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It is two months before my 30th birthday and I am sitting in the waiting room of a Newport Beach plastic surgeon. To convey how incongruous this is, think Paris Hilton on Meet the Press.
Seated across from me is a middle-aged woman accompanied by her mother.
“I hope he can help me,” the woman says, grabbing her excess belly fat in both hands and shaking it like a bad dog. “Four kids,” she says, looking directly at me. I feel silly as my mid-section excess is that of a Mini Cooper to her Escalade. I try to look empathic and turn another page of Town & Country.
I am tempted to leave. At five foot three, 120 pounds, an A cup (this will have significance later), given any standard, I know I am height-weight proportionate. I am of sound mind. I work out. I do not have an eating disorder. What I do have is a non diet-and-exercise responsive “trouble” spot, the exact problem for which liposuction was designed.
If I loved myself more, as my mother suggests, would I be sitting across from an old woman and her SUV-of-a-daughter wanting my own abdominal lipoplasty?
“You look pretty good to me,” my mom says over the phone. Then, just before we hang up, “Maybe you should see a therapist. I love you.”
Was this true? Was my desire to have my fat sucked out fueled by a lack of self-love and, if I indulged this desire, would I end up like the character Ida in the movie "Brazil," with a botched face-lift and a shoe for a hat? Self-love, as I understand it, is a steadfast belief in one’s self in the face of ever-changing external circumstance. For the most part, I believe this and still, after much effort, I cannot embrace the three-inch floaty around my waist.
The receptionist calls my name and leads me into a small examining room. She does not ask me to disrobe. She does not give me a paper drape. “Don’t you want me to take my clothes off?” I ask.
“No, you can just unbutton your blouse when the doctor comes in.”
“But I’m here for my stomach.”
“Oh, OK,” the assistant says, smiling. “The doctor will be with you in a minute.”
The surgeon enters, shakes my hand and squats on a short, wheeled stool as he reviews my chart.
“Unbutton your pants,” he says with his back to me and as I do he spins a 180, rolls over and grabs the fat I point to between his fingers. He turns me around, asks me my age, compliments me on my relative lack of back fat and tells me to button my pants.
“I can’t help you,” he says. “The way you look now is how most of my patients look after I’m done with them.” This makes no sense to me so I nod.
“You’re fine,” the doctor says, then runs his palm over my forehead and adds, “but stay out of the sun and come see me in two years for some Botox.” He shakes my hand.
There are those who would say my desire to eliminate my spare, spare tire is a result of living in southern California, The OC, the Harvard of looking good. Originally from the east coast, I moved to this vapid, looks-obsessed pod city seven years ago and, while the above sounds like a logical conclusion, “they” would be wrong. I have always hated my fat roll. Moving here, to this 24/7 Glam-a-Palooza, just made me realize there was something I could do about it.
According to my 83-year-old Aunt, everyone down here either looks good or did at one time. She’s right. There exists a not-so-subtle, Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers coercion into raising one’s own bar on beauty. Since settling here I have upped my game with LASIK, regular facials, brow waxing, laser-hair removal, year-round pedicures and an InStyle wardrobe.
A friend now living here but originally from the Midwest, lumps all body maintenance, whether it comes out of an over-the-counter jar or requires a month’s stay in Lausanne, under the heading of “grooming.”
“It’s no fun being a hag,” she says.
My thirtieth birthday comes and goes and my fat roll comes with me. I resolve to love and accept myself as I am. In an effort to better understand this, over the next two years, I see a therapist, meditate, do yoga, decrease my fat intake, drink vats of green tea, hire a trainer and, like all desperate people, try a colonic.
I start a gratitude journal and increase my awareness of the real suffering in the world, but, still, when I see a flat stomach, the part of me that secretly reads The Star over Time magazine at the grocery checkout pines a little.
Two years have passed and, with the blessing of my therapist, I am considering surgery again. I test the waters with a friend.
“I know someone at work,” I say over lunch, “built like me, considering liposuction. Can you believe it?”
“That’s crazy,” she says, followed by phrases like “women in today’s society” and “I feel sorry for her.”
I nod. “I feel sorry for her, too.”
It is two months after my 32nd birthday and I am sitting in the waiting room of a Newport Beach plastic surgeon. You can tell a lot about a doctor by their waiting room. This one is ‘80s chic with a peach, pleated leather sofa, mirror art, cascading waterfalls and faux, art-deco plastic sculptures of naked women. What it told me was this guy hadn’t redecorated since Victoria Principal made it with Andy Gibb.
The receptionist leads me to an examining room, tells me to disrobe from the waist up and gives me an open-in-the-front paper jacket. “I’m not here for a boob job,” I say.
“Oh, I thought—”
“I know, but I’m not.”
“Oh, OK,” the receptionist says, smiling. “The doctor will be with you in a minute.”
The obese and hairy surgeon dwarfs the ubiquitous rolling stool. “What can I do for you?” he asks.
“Now, I’m not crazy,” I say lowering my skirt waistband, “but I’m interested in lipo,” and I point.
The wheezing doctor wheels over and pinches my fat between his chubby fingers. “Yes,” he says, “we can do that,” and rolls away.
“Is that it?” I ask, raising my skirt and after showing me some before-and-after photos of his wife and telling me he uses a power-assisted suction device because the other makes his hand hurt, that, indeed, was it.
While leaving the office of Dr. Fat&Hairy, I schedule one last consult with the remaining referral on my list. I tell myself this is it and, for the most part, I believe me.
When I meet this last doctor I am pleasantly surprised. He spends time with me, takes my requests seriously, demonstrates a detailed understanding of the art of body sculpture and fits comfortably on the wheely stool. He is strongly credentialed, very experienced in plastics and child burn reconstruction and has a pristine medical record.
By the end of the appointment I am convinced this is the man to remove my fat. I put down a non-refundable $400 deposit, schedule surgery for the following month and tell no one. I don’t want anyone’s judgment. I decide I love myself enough to have my fat sucked out in private.
One week prior to surgery, I go in for my pre-op appointment. The receptionist has me sign five consent forms and reviews antibiotics and pain medication. Roxanne, my beautiful, Asian, pre-op counselor and plastic-surgery poster child, opens by saying, “The worst part is not being able to wear deodorant for a month.”
“No deodorant?” I ask. “Why not?”
“The incisions,” she says, pointing to her armpits.
“But I’m here for my stomach,” at which point Roxanne excuses herself, tip taps hurriedly out of the room and, moments later, returns with another chart: mine.
“Before we get started,” I say, “and I know this may be an odd request, but do you mind if I see your lipo?” Without hesitation Roxanne lifts her short, A-line, swing dress to show me her abdomen, hips and…cooch! Yes, her cooch. I experience a moment of psychic blindness refusing to process what is so clearly before me. I tell myself it must just a simple matter of excavating her severely wedged thong, but simultaneously I hear myself say, “You’re not wearing any underwear?”
“I was running out the door this morning when I remembered I forgot to put some on,” Roxanne says, “then I was like do I want to be late?” She drops her dress. “You know?”
“Yes, sure,” I say. “And thanks for showing me your…lipo.”
“No problem,” Roxanne says.
The next week passes quickly and all of a sudden it’s surgery day. I arrive 20 minutes early and am shown into the same examining room (where I was flashed) by the same receptionist who tried to kill me with the Motrin. We smile.
I undress and within minutes am greeted by the nurse who will be prepping me. She swabs the back of my hand for an IV. “Um, I’m not sure how to say this,” I say, making a fist to puff up my veins, “but I just want to make sure, you know, I don’t wake up with,” and here I point with my chin, “boobs.”
“Oh no, don’t worry about that,” the nurse says, stabbing the back of my hand a third time, “that’s why we write it down.”
“Oh, OK,” I say, nodding as my vein puffs up and turns purple. “Uh, where?”
“Where do you write down the no-boob part?” at which point the anesthetist enters, introduces herself and, with pen in hand, queries me about today’s procedure. “Ab-dom-i-nal lipo-plasty,” she says, while writing on the official form. I take a deep breath and sit back just as the doctor walks in.
“Good morning, Laurie,” he says, removing a special pen from its wrapper.
“Time to draw?” I ask.
“Time to mark,” he corrects me. I slide off the end of the examining table and stand before the doctor in my baggy paper underwear and midriff drape. Surprisingly, I am not nervous. A dead calm has come over me. I have committed to the procedure or rather given over to the series of events that will result in the elimination of my fat. I never grapple directly with the fact I will be anesthetized (until the moment my head clunks to the side on the operating table) or that my insides will be vacuumed out (until I wake up feeling like complete crap).
As I stand before the doctor, he makes a series of black circles, exes and hash lines all over my stomach and hips. Go, go, go, I think. Yeah that, and that and there, too. The doctor turns me around and around again, pinches my hips then nods.
I look down at his artwork and am surprised by the amount of black ink. I start to feel dazed. What the hell am I doing, I wonder as I watch myself walk out of the examining room accompanied by the nurse, anesthetist and rolling IV pole.
We glide down the hall into the operating room where I am guided to lay atop a steel table and am immediately covered in a warmed blanket. Instantaneously, more women appear.
“You’ll start to feel a little tingly,” I hear a nurse say, and as I think yes, I am feeling a bi…I experience the sensation of my head rolling to the right, of my cheek meeting the table and, just as my eyes start to close, an image of my marked up stomach swims in my muddled mind and I think, goodbye to you and you and you. Love is having to say good-bye.
The first week after surgery feels like my stomach has detached (because it has) and is going to fall off. I walk hunched over in a truss like an 80-year-old. And the pain, if I lay perfectly still, on Tylenol, with codeine, is bearable. My play-doh skin is bloated and a tad frightening. After one week, it is dented in various places. At four weeks it has smoothed out some and after two months of wearing a girdle designed by a Chinese foot binder, my stomach looks like Pamela Anderson’s (while other parts of me do not).
Throughout the tedious and painful recovery, I never regretted my decision. In fact, I would do it again. I love the way my clothes fit. For the first time in 32 years, I have a waist which, ironically, has had the unexpected effect of making my breasts look bigger.
With my mid-section unburdened and in synch with the rest of my body, I feel good in my skin. I move more freely in the world and feel better in general. Is this superficial and shallow? Am I an unfortunate product of a society with misplaced values? Perhaps, but the bottom line is, I now like what I don’t see.