Teen Girls, Weight Loss Surgery, Body Image and Class Distinctions - A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

Teen Girls, Weight Loss Surgery, Body Image and Class Distinctions

brooke-bates

A while back, I watched a documentary titled “Killer at Large
,” which outlined how obesity has been handled in our society and how its affected our children. And within that documentary, the viewing audience was introduced to this young girl:

Meet 12 year old Brooke. A 5’5″ girl who weighed in at 220lbs. After putting on 40lbs in one year, her two slender parents decided it may be time to talk to the doctor about liposuction. In the documentary, you see the doctor cracking jokes about how “usually, when girls step on this scale, they take off their shoes, their earrings, their lipstick [in an effort to weigh less on the scale]” and you see Brooke discussing the downfalls of her added weight. The “smell” that she encounters from her apron. The way she’s known as “the nice girl,” never “the hot girl.”

The documentary takes you deep within the operating room, where the doctor then begins Brooke’s liposuction procedure. A bit of time passes, and then you see the doctor pointing to the giant vials of fat he’s removed from her body, and you hear someone (I believe the doctor) say, “You’ve lost more weight in one day than you’ve lost in your whole life.” Brooke’s father says, “If you kept coming back here, you’d be as skinny as your Mama.” You can see Brooke, still a little drowsy from the anesthesia, smiling and saying “Yup!”

That was 2006. Back then, ABC News wrote the following (important parts are in bold):

After watching a documentary on weight loss, 12-year-old Brooke decided on liposuction, a procedure thought to sculpt an imperfect body, not treat obesity.

She went to see Dr. Robert Ersek, a leading plastic surgeon in Austin. [...] Brooke’s interview with Ersek before surgery shed light on her fears and her hopes for a normal future.

“Maybe If I could do it I would look a little normal,” she told him.

Not only was the extra weight affecting Brooke’s self-esteem, but it was seriously affecting her health.

Her mother, Cindy, said that Brooke’s blood pressure was sky high, and doctors said she was at risk for a stroke. [source]

Keep the bold in mind. And remember.. that was 2006.

Fast forward to 2007 – only seven months later – where Brooke, now 13, regained 35 of those pounds. Again, ABC News reported the following:

Brooke said she has always struggled with her weight. At her heaviest, she weighed 220 pounds. By early 2006 she lost 40 pounds through liposuction and a tummy tuck. But, in less than a year, she regained 35 pounds.

After the liposuction and tummy tuck, which cost $25,000, Brooke said she “went from the big, fat girl to the popular girl.”

“Then I gained weight back and it was depressing,” Brooke said. “But now that I had the lap band done, everything is just working out great.”

[...]

Brooke’s mother, Cindy Bates, said she was sad for Brooke when she began gaining weight after her first round of surgeries, but she said she didn’t blame her daughter.

“It was the happiest year of her life and it was sad watching her, you know, struggle with trying to keep the weight off,” Cindy said. “So that’s the reason we did the lap band so she could control her hunger and how much food intake she was putting in her body every day.”

Most doctors in the United States usually don’t perform gastric lap-band surgery unless a patient is at least 18 years old, has a body mass index of 40 or higher or weighs at least twice his or her ideal weight.

So against the advice of their family doctor, the Bates traveled to Mexico to get the procedure done, without trying to find a local surgeon. The procedure cost $7,900.

From the same article, one more gem:

While Brooke likened her overeating to an addiction, her mother said that she didn’t believe the problem was psychological.

“I don’t really relate it to an emotional issue,” Cindy said. “I think it’s more of a hereditary characteristic in our family.” [source]

Now… this all happened in 2007. Fast forward to like… ten days ago:

A type of weight-loss surgery not approved for adolescents is becoming more and more common among teens in California, according to a report published today. Most of the patients are white girls, although they make up less than half of overweight youth, researchers say.

From 2005 to 2007, they found rates of so-called gastric banding, in which a silicone band is placed around the top portion of the stomach to restrict food intake, rose five-fold. However, use of gastric bypass — which surgically reduces the size of the stomach — dropped, leaving the overall rate of weight-loss procedures constant.

Despite not being approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in adolescents younger than age 18, gastric banding overtook gastric bypass as the most frequently performed weight-loss procedure in this age group, Dr. Daniel DeUgarte and colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, report in the journal Pediatrics.

[...]Among the 590 California youths between 13 and 20 years of age who underwent weight-loss procedures over three years, no one died and the rate of in-hospital complications were comparable at less than six percent.

[...]While white people account for just over a quarter of overweight adolescents in California, they made up about two-thirds of those who had surgery. There could be many reasons for these findings, according to the researchers, who note that only severely obese people who have failed diet and exercise programs are considered for weight-loss surgery.

“I do think that has something to do with the difference between male and female body image perception,” said Dr. Marc P. Michalsky, surgical director for the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, who was not involved in the research.

But, he added, “We try very, very hard to dispel any notion that this is a cosmetic procedure.”

Michalsky said he wasn’t surprised by the new findings, but noted that solid evidence for gastric banding has yet to be produced.

“Why do we feel it is necessary to operate on a bunch of 15-year-olds?” he told Reuters Health. “The theory is, and we have yet to prove this, that early intervention will result in a substantial difference in the outcomes regarding obesity-related diseases,” such as diabetes and heart disease.

While weight-loss surgery may cost up to $50,000, for some individuals, he said, it appears to be the only way to achieve durable results. [source]

I have so many questions. I don’t even know where to begin. Wait, yes I do.

“Not only was the extra weight affecting Brooke’s self-esteem, but it was seriously affecting her health. Her mother, Cindy, said that Brooke’s blood pressure was sky high, and doctors said she was at risk for a stroke.” Was it not the duty of her doctor to tell her that this is not a causal relationship? High blood pressure isn’t caused by “being fat.” Both high blood pressure and “being fat” are caused by unhealthy food. I imagine Brooke finally learned this lesson after her surgery, though.

What is going on in that home where there’s so much focus on “looking normal” as opposed to embracing who she is? It’s one thing to want to work on yourself, but it is another thing entirely to think you need work because you are less than. The jokes the Father and the doctor made after the young girl’s surgery? C’mon, man. I already know why no one taught her to embrace who she is. They were just as disgusted by her as her peers proclaimed to be… and caused Brooke to develop that very same disgust for herself, as evidenced by her interviews… which leads me to my next question.

The girl gained back 35 of the 40lbs she had sucked out through lipo. Thirty-five. Of forty. 87.5%. Her parents paid $25,000 for Brooke to lose 5lbs, basically. After all of that, the Mother still has the audacity to say, “I don’t really relate it to an emotional issue.” [insert blank stare] Let’s think about this. You endure an invasive procedure to lose weight. You, essentially, get “everything you wanted” because all the little girl wanted was “to look normal,” and then you sabotage it by gaining back all but five pounds. That doesn’t appear to have a psychological issue attached to it? I remember seeing the Mom answer that question – her answer felt more like she was trying to avoid an attack on her parenting than actually interested in a conversation on the well-being of her child. Take it a step back – Brooke, herself, said that her overeating was an addiction. How on Earth did the Mom presume that’s not emotional?

Now, when I first saw this story, I was mortified. The documentary showed Brooke discussing how she realized she was an emotional eater — that she’d react to her parents’ fights by stuffing herself to make herself feel better (which lets me know that her parents would rather spend several thousand dollars to make her daughter “look okay” by way of liposuction than buy non-processed foods, but I digress) and was really sad about the way she had “let herself go.” The entire process matured her, but I still lament the fact that she grew up with placing her self-worth in her body.. something that young girls suffer from in ways we don’t like to imagine.

During the same time frame, approximately 600 teens in California underwent some form of weight loss procedure. Since California is a state with one of the ten best obesity rates in the nation (24.8%), I’m quite surprised to read that “While white people account for just over a quarter of overweight adolescents in California, they made up about two-thirds of those who had surgery.”

There is something so very wrong with this. Let’s face it – America likes “easy answers” and regardless of whatever post-surgery complications one faces with weight loss surgery, the reality is that the problem as America sees it (read: the weight) is gone. If the non-whites in California could afford to free themselves of the social stigma of weight… wouldn’t they? Brooke’s family paid to rid Brooke of her “problem” twice. They even travelled to Mexico to handle “it.” So again, the difference between the overweight and the thin? Money. Money, money, money. This isn’t even about food at this point… and it certainly isn’t about health. Is this why we keep assuming that those who are fat obviously don’t have any money? Because, well, if they did, they’d pay to get rid of “all that?” Sigh.

The last question I have, involves the following:

“The theory is, and we have yet to prove this, that early intervention will result in a substantial difference in the outcomes regarding obesity-related diseases,”

Early intervention into what? Into what, exactly, are you intervening? Weight gain? Does weight loss surgery performed on someone who isn’t even fully capable of understanding the consequences magically stop weight from being added? Does weight loss surgery magically unclog arteries? Does it insert a chip into your brain to cause you to eat in a fashion that prevents you from gaining weight in the first place? Or does it even place a little tiny fairy on your shoulder to tell you “Ahh, ahh, ahh, you shouldn’t be eating that?” Didn’t we learn anything from Brooke?

That 12 year old girl teaches us a powerful lesson – regardless of how you lose the weight, if you don’t have a plan in action to work to help you keep it off and prevent yourself from gaining every again… then guess what? You’re going to wind up right back where you started. Do yourself a favor and get it right the first time.

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes health, fitness, nutrition, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She now lives in New York with her family, and is working on her 4th, 5th and 6th certificates.

13 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    September 30, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    A different take here – when I read the article, my thought about the disproportionate number of white adolescents getting the surgery was that whites are less tolerant of fat than other groups are. I think that each group of people tend to have areas of their body that they are more likely to focus on and fat is just a high focus for white people. I’m not saying money isn’t some part of the issue, but perhaps it isn’t the whole story.

    • Erika

      September 30, 2010 at 1:36 PM

      Agreed. I just wanted to draw the parallel to the post I wrote before about the bigotry that a lot of stores have against plus-sized women. To quote, “Why won’t Chanel and the others publicize the fact that they make plus sized clothing? Simple. Because they know damned well that there is a certain type of woman identified as being plus sized – she is poor, cannot afford quality, is so unattractive that surely she wouldn’t wear my clothing anyway, whatever… the plus sized woman simply is not respected. “Her mere presence in a store must offend the sensibilities of the average size 2… thus why other labels had to force her to resort to shopping online only. We must keep them out of our stores, so that thin people won’t think our store only caters to big people!”

      Good point, though!

  2. BlackBerry Molasses

    September 30, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    I actually agree with Stephanie. I grew up in mostly white suburbs and went to a predominantly white wealthy high school. Girls the size of toothpicks used to rip on their own and everyone elses weight.
    “Fat” was the worst thing you could be called. I found that me and my other brown skinned peers internalized a lot of those behaviors. It was “in” to constantly be on a diet.
    My best friend is white and she’s about a size 12… and she’s 5’10” She rips on her own body so badly, and her mother actually had gastric bypass back when it involved making a huge incision down your middle. It was actually hard to be around them sometimes. Even now her mother only has two things to offer me… how smart I am and how much weight I am losing/have lost. Always in comparison to her daughter.

    She’s recently gotten better as she’s learned to make peace with her body and focus on health rather than being skinny. She also has a man that loves and accepts her just the way she is (though she never had trouble getting guys, IMO).

    Whew, I was rambling. Sorry.

    • Erika

      September 30, 2010 at 1:33 PM

      I agree as well! I’ve written about my experiences with my teen years here as well, so I don’t disagree there… but I find it hard to believe that the values are SO different between the cultures that the 25% of overweight whites will account for 67% of all of the surgeries performed. I think money plays a huge part in that.

      But you bring up another point that I give the side-eye whenever I write about this stuff. “Those girls” are always “on top of their bodies” because there’s an element of unhealthy body image, there – a LOT of “Gosh, I’m so fat” talk that is really emotionally unhealthy. I often hear, during these conversations about “Well, white women…” in regards to them being “thinner” and it’s like… Sure, the trade-off might be they’re “skinnier,” but do we want to be “skinnier” even though the tradeoff is adopting that kind of philosophy? That’s another topic entirely, though. LOLOL

  3. Donald Urquhart

    October 1, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    One interesting point is how much free choice does a twelve year old really have about a surgical procedure, anyway? Anyone who has to go through a surgical procedure is supposed to have the right of informed consent, which means that they fully understand the benefits and risks of the procedure in question and can make an educated choice. I don’t think that any twelve year old is capable of making a decision like that. Furthermore, I don’t know what her parents were thinking. If my daughter was 5’5″ and 220 pounds, I think I would replace all of the food in the house with vegetables before I’d permit anyone to do surgery on her.

    Donald from Fast Diets

  4. Lasciel

    October 3, 2010 at 11:48 PM

    “High blood pressure isn’t caused by “being fat.” Both high blood pressure and “being fat” are caused by unhealthy food.”

    THIS! Just making yourself skinny doesn’t solve all your problems… Though jeez, for $25,000 they could’ve had a nutritionist and personal trainer for her instead o.0

  5. Olivia

    November 7, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    After reading this, I hopped right on Netflix and found the movie. I have to watch this!!!!
    They didn’t do a good job of censoring her breasts when the showed he topless.
    Just the beginning of it makes me want to lose weight even more so that I will not be a part of the two-thirds of people suffering from obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, etc. OMG It’s crazy! If we take car of ourselves, we won’t need to get our children liposuction. I don’t want this for my son!!!

  6. Natalie

    November 10, 2010 at 6:59 PM

    I couldn’t imagine letting my child if I ever had one get liposuction! I honestly think that is irresponsible parenting! In my mind they just told their daughter, your fat, that’s a problem I don’t want to really monitor what your eating or doing so I am going to get you liposuction. I find that extremely disgusting.

    Not to say that my Dads for of motivating “good health” and “appropriate weight” was any better (we don’t talk anymore)
    it went as such.
    your gaining to much weight, you shouldn’t have stretch marks, you fat, then would pinch my sister or I’s fat. he would also poke and prod at our thighs, butt, boobs, and love handles, if a “apron” was moderately there or muffin top as my sis and I call it, he would poke us and say that we needed to eat less and work out more.
    My sister and I reacted differently, my sister tried and still tries to conform to his image of beauty, or thin equaling in eating disorders and a lack of love towards herself.
    me, well being the type to rebel and go in the oppisite direction in anything he says, I ate more and more, until I weighed 150 which pissed him off beyond reason and made me happy because I pissed him off. and because I happen to covet the curvy hourglass look, and would not have my body look any other way. MY father in attempt to get me to loose weight said if I lost 40lbs he would by me a new wardrobe. NOPE.

    anyways my point is, is that there is an immense pressure on young girls and boys of all color to look a certain way, to be thin. Why is it wrong to have curves? to have a natural body.

    Have any of you seen “high glam” shots of young girls for pageants, I am a photoshop junkie and none of those a natural or look real, the images don’t even look like the young girl! what will the girl think? will she think she isn’t pretty enough and later try to Change herself to fit someone else s standard of beauty other than her own? What about super models who are photoshoped and criticized constantly about their weight because they are not the average size 2. Let me say this I don’t know a women who is a size 2.

    I am sorry if this sounds angry because this is a topic that really gets me going. it genuinely upsets me. What does all of this do to young girls self esteem?

    • Molly

      June 16, 2011 at 2:15 PM

      Your dad sounds exactly like my mom. Only I don’t have any fat siblings. It was all me. Yay….

  7. Stefanie

    September 30, 2011 at 12:22 PM

    The world we live in and the negativity placed on body image is NOT going away. That’s why I believe as parents and adult authority figures, we must instill in our children love, so that when this world hits them with its own perception of beauty, our children must know who they are and will not fall victim to pointless attempts at conforming. In order for our children to know this love of themselves, us adults have to love ourselves first. How can we love a child if we don’t love ourselves. ‘Love they neighbor as yourself’. The degree on which we love ourselves will reflect our our children.
    My mom has always encouraged me when she sees I’m on a certain path; and my dad, I believe with his own good intentions has told me that I need to lose weight. In front of my face, he has never been negative per se, but he has said ‘I see you so much smaller’ and he gives me this look as if I disgust him. Yes, it hurts, but I am going toward a healther life, not to make him feel better, but for me. I have taken my dad’s advice and used it to make me a better person. I choose not to talk with him much now because I don’t need to criticisms from him right now. I think he means well, but in order for me not to stress out, I keep my distance with him.
    As parents, we take our own self esteem issues and lay them on our children. It’s a sad cycle. Brooke’s story is one that resonates with so many people of all age and racial lines. May we change our mentalities on this ‘weight loss’ battle, one person at a time.

  8. Turtle

    November 7, 2011 at 3:30 AM

    This story is just depressing. No 12-year-old should be having weight loss surgery, for one. I don’t really have a problem with weight loss surgery, but it’s definitely not for children. For two, any board-certified plastic surgeon knows full well that lipo is not a weight loss tool! Did the parents even consider that they were sending their kid to a crappy surgeon?

    I love my mom, but even as a kid I knew she was wrong for suggesting I take diet pills to lose weight. I feel for this kid for being stuck with parents who would rather cut their kid up than consider her emotional needs.

  9. Shefali

    September 16, 2013 at 2:39 AM

    This just made me sad. Why didn’t the parents, if they really loved their daughter, exercise with her? Just go for long walks together out in nature. Or bike rides. Fun things that let them spend time together but also helped her get some exercise. Or cook and eat healthy meals together?

    I am fat and am trying to lose weight and it can be depressing at times for me because I will only lose a pound or two a week – and it seems like I am working my BUTT OFF and it’s taking FOREVER. BUT… today when I did my workout I realized – I am so much stronger than I used to be! And more flexible! And I have more energy! And my skin glows…

    So I guess what I’m learning – there is a lot more to who I am than how I look. If I am happier, healthier, thinking more clearly, etc., then all of those things are important. There’s also the spiritual component. Is this helping me be closer to God? Helping me love others? maybe the fact that I’m struggling so hard is helping me have empathy for others?

    I don’t really know but I do know this – when I was growing up my Mom always told me I was precious and beautiful. So, God bless her for that. I could not imagine EVER joking about a CHILD in the way this father did about his child.

    And, truth be told – if I had a choice between being my “ideal weight” but not being strong and healthy vs. being 10 pounds over that weight but being strong and healthy – I’d go with the second option.

    Though, seeing the pictures of you, Erika, inspires me. You are just so darn beautiful! But, you were also beautiful when you were fat.

    BTW, I am NOT black, I’m Indian American, but hope you don’t mind my checking out your site. It’s been bookmarked because you have a lot of useful information on here.

    • Erika Nicole Kendall

      September 16, 2013 at 11:28 AM

      <3

      Of course you’re welcome here. Especially with kind words like that! :)

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