I’ve always been smaller than my sister Katheryne. She’s tall and broad, I’m average and...average. She was a 10-pound baby and I weighed in at six pounds, one ounce. To this day, she still calls me “The Runt.”
That changed in November of 2013 when my sister had bariatric surgery. Seventy-five percent of her stomach was removed and turned into the shape of a banana, hence the operation’s name, “The Sleeve.” I can appreciate all the reasons she did this. She was pre-diabetic and has PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) as well as severe sleep apnea. She’s never been able to lose weight conventionally. Slow metabolism seems to run in our family, and she has been cursed with the worst of it.
For a long time, I thought I was in a good place with my body. I ate healthily, enjoyed physical activity, but didn’t stress over the scale. It had taken me a long time to get here, but I was content. I did my best to practice self-love, but the moment she told us she was having the operation, I was gripped with the fear that she would weigh less than me.
The day of her surgery, I hoarded calories and smoked like a chimney, waiting in the lobby of Orange Regional Hospital in Middletown, New York with my sister’s fiance Gina, and my mother. We had already discussed how much weight she will lose over time. Her doctors would like her at a slim 140 pounds.
Gina, my mother and I waited by my sister’s room when they rolled her down the hall from recovery several hours later. She was still my sister, and hadn’t changed yet. But she was in pain, delirious from anesthesia and grumbling. During surgery, her stomach was pumped full of gas, an extremely painful side effect. As I watched my mother pat her back, I wondered if she looked smaller yet? Was I really this petty? The answers were simple. No, not yet, and yes, yes I was.
In 2010, during my sophomore year of college, I was forced to face my weight and realize just how much I had gained since graduating high school. After a physical, I sat on my dorm room floor, and cried to my mom on the phone for an hour, disgusted with what I had let myself become. I weighed 312 pounds and despite the fact that I “carried it well,” I wasn't yet comfortable with my body or accepting of it.
That semester I signed up for Pilates, and began toning up. I dieted like no one’s business, but refused to step on a scale. If I couldn’t see it, it wasn’t there. And if I didn’t look at it, I didn’t have to face it. I could forget that like the rest of my family, I was trapped in a cycle of losing and gaining. I had been on diets for as long as I could remember. Whenever my aunts and mother went on a diet, I went on one with them. I was counting carbs before I got my first period.
Diet alone was not the only factor when it came to body image in our family. Our bodies were often disproportional, and no one was exactly like the other. Oddly shaped legs and butts were the biggest challenge. Large thighs that tapered down into skinny ankles that made it hard to find pants that ever fit right. Even my father had them. They don’t support his large frame well, his long torso too large and wide for the rest of him. My mother, short and stocky, doesn’t quite seem to fit with these legs either. In a fashion-conscious city, I struggle to find pants or even a pair of boots that fit my legs properly. Nothing makes sense when it comes to our bodies. We’re a family of ragdolls.
When Thanksgiving rolled around this year, Kate was just three weeks out from her surgery. I could already see the changes in her when I arrived for the holiday weekend. She’d lost 22 pounds since I last saw her. Her face is thinning out, along with her stomach. Her back is leaner, and her long torso is starting to resemble the swimmer’s body that she had in high school. I always admired the athlete in her, jealous that I could never quite master the butterfly kick, or do the breaststroke the way I was supposed to. She taught me how to swim, in our aunt’s pool. She kept her hands under my back while I floated, screaming the entire time for her to not let me go.
The night before Thanksgiving, my sister and I sit at her kitchen table, peeling apples for the apple crisp that she’s going to make.
“Can you eat this?” I asked, chewing on an apple peel.
“I can eat the apples. And I’m not coating them in sugar and cinnamon, only cinnamon.”
Kate’s diet now consists of high protein, and low carb/low sugar. Because most of her stomach has been taken out, she has to make sure she gets double the protein she used to get so that she won’t lose her hair or become malnourished. Other than that, she’s adjusted her diet well, and there are few things she can’t actually eat, in moderation. When we sit down to dinner, she eats on a smaller plate, and uses toddler utensils so she’ll take smaller bites.
“Do you ever feel full?” she asked, when I brought up eating habits once again. It had been a popular topic with me since her surgery.
“Yeah, of course. I just have bad eating habits. I...binge I guess. Or I don’t eat.”
“That was my problem. I never felt full.”
I thought about the different reasons we’re unhealthy. My sister felt empty, and so did I. She filled her emptiness with calories, and I filled mine with cigarettes, caffeine, and the occasional eating binge. She never wanted to be empty, but sometimes, I enjoyed that gnawing feeling. It reminded me that I was still breathing.
As I moved turkey and potatoes and Gina’s homemade stuffing around my plate, I wondered about the next time my sister and I would be in the same room with the rest of our family. Our father is getting married in November 2014, and who knows what she will weigh then.
Despite the fact that my sister has not completed her “journey,” I can’t help but feel jealous. I can’t imagine what she will look like when she reaches her one year mark. I can appreciate that she will be healthier, that she did this for every good reason...but I can’t help but cringe at the thought of being the “fat” sibling. How long will it be before I’m expected to catch up? I’ve never had a weight-related health problem in my life, but at 275 pounds, I am considered obese.
There is a photograph on my mother’s fridge that has been there since the mid-90’s. I am standing in a field just off a road in Vermont, clutching a fistful of dandelions and wearing a pink Lola Bunny shirt. I am thin. I am small, maybe eight. This is the last time I remember not acknowledging my body in a negative manner every day. I wasn’t aware of how I looked. The bouquet of weeds in my hands were the most beautiful flowers I’d ever held.