• author
    • Maya Stiles Parsons Spier

      Columnist, Editor-in-Chief
    • May 10, 2015 in Columnists

    When belly shame is medical, too

    A few days ago my editor, Debra DeAngelo, wrote about belly shame – women’s hatred of their bellies. How we hate the evidence of much of what makes us great – our ability to cradle life in our bodies and bring it forth into the world. What even the most “perfect” among us feel is hateful. Is your tummy less than concave? Does it swell out gently? Does it carry the stretch marks of growth or childbirth? Does it vary from the perfect, airbrushed specimens portrayed in women’s fashion magazines that even the models themselves cannot sport without actually trying to starve themselves to death?

    Do you know that I would give almost anything to have the belly you despise? I don’t just have a tummy. I am at peace with my stretch marks. But I don’t just have a belly. I have what’s called a “pannus” by some doctors. Wikipedia calls it a “panniculus”.

    This is what you see on Facebook. But that's because I am an artist and know how to frame a picture

    This is what you see on Facebook. But that’s because I am an artist and know how to frame a picture

    You won’t know I have it, generally. I’ve been dressing to hide it for 40 years. And you won’t know by my Facebook profile picture, either — that’s slender, tiny even.

    I had my beautiful daughter at 19. I was plump when I got pregnant, but less than half the size I would ultimately attain. My belly was loose and squishy, but honestly, it was more embarassing than desolating. The skin was still young and tight, not terribly stretch-marked. Then I conceived, and, short as I am, with no room for the baby to grow but out, the skin stretched and stretched. Here’s what most people don’t know – stretch-marked skin is ruined skin. The elasticity is forever gone. It will never, ever snap back.

    Over time, poverty, poor nutrition, fasting and dieting and eating a lot when food was available (a typical response when one has gone hungry enough), I gained weight. The harder I tried – and I fasted on fruit juice, vitamins and protein powder so I wouldn’t die from 30 to 47 days at a time – the more I gained, until I got myself up to a magnificent 420 lbs. On a 5’2” body. At about 26, I was afraid to bend over. It felt like the skin on my legs and belly would split open if I did. Society is so brutal about being that size that I shut it off (think having trucks run at you as you’re walking with grinning bastards yelling out the window “SooEY!” or having herds of little boys follow you in stores, pointing, laughing and shouting “Fatty fatty fatty!”). I shut it down. I didn’t even see it because to see it would have brought me down and I had a child to raise.

    Until I couldn’t not see it – it was shoved into my face in such a way as I could not look away. Absolutely horrified, I proceeded to lose 225 lbs. And when I was done, the belly was still there, covering my mons, resting on my upper thighs, cutting off circulation.

    Statistics on people keeping the weight off for five years or more are brutal – 95 percent of people fail at it, as did I, although not entirely. I kept it off for a few months, then over time, went up to 365 again, then down, then up. I took up power lifting and got down to 340, with an astonishing muscle mass so I looked quite a bit smaller. Then down to 295, then up. Then martial arts and down at one point to 275. And always, always, the panniculus was there. Hurting me. Resting on a place that has now long since gone painfully numb (surprisingly, not an oxymoron) with ridges of fatty tumors from 40 years of pressure. Sometimes, at my job as a computer programmer, I discreetly put my fists under it just so the blood could rush back into my legs and because it ached so terribly where all that pressure rested.

    Finally, with my doctor’s encouragement, I admitted to myself that literally nothing I had done to lose this weight was really ever going to work – I couldn’t seem to get below 275 at all and even then, not for more than a few days (literally!).

    Two years ago, this May 28, I underwent gastric bypass surgery and the weight began to melt off. The best I have attained was 196, but after weighing 420, that’s a happy number. I’ve had some rebound weight (they warn us about it), so I’m currently at 209. I wear between a size 14 and 16, which after a 30/32 is also a pretty happy number.

    But not only is my panniculus still there, it hangs lower, still presses on my legs. It hurts. I get fungal and staph infections where the skin gets no air. My navel sags so much now that it, too, gets painful infections. I routinely fold up a small square of tissue to keep it dry – what it absorbs is a darkish brown. I’m afraid to find out what it is. Sometimes my back really hurts from the extra weight – this is no small thing, no little, wrinkly pooch which you at least wouldn’t notice when I’m clothed. This thing is a monster and I’m gathering my courage and posting pictures here.

    My panniculus, both angles

    My panniculus, both angles

    I had assumed that the infections would mean its removal would be covered. After all, I’d done what was required. The weight is gone, as much as it’s going to. I’ve worked so very hard for this. I had the infections documented. According to another friend who also had the gastric bypass, her doctors said that more than a coke can of extra skin was a medical issue. Can we say bucket? But no, according to my insurance, this is merely cosmetic.

    Sure it is, if you mean that I’m so ashamed at the hideousness of my body that, should my husband predecease me, I will never have the courage to find another love ever again. Sure it is if you mean that I look down at this ghastly, hanging deformity and have vivid imaginings of taking a kitchen knife and sawing it off, even if I bled to death because at least, for a few moments, it would at last be gone (no, I won’t, but I’ve talked to other women who have this and so far we’ve all had this vision).

    But it’s more. As I said, it gets infections. It cuts off the circulation in my legs, contributing to intense swelling in my lower limbs (I know, because when I lie down and the panniculus slithers back and to my sides, I can feel the fluid rushing back upward). It’s created that numb spot. God only knows what’s growing in my belly button.

    The common treatment is an abdominoplasty – a “tummy tuck.” I don’t even need that. A tummy tuck involves shortening the abdominal muscles that are commonly stretched out. I am a perfect muscular specimen in a squid suit. My abdominal muscles are tight, flat and hard as steel as are all my muscles thanks to years of power lifting and martial arts and other athletic pursuits. And while I despise the ruin left when my triple chin emptied out (it’s asymmetrical – it drives me nuts!), and I’m none to delighted with my arms as aeronautical devices, those truly are cosmetic.

    The turkey neck of a woman 10 to 15 years older than I am and arms like bat wings

    The turkey neck of a woman 10 to 15 years older than I am and arms like bat wings — annoying but cosmetic

    Despite an appeal to my insurance company which was denied, this pannus or panniculus, is not cosmetic. It really isn’t. It’s been between a Grade 2 as it is now to very nearly a Grade 4 (as determined by the Wikipedia article). The cost to fix it with only the panniculectomy I need? Nine thousand dollars. I don’t have it and my insurance won’t cover it.

    My ultimate questions are – if it didn’t have to do with fat, would insurance companies be so quick to dismiss it as cosmetic? And does this perhaps put your sweet, rounded tummy into perspective a bit?


    • If it were a condition suffered mainly by men, the insurance companies would be there in a minute. Brave piece, Maya.

        • Maya North

        • May 10, 2015 at 12:22 pm
        • Reply

        Thank you. You’re absolutely right. It’s a desolation.

        • Jesse Loren

        • May 11, 2015 at 9:46 am
        • Reply

        Amen sister. You know it. It would be as easy as getting Viagra if it was on a man.

    • Amazing piece. Thank you, Maya. Amazing, Brave, Wonderful.
      And thank you for naming the belly-aching!

        • Maya North

        • May 10, 2015 at 7:06 pm
        • Reply

        You’re welcome and thank you! It was very difficult. Body-shaming is so ubiquitous and when you have far more than what most women can bear to look at, it’s far more toxic. When it harms you physically but you can’t get help with it, it’s even worse.

      • Peter Pitula

      • May 10, 2015 at 7:51 pm
      • Reply

      I have had Gynecomastia since I was a teenager.Male breasts.I haven’t taken my shirt off in decades at a pool or the beach.I want liposuction. I also have a belly but I am losing that gradually.I feel for you Maya.Maybe a Go Fund Me Campaign is in order for your surgery..if there is money raised beyond the $9000…Can we use that for me to get rid of my breasts.

        • Maya North

        • May 10, 2015 at 7:55 pm
        • Reply

        Body shame is horrific no matter to whom it’s aimed. I’m not sure I should do a GoFundMe — I do have a job. Sadly, poor financial decisions based on love have me drowning in debt, so I might look good on paper, but I don’t have much free money. It makes for a conundrum — too well off to feel comfortable asking for help while the help I need for this is far out of my reach…

      • Pat Montandon

      • May 10, 2015 at 8:15 pm
      • Reply

      Darlin’, Maya, your story must be meaningful to many others. I am shocked that your insurance company won’t cover the money for you to have this surgery. What can I do to help you? You are a lovely and talented woman and you have apparently done everything by the book to get the surgery you so desperately need. I love you, my friend. Pat

        • Maya North

        • May 10, 2015 at 8:33 pm
        • Reply

        Love, there’s not much to be done. Much of the reason I can’t pay for it myself was poor choices — motivated by love, but foolish on my part. It should be covered, though. It really should be. I’ll keep you posted. <3

    • you are so gorgeous, maya, so very brave & gorgeous. i wish i had the money, i’d write you a check… all my deep love. brave, brilliant beautiful you.

        • Maya North

        • May 10, 2015 at 8:32 pm
        • Reply

        I love you, too, angel. It’s okay — I appealed and was denied and some of the reason I can’t pay for it myself was poor decision-making on my part. But it should be covered. I have multiple medical conditions documented and yet they determined it wasn’t medically necessary. Thank you… <3

    • This took such a huge amount of courage to write. And… can you imagine all the people out there suffering quietly, silently, with this? You are their champion. It’s a difficult topic to write about, to read about… but certainly infinitely more difficult to read about. Just say the word… I will learn how to start a GoFundMe campaign.

        • Maya North

        • May 11, 2015 at 7:09 pm
        • Reply

        I can write about almost anything. The pictures nearly killed me. Still do. Can’t look away or imagine that away. There are sooooo many people who suffer from this — two at my work who have them literally past their knees and can barely walk. But no, that’s cosmetic. Of course it is. It’s about fat and loose skin and it’s not nearly as glamorous as a bone-thin smoker. Have you noticed the furore over obesity and yet relative silence over smoking? I guarantee you it’s all related. I’ll keep you posted — I wrote to my new doctor about starting this process over and also protesting the need to prove an intransigent infection. I’ve been preventing those for 40 years and I am furious that I might be expected to allow one just to prove a medical need…

          • Shelby l mccort

          • January 28, 2020 at 11:31 pm

          You are a Godsend..thank you for having the words to explain when mine fall short. Clearly we are twins, separated at birth. Your story is my story down to the exact weight. I am in the grueling, heartbreaking g process of applying for preauthorization and being denied…appeal…denied. So close and yet so unattainable. Good luck and YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!

          • Maya Stiles Parsons Spier

          • January 28, 2020 at 11:50 pm

          Thank you so much for your courageous sharing. I am sending waves of supportive and healing energy — it took 3 tries for me but it happened. And while my young body is gone for good, I am so happy with the results, even though they took my belly button. (Seriously! It’s gone! ) So don’t give up — I’m rooting for you!

      • Jesse Loren

      • May 11, 2015 at 9:43 am
      • Reply

      Maya, this is a deeply personal and courageous piece. I have a few things to say about it. I think you need a different doctor. There HAS to be a proper wording or some fine tuning to get insurance approval. One of my relatives was approved for breast reduction and it was all paid for by the state. It has to be some paper work/correct wording thing. Don’t give up.

      Also, I would like to add my own personal belly hatred. I was a tiny thing when I got knocked up at 20. My skin stretched to accommodate my lovely daughter, then I received a C-section at the hands of a maniac. He cut into me in a weird asymmetry and left part of a scar straight and even and part of the stomach drooped over in a big fatty bag. He deformed me. I was not smart enough to pursue any recourse, I just kept the shame to myself and became bulimic. I barfed over anything emotional, any smell, and it wasn’t meant as a weight loss, I just hated my life and my body. I went down to 89 pounds and still the little skin sac of potatoes hung from above my scar only on one side. I got a lot of infections and still do. Not from the skin area, but in my belly button. I will not go into the painful, smelly details, but suffice it to say. I hate my belly touched and also, can’t feel anything there anyway. For some reason, and I really have never talked to a doctor about it, I have few nerve sensations from below my belly button.

      I did have something cosmetic done to my skin flap, but apparently it just comes back. I really share a personal familiarity with what you describe. Seriously, get a second or third opinion, or find a doc that has been successful at requesting the surgery, or get your Go Fund Me going. I will contribute.

      PS, there are a lot of personal reasons many of us don’t want our stomachs touched. Also, I still can’t walk around naked in front of my husband. Jesse

        • Maya North

        • May 11, 2015 at 7:19 pm
        • Reply

        I’m staggered once again at the cavalier attitude too many male doctors (and a few patriarchal female ones) have about women’s bodies. That’s horrendous — was it ineptitude? Indifference? Both? Did that asshat ever consider what it had done to you? It makes my blood boil. I had hated my body always. Literally always. I came from an adoptive family of incredibly slender, even wiry people and there I was, sturdy, heavily muscled, strong as a little pony — so I grew up in a toxic stew of their disdain and the loathing I turned inward. They tried to take weight off me by keeping my diet, um, streamlined, but there wasn’t a lot that could be done with natural sturdiness and then adolescence. I thought i was morbidly obese when I weighed 145 lbs of solid tensile steel. The fact that gorgeous you felt so much body loathing…this society makes me crazy — who you are is the most gorgeous of all. Of course, I didn’t believe that either.

        I am insured through work and they apply requirements as well as the HMO. They did send me to a plastic surgeon who essentially said I had an absolute, legitimate need for it, but I didn’t meet their laundry list. I’m trying again. If that doesn’t work, I’ll explore other options — and will keep you posted. <3

        • Shannon

        • May 12, 2015 at 11:35 am
        • Reply

        Jesse, just as an FYI, the numb might just be from the csec in general and not about how poor a job it was. My tummy has had a numb spot since my first csec and that was 8 yrs ago. Not going away any time soon!

      • Jesse Loren

      • May 11, 2015 at 8:55 pm
      • Reply

      The doctor that deformed me and there was no recourse. It was 1983. I think the worst part is the self loathing and the worthlessness that accompanies body shaming. I am not sure there is any body shaming like American body shaming… Well, maybe female genital mutilation shaming… but other than that, no other people are so perverted about shame and loathing of the body.

        • Maya North

        • May 11, 2015 at 10:34 pm
        • Reply

        FGM…yeah…I’ll FGM THEM… It’s insane. When I was at my biggest, they took away my human being card, my intelligence card, my right to an opinion card. They’ve since been returned. Really? I’m not any more charming now than I was then — in fact, I’m as irritating as I ever was. It’s a BODY. We All Have Them. If we concern ourselves only with our shells, we’re going to drown when we get old… I love you, Jesse Loren. Life deformed me and I know that shame like I know breath. Big hugs…

      • Terri Connett

      • May 31, 2015 at 8:51 am
      • Reply

      You are one of the bravest people I know. I 100% support a GoFundMe page for you, Maya. If you find a way to post this column with a link, I bet you will have your $9000 in a day. Like you, I hate to ask for help. But honestly if dumbass homophobic pizza shops in Indiana can raise $842,387 in just over a month — you deserve the opportunity to give your fellow humans a good place to send their money.

        • Maya Spier Stiles North

        • June 22, 2015 at 8:28 pm
        • Reply

        I love you dearly, Terri and I have good news… <3

    • […] it all at once ), I added my two cents’ worth with “When belly shame is medical, too” (When belly shame is medical, too). In fear and trembling, I took pictures of the enormous panniculus – the apron of fat – that […]

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