Book review: Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest For Size Normal, by Anne Putnam

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WHEN Anne Put­nam was 16 years old and tipping the morbidly obese scales at 290lb, she read an article about bariatric surgery in the New Yorker magazine that would change her life.

Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest For Size Normal

Anne Putnam

Faber, £12.99

It was 2001 and gastric bypass procedures were relatively new, but Putnam, a Californian with an unhealthily large appetite, knew immediately that such an operation was “the Holy Grail I never knew to search for”. She hoped among other things that it might mean “that maybe someone normal could love me some day”.

So both she and her father, who was also dangerously overweight, agreed to have gastric bypass operations, with Dad, an otherwise successful businessman, obligingly forking out $25,000-plus for each operation. Putnam was told that the surgery would mean she could never eat sugary or fatty foods again and that if she did, or if she ate more than a “small meal” at one time, she would throw up – in other words, the ideal mental state for staying slim would be physically, brutally enforced on her.

In the following year, she lost more than 100lbs, leaving her with great sagging flaps of loose skin which she has since had cut off in a series of cosmetic operations, leaving her arms, legs and stomach ridged with long scars instead. At the same time, her initial resolve to steer clear of sugary foods weakened and much of her time seems to have been spent throwing up, with her weight also creeping up again.

During this period, Putnam was studying English at Washington University, behaving like any other student, at times introspective and depressed but clearly bright, hardworking, ambitious, with good friends and managing to pull occasionally in spite of her severe hang-ups about her body. And then, in 2006, she met Guy, an English medical student, and romance blossomed to the extent that she now lives with him in London where she works as a freelance writer.

Sadly, however, this is not the story about the fat girl who got thin, got the normal guy and lived happily ever after. It’s the story of a woman who is still so angry and hates herself so much that she has huge difficulty allowing anyone to love her, least of all herself. She goes into meltdown about what to wear to a party because she thinks she looks fat; she goes nuts when a doctor tells her she’s overweight. She’s “traumatised” when a zip on a dress she’s trying on gets stuck.

“My entire life, people have looked at me and made assumptions,” she says. “What really infuriates me is when there’s no acknowledgement of what I and others have been through, the obvious unfairness of our lives.” What unfairness? That she came from a wealthy family? That she was educated to university level? That her father could afford to pay for her multiple surgeries?

The home page of her blog informs us that her “likes” include baking and that her “dislikes” include a “tendency to gain weight at the mere sight of baked goods”. It seems then that her suffering has been brought about, not in fact by other people judging her, but by her own doing. And she’s hardly unique in wanting to be slimmer, especially at this time of year when most of us are starting to quietly abandon our New Year’s resolutions. But she does need to let go of her anger all the same. «