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”.
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.
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.
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?