Food Writer Andie Mitchell on Reclaiming Her Body After Massive Weight Loss — EXCLUSIVE
Mari RealSelf on 28 May 2015 at 6:00pm
Food writer Andie Mitchell radiates health. She's bubbly and funny, and she seems beautifully at ease in her body.
Unless you've seen a picture of her at age 20 when she tipped the scale at 268 pounds, it's hard to imagine that she spent the first two-thirds of her life numbing her emotions with a passionate food addiction. In her inspiring memoir, It Was Me All Along, she shares how she worked off the weight, confronted her addiction, came to terms with her new body, and consciously developed a satisfying new relationship with food and cooking, which inspired her popular blog, Can You Stay for Dinner.
Andie writes with poignant honestly about all aspects of her struggle, including the sagging skin she couldn't shake after the fat was gone. We asked for her best advice for those considering a surgical solution to a similar issue: "For me, having surgery to remove the excess skin that remained after losing 135 pounds was a vital part of my journey to self-acceptance. My advice to anyone considering a similar surgery would be to give yourself time after losing to adjust to your new weight. Losing any more weight post-surgery could create more excess skin, so make sure you’re at a weight you are comfortable maintaining long-term. If you’re not quite there, don't rush it."
In this exclusive excerpt from her memoir, Andie shares her story of how surgery finally helped her make peace with her new body.
At the start of August, Daniel traveled to Europe with his two best friends. The Saturday he left, I’d just returned from a long walk and was moments from stepping into a cool shower when I caught sight of my naked body in the bathroom mirror. I stopped and stared at my reflection. My frame was lithe, thin. Until my waist, the reflection I saw of me was one I liked. But as my eyes moved lower to my belly and beyond, I winced. Circling my belly was an inner tube of sagging flesh. Twenty years with an overbearing middle, a belly so protruding and bossy, my skin hadn’t taken kindly to the dramatic loss. The fat that once filled the two cascading rolls was gone, and what stayed behind was a double sash of deflated skin. It had no more elasticity. Loose and wrinkled, the skin sagged in the way it would on the body of someone nearing ninety. I could pinch the hanging flaps and find my fingers almost touching between the thin sheets of skin.
My gaze moved farther downward in the mirror, and I saw the same sagging sacks between my legs. My inner thighs looked as deflated, as dimpled with wear and age, as my midsection. I shook my body and watched as the pounds of sagging skin flapped up, down, up, down. Each bounce of empty flesh weighed heavy on the downswing.
I cursed it. Why has the fat left, but you — you won’t go away? It embarrassed me in a way my full belly never could have. This was the new body I’d worked so hard to have. This was the body I was working so hard to love. The skin that hung behind after I’d lost all the weight felt mocking, humiliating. I feared anyone ever touching it, couldn’t bear the thought of them noticing it as they grabbed me in a hug. Even being naked in front of Daniel made me feel unnervingly vulnerable. “I know it’s ugly!” I wanted to shout apologetically at him as I squeezed my eyes shut when we began kissing, so wishing the lights were out.
With clothes on, the skin masked itself well. Shirts hung loosely at my middle. Jeans with some measure of stretch could snugly hold the skin on my thighs taut. But when I moved, I felt the excess bounce. It would slap against my body in a punishing way.
You did this to yourself, you know. I chastised myself silently. Part of me felt I deserved it, but mostly I wondered of its finality. Must I walk around with this, my cross to bear, for the rest of my life? It felt odd to have worked so diligently to carve this body out of the mass it once was for it now to look so unattractive to me. Different, yes, but distressing all the same. Stretch marks swam up my front, my back, like silvery white fish. I was sympathetic toward the skin that bore them, having stretched so far beyond its limits that red veins emerged where it simply could not bear to stretch farther. The markings, now faded, I could live with. But the excess skin plagued me. During the first year the weight was off, I felt a nagging sense that I had more weight to lose whenever I’d see the sagging. It drove me mad that it never tightened, never rebounded, no matter how much I exercised. No amount of squats, lunges, crunches, or planks helped it to recoil. I learned, perhaps much too late to prevent the excessive exercise, that this excess that hung low on my belly and thighs was not the same as flab. There wasn’t any fat left inside the pockets to blast away. I’d done all of that.
Mom saw how self-conscious I’d become about it. She’d pull my shoulders back when she caught me hunching, folding inwardly on myself to cover it. She watched as I stared into dressing room mirrors, unclothed and unhappy. We had talked about how deeply bothered I was by it.
And when she felt it weighing equally as heavy on my mind as it did on my body, we made an appointment with a plastic surgeon. At the consultation, he proposed an abdominoplasty. Horrified at the graphic discussion, I looked away as he explained to Mom what would occur during the procedure. Essentially, he would slice a bowed line widthwise across my abdomen that would be curved in the same upturn as a smile. After releasing my belly button so the skin could effectively rise in a clean, single sheet above my abdomen, he would then pull that sheet downward. When the skin was pulled sufficiently taut to meet the bottom curved incision, he would cut off the remaining skin. He’d then take the skin from my upper abdomen and stitch it to lower portion of skin above my pubic bone. It made sense and disgusted me all at once. Squeamish, I could barely listen as he discussed how he could rectify the hanging skin on each inner thigh.
Leaving the appointment that day, Mom and I spent the car ride in serious discussion. It was a lot to consider. The surgery would require me to be put under general anesthesia for nearly three hours. It would also mean one night’s stay in the hospital. I’d be fairly immobile for the days following surgery, laid up with two small bottle drains inserted into my midsection to drain the fluids that naturally accumulate post-surgery. Tubes the size of drinking straws would connect the drains from outside my pelvis to inside my abdomen and be sewn in place on my skin. I’d have to empty these drains twice daily, noting the amount of fluid on a chart. They’d be removed after one week, and the holes left from the tubes would close and seal over time. In all, recovery would last about three weeks. And what was more, my insurance would not cover the cost of surgery, which neared $15,000 for the abdominoplasty and thigh skin removal combined. Since the skin was not technically causing any rashes or some other serious health condition, it was deemed medically unnecessary — an elective surgery. Despite several appeal attempts and my surgeon’s writing a letter to the insurance company to note that I was living with five pounds of excess skin hanging from my body, the company would not reconsider. It was difficult to hear the insurance rejection over and over. If they deem it elective, is this all just superficial of me? Am I considering the equivalent of a face-lift?
But the truth was that this was more than a beauty fix. After all the arduous work of losing weight, I was still deeply unhappy with my body. The only way I’d be able to be fully comfortable was if I got the excess skin removed. I couldn’t find it in me to justify keeping it at twenty-three years old. I consulted Mom and Daniel, and both of them supported me. After careful consideration, weighing every pro and con of such a major surgery, I decided to go through with it. Mom withdrew the money from her retirement account to pay for it.
At the end of August, on a muggy Friday morning, I awoke in post-op to Mom’s voice. “Baby, it’s all over. You’re out of surgery.” The room spun. All I could feel was an unbearable heaviness, a weight compressing my whole body.
After one full day of recovery in the hospital, I was allowed to go home. The days that followed were painful. Turning to Mom on the second day at home, I told her, “This is worse than I imagined.”
“Sweetie,” she said gently, “just wait until you have kids.”
I shuddered at the thought. It felt as if a boulder had been placed upon my stomach, and it was trapping me, making movement impossible, crushing me slowly. My breathing was shallow and labored. I was confined to lying horizontally in bed, with my only outings being trips to the bathroom. And those were quite challenging, since the numbness in my core made it nearly impossible to contract the muscles in my abdomen and pelvis. I could feel an extreme tightness, a pulling at the seams where my thighs had been sewn. The painkillers I’d been prescribed helped, but they made me nauseated. And when I’d throw up, my heaving would be so violent that I’d fear my stitches had ripped open. Looking at the drains that were stitched into my skin also made me queasy; they held a disgusting, phlegm-like fluid that emptied out from within me. Twice daily, Mom or Paul had to remove them for cleaning — a gross chore that I felt bad about asking them to do.
After the first few days, the weeks of recovery moved by quickly. I wore a tight brace around my middle for a full month. It took even longer before I felt comfortable touching my midsection, before I felt any sensation in the area at all. Touching my belly felt faint and distant, as though a barrier stood between the skin my fingers touched outside and the now-hardened inside.
It was still hard to look in the mirror, but for a different reason. I had a deep red scar in the shape of a smile on my belly. My thighs showed a slicing red line where my legs met my pelvis. Somehow, though, despite the visible scars, I felt more comfortable, more accepting of my body. There, in the mirror, was all that I’d worked for. I did it, I thought. Blemishes and all, it was earned, and it was mine. Removing the skin brought me closure.
And I respected what remained.
Reprinted from It Was Me All Along: A Memoir. Copyright © 2015 by Andie Mitchell. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC.
Photo credit: Andie Mitchell on Facebook