A cover is nice, but a cover is not a book.
I grew up LOVING the movie Mary Poppins. I knew every song because I had the Mary Poppins soundtrack on vinyl so I could sing along with all the songs. (Although we called them RECORDS back then). And you better believe I spun that bad boy on my Fisher Price record player. Other favorites from my
vinyl record collection included John Denver singing with the Muppets, and Paula and Carol from the Garden of Make Believe. I guess you could say I had pretty diversified tastes in music back then.
And so, because of my love of Mary Poppins, when Mary Poppins Returns came out, I went to the theater to see it. I went alone, and as soon as I saw it I wanted to see it again. I thought Emily Blount was every bit as good as Julie Andrews, and that's saying a lot. As soon as it came out digitally, I bought it and had an immediate family campout and made my whole family watch it with me. It was such a great sequel because while the plot line was (kind of) new, the music was new, and there were new characters, it very much had the feel of the old one. To me it was just as magical and you could draw a direct correlation between the songs from the old movie and their sequel counterparts. Plus it has Lin-Manuel Miranda in it. (Hot damn!).
The song I like the most from the sequel is the what "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" was to the old one called, "A Cover is Not a Book." Ya boy Lin is featured in the song and it's so fun, and catchy, and silly, and great. The premise of the song, of course, is the age old saying, "don't judge a book by its cover"-- what's on the outside may not be reflective of what's inside.
When Nick and I were in college, we spent a summer in Myrtle Beach at this program called Leadership Training. It was through our campus church, and the point was to train college students in sharing the gospel. As an adult, I have a lot of negative feelings about that program and feel like it was ultimately spiritually coercive. And by coercive, I am using the most conservative and kind descriptor. It was probably (in retrospect) spiritually abusive. But Nick and I have a lot of memories from that time-- some good, some bad. And we seem to have this memory lodged into our psyche about a sermon this pastor preached called, "It's all just a costume." His point was that everything we wear, how we take care of our bodies and hygiene, how we present to others is just a costume. I agree with that part. The part that came next was a little more problematic-- that we should consider how to create costumes so that we could make friends and in order to win them to Christ. And it was more than just our outward appearance-- it was a whole strategy of life. Find any way in so you can win them to Christ.
And as calculated and manipulative as that sounds to me now, I don't think that strategy is foreign in our society. It may not (or may) have the end goal of "winning souls to Christ," but we all use costumes to portray how we would like to be seen. Maybe we want to be seen as classy. Or quirky. Or preppy. (Is that still a thing? I think so-- like Vineyard Vines and all that, right?) Or even perhaps we want to be seen as a non conformist, which, ironically has its own costume. Maybe we identify as an artist or a musician. Maybe a soccer mom or a yoga mom. Or clergy. Or missionaries. Or executives. Or computer programmers.
***Allow me a quick diversion here-- Programmers DEFINITELY have their own costume-- right Nick? Think polos and khakis and athletic shoes as a fashion choice. Cargo shorts. So many pairs of cargo shorts. Lots of t-shirts with a conference slogan such as "What color is your pod?" (Sorry Jason, I had to borrow that slogan). Digression over.***
No where are our costumes more on display than social media. We present the most costume-y version of ourselves there. Carefully curated photos when we are looking the most like we want to look, or sometimes, in a reverse psychology move, the LEAST like we want to look to show how "real" we are. But it's all just a costume. It's the cover and not the book.
And so, making the decision to have something as drastic as bariatric surgery is tricky-- especially when you are public about it. Because the outside changes dramatically over a relatively short period of time. And so there is this internal battle about how to acknowledge that, how to internalize that, and how to respond to comments about it.
I strive to be the kind of person that does not think that fat is synonymous with unattractive. I find myself having to actively challenge myself to believe this because the societal pressure is so aggressive in the opposite direction. I have really done a lot of work in the past few years to come to a place of peace with the way my body looks and takes up space. But even that confidence (genuine or contrived) can be a costume I put on-- something to portray.
So how then, does one who has made peace with the dignity and value and place for large bodies to enjoy the world, begin to embrace a shrinking body-- a body that takes up LESS space? (Note: this is mostly hypothetical at this point when it comes to me, I have a long journey ahead. But it is safe to assume I will look different a year from now).
This morning I was chatting with a friend who was telling me that she came from a very weight-centered home and that a family member had recently had the same surgery that I had. She said those around her are very focused on the numbers. I have been in that spot. And I actually really am prone to obsessiveness about it. So much so that recently I had to put away my scale again for a while. Because even as I want to not equate a loss with being good, I still struggle with this concept. My friend told me that she likes to talk to her family member about what she feels like, rather than focusing on a smaller body. Friends, that is a great reaction.
It is not wrong to take pride in your appearance. It's not wrong to change your costume as you lose weight. It's not wrong to feel a sense of accomplishment after a big change in appearance. But that's just the cover. And a cover is nice but the cover is not the book. The problem with congratulating someone on their appearance after weight loss is that it has the potential to send unintended messages as well. When you say, "Gosh! You look great-- you've lost a ton of weight!" That can be heard as, "Good to know I looked so terrible when I was larger." It also sends a message to other people in earshot that there is something unattractive about them if they live in a larger body.
And even trying to make it more about health and saying, "You look so healthy now!" perpetuates the stereotype, "Fat=unhealthy." And that is NOT true in all cases. People can be healthy at any size. For all of us, we are on a journey to figure out how to live our best selves. Sometimes that includes weight loss, sometimes it does not and that is completely appropriate to live either reality. And further, it's nobody's business but their own. My biggest motivator for having the surgery was not health per se, but the ability to do more of the things I want to do as my body limited me in many ways. But I didn't/don't have things like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol. Could this surgery help prevent some of those things because I have a family history of these conditions? Yes, perhaps. But it wasn't my driving force. And you can never know what motivates someone to lose weight. It could be appearance. It could be health. It could be that they have an illness you know nothing about that is causing them to lose weight. It's safest not to make assumptions.
And so, the question becomes-- what do you say to someone who has had a significant change in their body after something like weight loss surgery? I think the easiest default answer, for the average person, is not to bring it up unless they bring it up with you. Would you make a comment to someone who had gained 50 lbs? Probably (hopefully) not. So then it's probably wisest to not mention when someone loses weight.
Now, there are some exceptions to this. Let's say this person is one of your family members or a good friend. Or, maybe they have invited comments or have initiated a conversation about it. I think then, questions are better than statements. Questions that might be appropriate in this context:
- In what ways do you feel different as a result of this surgery/transformation?
- What are some of the challenges you're facing?
- What's been the best/worst thing about this process?
- Has the process been what you imagined? If so, how? If not, why not?
- What advice would you give to someone starting this process?
- What do you wish someone would have told you ahead of time?
Keep in mind, some people will offer a lot of details and some people will not want to talk about it at all. Observe the social cues the person is giving you and respect that. If they express that they are feeling proud of themselves, I think it's great to say, "I am so glad you are feeling that!" If they say they are struggling, I think it's appropriate to say, "This seems like big change--what you're experiencing seems understandable." If they ask how they look, I would say, "You look great-- but you've always looked great to me." Like in every other part of life, it's great to celebrate with people who are happy, and to be a support for people who are experiencing a struggle. It's okay to dive deep when people want to make a deep dive. It's also great to keep it on the surface if that seems appropriate.
People are so much more than their appearance. And just like we're often cautioned against saying things like, "I don't see color," in regards to race relations, it is obvious when people have lost a significant amount of weight and so pretending it's not noticeable is likewise ignorant. But their appearance does not dictate what kind of person they are. It does not tell us what they care about, and dream about, and in what they have hope. It does not tell us the story of their insecurities and their failures. And, hear this, it also does not tells us the story of the things they love about themselves and their successes. It's ALL just a costume. And a cover is nice, but a cover is not a book.