually allowed me to be young while I still had time, rather than forcing me to grow up too quickly. If I hadn't had it, I would probably have stayed quiet and introverted and bookish - not that there's anything wrong with that, and it’s still a huge part of who I am, but I do think that losing the weight so young allowed me to go through the 'normal' teenage phases in a condensed time period, while it was still barely appropriate. I had a chance to kiss a boy for the first time (very late) and go to frat parties (very briefly) and come out of my shell a bit (slowly), and I think that would have been much more difficult had I waited another ten years or so to have the surgery. I certainly wouldn't have been as social at university, which is really one of the most social times of most people's lives (definitely the most social time of my life), and I probably would never have met my boyfriend or traveled alone as much as I did – I had a lot of really valuable experiences in my early twenties, which I think I would have been too scared to try had I still been quite so painfully insecure.

What would you say to other women who were considering it as an option?


I would say one very important thing: do your research. It's really important to know what you're getting yourself in for, not just the physical effects but also the emotional, and to make sure your expectations are as realistic as possible. I would also say that it's a very big decision, and nobody should take it lightly, but at the same time it won't fix everything on its own - you're going to have to work to keep the weight off, and your body may never be exactly what you want it to be. Gastric Bypass surgery is a great leg-up to help you lose a lot of weight quickly without much effort on your part, but it will hurt and it will change your life and it won't do all the work for you. And it definitely won't fix your self-esteem; it might help, but the true cause of poor self-image is inside, and often can't be fixed with a physical change.

Your story shows very clearly that weight loss alone doesn't solve the problem of body image - do you think that counselling or therapy might be more beneficial in the long run?


Ah, yes. Following on from my answer above: I think weight loss is beneficial for body practicalities - fitting into high street clothes, feeling more comfortable on airplanes, and of course being healthier - but for body image there's only so much weight loss will do. If you truly hate just one jiggly part of yourself, then changing that body part might be the answer to all your problems, but you're probably one of the lucky few. Most of us have self-hatred ingrained into our bones, and that’s much harder to shift than a few pounds. I definitely think counseling or therapy would be beneficial (of course I don't speak from experience, as I'm too transient and constantly broke to have ever found my own therapist), and I also think it's helpful just to make the effort to remind yourself that the problem isn't with your body, it's with your mind and the way it's been trained to look at your body. It doesn't work right away, and I have yet to discover whether or not it even works fully in the long run, but it's a nicer way to treat yourself than constantly berating yourself about how you look - since when has hating ourselves gotten us anywhere but depressed?

You rail against other people's assumptions about people who are overweight in the book - but do you think the negativity many people feel about their weight comes from without or within?

I think it frequently comes from within, but is often cultivated in ourselves because of seeds planted from without, if that makes sense. I think we grow up being shown what we should look like. It's everywhere: on TV, billboards, movies, magazine - even in books the heroine is usually slim and stereotypically beautiful, and if she's not she's atypical by virtue of being a redhead or having short hair or some other non-difference. So I think that starts a kind of rot inside our brains, and that rot eats outwards, consuming us until we become it, and do the job of hating ourselves so well that nobody outside us has to do it for us. I do also feel that fattism is one of the few remaining acceptable prejudices. Most people who would never say something racist or even sexist out loud in mixed company are perfectly comfortable calling someone fat, or complaining about the 'obesity epidemic' in shockingly blaming tones. I think fat is seen as something we do to ourselves, a sort of failing of discipline, the way some very conservative people view poverty - but most of us don't view poverty that way, so why is it that so many of us feel fine about saying that fat people are a drain on society - something we would never say about the poor - and that they shouldn't get free health care if they 'won't' lose weight, or other such nonsense that I've heard way too many times? I won't keep on because I'll never stop, so to answer your question: both.

By the end of the book, we are left with an image of a woman who doctors still seem to consider to be obese, but you don't look remotely obese in your photos - do you think are we too hung up on numbers?

First of all, bless you for saying I don't look obese! I spend far too much time trying to figure out whether or not I look like my stats, so you're very kind.

I absolutely do think we're way too hung up on numbers. I think BMI is a useless way of figuring out someone's health: it doesn't always account for muscle mass or bone density or fat distribution, and by the way the computer has never once asked me what my diet is like or how often I exercise. Again, I don't want to start a rant, but essentially I think it's lazy medicine to look at two number - a person's weight and his or her heig - and assume you know anything about that person's lifestyle or general health levels. If nothing else, there should be more numbers involved; my very good cholesterol has always surprised doctors, as if they can't fathom that someone who weighs as much as I do could have such good numbers on some other test. We're all different, and I know plenty of very slim people who can't keep up with my 'obese' body on a hill-climb, so I think there's much more to health than what a person weighs. Unfortunately, most of the medical community currently disagrees - here's hoping that changes someday.

Are you now finally starting to feel like the 'normal' person you'd always wanted to be?

I'm not sure, to be honest. I will say that I mostly feel normal-sized when I'm out on the street, and having a long-term boyfriend makes me feel like I'm at least playing at normal (which is its own kind of socially-induced sickness, that you're only normal if someone likes you enough to stick around!), but it takes shockingly little to make me feel like the fat girl again: an unusually small of creaky chair in a coffee shop; someone brushing past me far too closely, making me feel as if I'm sticking out farther than I realized; walking into a room full of people who are smaller than I am, which is pretty much every room at my office or at home in California; a visit to the doctor's office; a bath in a tub that's narrow enough for my hips to touch the sides and splooge up unattractively out of the wate - the reminders are pretty constant. Still, I have long moments of not thinking about being the fattest person in the vicinity, and that's a pretty big step for me. I can only hope it gets better from here, but if it doesn't, I'm at least functioning fairly well as I am.

What do you think would help change the situation for women - many of whom spend half their lives dieting or worrying about their weight?

I think the only thing that's really going to help is a massive shift of focus in the media and society in general, from how we look to how healthy and happy we are. If we took half the energy we currently spend on judging Kim Kardashian's ass size or tsking over Kerry Katona's latest weight gain, and focused that energy on celebrating people for achieving career goals or learning to walk again after a car accident or making a difference in their communities, maybe things would be different. Maybe women would base their self-worth on how they treat people or their level of determination, instead of the size of their jeans or how flabby their upper arms look in a tank top.

But that's unlikely to happen on its own (the cynic in me wonders if it'll happen at all, but that shouldn't stop us trying). I think one thing we can do, right now, each one of us, is try to be nicer to each other. Women are so competitive with one another: we're trained to always blame the other woman when a man cheats, to point out other women's failures (and cellulite) to make ourselves feel better, and to diet in groups, ostensibly to 'motivate' each other, when we all know that really we're just tapping into our competitive spirits. Maybe if we spent less time competing and putting each other down and more time building each other up (as motivational-speaker-y as that sounds) we wouldn’t feel the need to put ourselves down so much.

This is getting really long now, but I think there's one more really important step: teaching our kids that looks aren't the most important thing. I've seen way too many little girls talking about not wanting to grow up to be fat (like it's the worst possible thing you could grow up to be) and wearing things that say 'little beauty queen' or 'hottie' and other rubbish, and I wonder what we're teaching them to value? Actually, I don't wonder: we're teaching them to value purely superficial merits, and honestly that means we're teaching them to be unhappy with themselves, because there's almost no way they'll grow up and fit what they see as the beauty ideal. I guess I just worry about those kids, because I think they'll get enough emphasis on looks from the media and their friends and boys  - they need an opposing force at home to at least try to balance that out.

Okay, rant over - for now!

About the author


Anne H. Putnam grew up in California, first in LA and later in San Francisco, and went to college at Washington University in St Louis (in the American Midwest), where she graduated with honors with a major in English Literature and a minor in Creative Writing. She moved to London after graduation to be closer to her English boyfriend, and then went on to get her MA in Creative Writing (Non-Fiction) from City University. Along the way she fell into a job in publishing, and there she has stayed for the past two years; she also writes a food blog (www.linzersinlondon.blogspot.com) and a blog about body image (www.myearlobesstillfeelfat.blogspot.com). You can follow her on Twitter if you like (warning: she swears a fair amount): @ahputnam.

Anne lives in Northern London with her boyfriend and their many cookbooks.

(Photo courtesy of Johny Ring)

Navel Gazing is published by Faber at £12.99

 


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