Passing Over: Gastric Bypass, Thin Privilege, and Perspective by Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin

I connected with Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin after reading her excellent article, “A Feminist Defense of Cinderella” and tweeting about it. We began a conversation over e-mail and she mentioned that her own body image issues had worsened after losing 140 pounds due to a gastric bypass procedure. I immediately asked if she’d read “Stranger Here” by my girl Jen Larson, and she said her experience had been quite different. When she filled me in on the details, I knew I had to convince her to share her story here. I’m honored that she’s agreed to do so. Read on to hear about Shoshanna’s surprising before and after experiences.

* * * * *

Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin

I’ll never forget the first moment when I realized that I had passed over. I was standing in an overly crowded holiday package mailing line at my local post office in December. It had been five months since my gastric bypass weight loss surgery and I was down almost 100 pounds. “Sweetie, let me help you with that package!” the helpful clerk ran over to me as I attempted to lug my heavy package. “Who is sweetie?” was my first thought. “Oh, wait that’s me!” Something was different and that something was me.

Unlike people who choose weight loss surgery hoping that the procedure will radically change their lives for the better, I was quite happy with my pre-op life. At the age of 29 I had already traveled the world, successfully pursued several degrees in Women’s Studies, was in the process of developing a meaningful career, married the love of my life, and had three beautiful daughters. Yes, I was obese –morbidly obese according to the doctors’ charts – but I had never let my weight stop me from pursuing my dreams. In fact, my weight was part of who I was and had been part of my journey up until that point. I have always believed that beauty can be found in all sizes and spent many enjoyable hours styling my plus-sized self.

I made the decision to undergo weight loss surgery while I was leading a trip of college students on a service-based “alternative spring break” to the north of Israel. I had travelled to Israel many times previously, but this time was different. To begin with, I barely fit into the airplane seat and spent nine hours in horrible discomfort. When we arrived in Israel and began the fast-paced trip – which included hiking and sight-seeing as well as community volunteering and service – for the first time in my life, I could not keep up. The truth was staring me in my profusely sweating face. I couldn’t deny the inevitable anymore, my weight was catching up with me. “My knees hurt, my back hurts, I just CAN’T live like this anymore,” I thought to myself. Something had to change. I was ready. Or so I thought.

With many failed attempts at serious weight loss under my belt and a father who’d had a highly successful gastric bypass four years earlier, I pursued the weight loss surgery approval process with a passionate vengeance. Nothing was going to stop me. I never gave much thought to the reality of my post-op life. I wanted to be able to get up off the couch easily, I wanted to be able to prepare Thanksgiving dinner without stopping for sitting breaks, I wanted to run after my kids at the park, I wanted to be healthy.

My surgeon was the first one to shock me into reality during our final pre-op visit. In typical overachiever fashion, I had exceeded the requisite 20 pound pre-surgical weight loss, and feeling particularly brazen, had decided to ask the surgeon “how low” he thought I could get. “Oh, you could easily get down to 130 or so. Are you prepared for that? People will not recognize you. Is 130 too thin for you?” Ha! I laughed in his face at the pure disbelief that I could actual be 130 pounds as an adult. 130 pounds … impossible! Too thin? Who ever heard of being too thin?

The surgery took place on July 12, 2010, and as expected, the weight fell off. By New Year’s Eve I was down 100 pounds to 165. I was both thrilled and convinced that the weight loss would slow down, that I could somehow control it. My weight eventually settled at 125 pounds – a size 2 – with what one of my doctors unprofessionally referred to as a “Barbie body.” But it wasn’t just my appearance that changed. My entire life began to change as well.

Around the time the weight settled, we moved several states away and I began a new life as a thin person. My speaking and teaching career began to take off with flying colors. Suddenly I was much “better” at a career that I had already been in for over 15 years. I began to notice an acceptance and approval in people’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. And wouldn’t you know? My trip leader reviews on the next trip I led to Israel – only 18 months post-op – showed drastic and remarkable improvement.

After having spent the first 30 years of my life working on my own self-esteem to try to be the most fabulous plus sized lady I could be, now as a thin person I began to discover the cold truth of obesity discrimination. I’d been good, but I’d never been “the best” because I was fat. The more I succeeded in my new body the more I wondered how often I had not succeeded in my old one. How many opportunities had I missed because of my weight? How often had my weight really held me back? As an adult, the only life I’d known had been as an obese person, so I had no idea how badly I was being treated and judged until I was given the chance to “pass over” to the other side. Now strangers smile at me more on the street, grocery clerks call me “sweetie” and “honey,” even my student reviews and classroom registration numbers have drastically changed. Just this past spring semester my “Biblical Hebrew 2” class held the highest registration on record at my university for a second semester of this very niche subject.

I am no longer invisible or ignorable. When I step on stage or in front of a microphone and smile at the audience as my Speech 101 teacher taught me to do so many years ago, I can feel a difference: I’ve already won over the crowd before I begin to speak. It wasn’t so long ago that I had to work hard to win over my audiences and it was a challenge that I loved; slowly drawing in the audience with my wit, personal stories, and knowledge of complex subject matter. I still work hard to engage my audiences and students as I always have. It’s the only “me” that I know how to be. But I’m still consistently amazed by the instant approval that I feel from my audience as I watch them give me the once over. Thin is instantly acceptable, fat needs to prove itself. I’ve always been a woman with a lot to say, but now everyone appears to be more interested in listening.

Another drastic change was in the way I was treated by healthcare professionals. As a morbidly obese woman, any sort of doctor’s appointment created several weeks’ worth of anxiety, mostly at the thought of being weighed and the resulting fat shaming and insulting conversation that was sure to follow. Oh really? At 5”4 I’m not supposed to be 265 pounds? I had no idea! I have had doctors sneer at me, call me lazy, roll their eyes at my explanations for my obesity, and more. Worst of all, I have had some doctors use my vulnerability and desperation to lose weight to try to convince me to shell out hundreds of dollars for their special weight loss “supplements.” Since the gastric bypass, doctors have given me nothing but warm congratulatory smiles at my continued weight loss success. You are such an inspiration! Good for you!

I’m intrigued, but as a professor of Women’s Studies I am also disgusted and bear tremendous guilt at what opportunities “thin privilege” has opened up for me. Worst of all, I’m not even sure that our society is conscious of the discrimination that is inflicted on obese individuals every single day. It’s no coincidence that so many people become involved in the “size acceptance” movement after successful weight loss surgeries. The only way to change what is commonly referred to as “the last acceptable form of discrimination” is through exposure, education, and self- love. Weight loss surgery may not for everyone, but size acceptance is.

_ _ _ _ _

Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin is the Director of Women’s Division, Israel, and Overseas Programming for the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and serves on the faculty of the departments of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Shoshanna earned her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Jewish Studies from the University of Maryland and a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies with a focus on Jewish Gender and Women’s Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Shoshanna’s writing elsewhere:

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33 Responses to “Passing Over: Gastric Bypass, Thin Privilege, and Perspective by Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin”

  1. San

    Wow, this is shocking. I wonder if there would be other hypothetical transformations with similar results, like gender, skin colour, height or high age differences. I am certainly going to try to reflect on the discrimination I am objeting others to.

  2. Maegan Zimmerman

    Love! I had surgery 3 and a half years ago. I’ve gained some back, but am pretty darn close to what I think is my “happy weight”. I feel good, I can physically do so much more than I could before surgery, and I had some similar experiences in dealing with the world. It’s night and day difference in how strangers perceive me, and I never realized it until I was in my “after” body.

  3. Cari Homemaker

    I really love that you shared your story here. I don’t know what about it exactly is resonating with me so hard this morning, so I’ll be thinking about it for the rest of the day, but if I don’t comment now to say thanks for writing, I may not get to it later.

  4. delurking

    I’m delurking to thank you so much for this post. I’m 46, been thin my whole life, and one of the best things about the on-line fashion/feminist/style world is the exposure I get to the fat/size acceptance movement. It’s work has been invaluable and it is informing how I raise my daughter.

  5. Lisa

    I experienced this, in reverse, in my first pregnancy. Starting at 5’6″ and 120, I ended up at >165 by the time I gave birth. Much of the weight was in my chin, my arms, and my neck. I remember meeting a woman towards the end of the pregnancy, and trying to be her friend. She brushed me off. When she met me again, 6 weeks later, I was already nearing my usual body shape. She treated me quite differently. Somehow I was undesirable as a fat friend, but quite valuable as a thin one.

  6. janejetson

    Why the quotes around “thin privilege?” It’s a real thing and not just something found in quotes

  7. Vivienne

    Wow. Thanks so much for sharing your experience Shoshanna!

  8. Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin

    Thank you everyone for the very supportive comments and for helping spread awareness about thin privilege and obesity discrimination. I also want to give a huge thank you to Sally for gently convincing me to put my feelings and thoughts down on paper regarding this very personal but very important issue. The response has been amazing and quite widespread!

  9. Brianna

    It’s fat consequences, not thin privilege. Weight is changeable, as proved by you.

    • DonnaDiva

      What social consequences should being fat have, Brianna? Do tell.

  10. modernsauce

    Thank you so much for writing this. My weight fluctuates between a 14-18 and what you describe is absolutely something that I’ve noticed in my life. I can actually pinpoint the number on the scale where I know people (particularly men) treat me different. Somehow it’s the magic number where people see me as a lady (that happens to have some weight on her) vs. an “overweight” lady. Because there is absolutely a difference.

    • pghsmith

      So true! For me that threshold has been around size 12-14 where I am somehow deemed attractive, capable, etc. When you fluctuate so much (I’ve been anywhere from a 4 to a 16) the difference in treatment is quite noticeable.

  11. Courtney Landes

    @Brianna–that’s a hateful thing to say. No one deserves to be discriminated against. Also, for most people, it is untrue that they can change their body size. Most people cannot maintain significant weight los long term. Weight loss surgery is a radical act that carries the risk of death. If someone chooses to do that, fine. However, no one should be obligated to rearrange their internal organs and risk death in order to be treated with baseline decency.

  12. Anjin-San

    Thanks so much for writing this. As a middle-age, mid-sized male and father of a beautiful teenage daughter, I’ve long be fascinated about the lack of discussion around thin privilege. Thanks for bringing it to the forefront!

  13. NeenaJ

    Thank you for this article. What society values changes over time and locale however, the feeling of discrimination is constant if you do not possess that characteristic.

    I’m curious with regard to the counseling that comes with having gastric bypass. Does it, in any way, prepare you (address perceptions) for your “after” life?

    • Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin

      I’m going to be totally honest with you; my pre-op psychological clearance was pretty much a joke. I took a computer generated test to make sure that I was mentally stable and then sat with a therapist for about 20 minutes who seemed more concerned with the family support and that I understood the PHYSICAL ramifications of the surgery…that you can’t overeat, what will happen if you overeat, etc. I sought out my own therapy post op….

  14. Shawna McComber

    What a well written and thoughtful piece. I have faced weight discrimination from the medical community even when I was only a little bit overweight. It disgusts me what some medical practitioners think is acceptable behaviour.

    • Jay Bird

      Should they lie to you and tell you that being overweight is healthy?

      • Shawna McComber

        I did not tell my whole story; this is not the place for it. There is much more to it than your assumptions. Nobody should be told they are healthy if they are not, but neither should the assumption be made that someone is unhealthy just because they are not thin, nor should the reasons for a person being overweight be ignored or written of as laziness or eating the wrong thing. Not only should medical professionals be well informed about the patient they are dealing with, they should also be up to date and accurate in the information they disseminate about how to be healthy and how to lose extra weight. Many of them are not.

      • Courtney Landes

        Do you have any idea how fat people are treated by the medical community? Weight discrimination by doctors is a real thing, and it is a major public health issue. Fat people are routinely told that their fat is the cause of all of their health problems–even things like a broken toe or strep throat. Fat people die from treatable diseases because doctors refuse to do a real work-up or offer treatment options beyond “lose weight.”

        Go check out some of the entries at the First Do No Harm blog before you make assumptions that someone who calls out fat discrimination by a doctor is complaining without merit.

        • Jay Bird

          Don’t throw words like “discrimination” around so loosely. Someone trying to help you by telling you what you Need to hear is not discriminating. No doctor would say that obesity causes strep throat. However increased weight is bad for joints so a toe injury isn’t a stretch.

          I am not going to a pseudo science website. I’ll instead listen to what peer reviewed scientific research has shown.

  15. Derick Shamblin

    This is without a doubt the best piece I have read about fat acceptance since I’ve really immersed myself in the topic. I’m bookmarking this.

  16. 33

    My weight tends to fluctuate from year to year, too, from heaviest 150lb to slimming 115lb and anywhere in between. My crossover number is 130lb. Once my weight passes 130, I would notice the differential treatment. I would start becoming invisible. The older I am the more obvious the treatment. I don’t even have to have drastic weight change to experience this. On my 5’4″ frame 5lb up and down is visible, so is the treatment.

  17. MrWednesday

    Perhaps about the same as choosing to be a smoker?

  18. corydora

    I’m bariatric pre-op and this very accurately describes my fears regarding it: it’s going to make me more misanthropic and angry because I’m going to be suspicious of people’s behavior and motives. The whole “Would you treat me differently if you’d seen me ____ lbs. ago? Will you see me as more intelligent, competent, pleasant, witty, etc because of this?” If so, fuck you. Bariatric surgery will make my life easier in a variety of ways (clothing, ease of movement, social anxiety about taking up space, etc), but not socially.

  19. Jay Bird

    Medical professionals are well informed, you just don’t like what they have to say. Every legit medical study has shown that obese people are at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer. Their life expectancy is lower.

    It doesn’t guarantee that if you are obese you will get these but your relative risk is much higher

    • Shawna McComber

      Clearly you wish to argue this. As I have told you, you do not have all the pertinent information here. I can’t stop you from making your judgements. I can’t stop you from being fat phobic. I cannot stop you from making assumptions about me either. Have a nice day.

      • Jay Bird

        This is a comments section- do you expect everyone to be in agreement?

        People can do what they want to their body. My problem is when they spread lies that being obese doesn’t negatively effect health. Medical professionals are doing their job. They need to be honest. It seems that you are overly sensitive to minor criticism when someone was trying to help you.

        • Shawna McComber

          Actually my point was that you just don’t know what you are talking about. Where and when did I say I am or was obese or ask for you help with the matter? I don’t expect you to share my opinions. You are free to comment here and state them. I am merely pointing out that you are responding to me and making assumptions and you are wrong. Leaving aside whether or not I am personally overweight and in need of being saved by you, the fact of the matter is that there are medical professionals who are misinformed, who are fat prejudiced and that it is possible to be heavier and still healthy. Clearly you disagree with me. That’s established. We are done.