book reviews

Repost: my review of Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed with My Head by Jen Larsen

Here’s a repost of a book review I wrote for Epinions in 2013. I am reposting it here as/is.

I am fat.  While I wasn’t really fat as a kid, I’ve always been huskier than a lot of my peers.  I came out of the womb weighing close to ten pounds, and my mom told me I looked like I could walk out of the hospital by myself.  I wondered how my friends stayed skinny and I seemed to gain weight at the drop of a hat.  As a teenager, I fretted about my weight constantly and dieted a lot; though looking back, I wasn’t really fat then, probably because I was very active.  As I got older and learned how to drive, I got bigger.  It did a real number on my self-esteem and was both a symptom and a cause of the major depression I suffered in my mid 20s.  While I don’t generally seek out books written by people who want to write about being heavy, I did run across a very interesting article about Jen Larsen, author of Stranger Here: How Weight-Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed with My Head (2013).  I remember clicking the Amazon link on that article, curious about the book and Jen’s transformation. 

I actually know several people who have had weight loss surgery and most of them have experienced dramatic results, though not without hardship.  It’s definitely not an easy way to shed pounds; at least not at first.  When Larsen decided to go for the surgery, she had just finished a MFA in writing and worked in a university library.  She dreamt of being a writer and obviously had the goods to make it happen. Unfortunately, she felt that being so heavy was weighing her down in more ways than one. So she decided to turn to surgical means to help her slim down and finally embark upon her career dreams.

Jen Larsen had a procedure called the duodenal switch.  She found out about it on a Web site that had lots of dramatic before and after pictures.  As she looked at those photographs on the Web, Larsen weighed in at over 300 pounds.  She had trouble showering.  She had trouble walking and breathing.  Her weight was affecting her mind and her body.  She had trouble finding clothes that fit her.  Even though she was enormous, she was invisible to other people, who treated her like being fat was contagious.  Her boyfriend, Andy, seemed to be more like a platonic drinking and smoking buddy than a lover.  Sex had become a distant memory.

Larsen explains briefly the struggle she endured to get insurance approval to have the surgery.  She also writes about the preparation she had to do before the operation, which ultimately took about five hours.  With Andy’s help, she recovered from the surgery, which reduced the size of her stomach to the size of an egg.  She endured drinking gritty protein shakes and watched some of her hair fall out from the struggle to get enough protein every day.  She lost scads of weight… over 180 pounds.  She also became a very different person.

My thoughts  

I breezed through about half of this book in the first sitting.  Jen Larsen has a very entertaining and engaging writing style.  She writes her story as if she’s a very observant friend, bringing up thoughts that occurred to her throughout this journey.  I must admit, as I read about her feelings about being obese, I realized they were remarkably similar to my own.  I am nowhere near weighing 318 pounds, but I have certainly experienced some of the attitudes Larsen did when she was very heavy.  People can be unkind. 

Larsen is very candid about some of her habits, which makes it somewhat easy to understand how she got to be so large.  For one thing, she drinks…  a lot.  She continues to drink to excess and smoke even after the surgery.  She also doesn’t seem to alter her eating habits much, though she eats much less than she did when she was very heavy.  As she loses weight, she finds herself becoming more self-centered.  She becomes less interested in settling, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  But she started noticing other people’s attitudes about food and eating, too.  She comes to some interesting conclusions about why people are the way they are when it comes to body image, their own and other people’s.

I was somewhat puzzled by Larsen’s feelings about her transformation.  She writes that she doesn’t regret having the surgery.  Indeed, at the end of the book, she supplies her own before and after photos which are very dramatic.  Yet she doesn’t seem to recommend having surgery to lose weight.  At the end of the book, she includes the addresses of many Web sites, many of which promote fat acceptance.  

Larsen concludes that it’s much easier to be skinny than fat, even though she cried when she lost her magnificent boobs along with all the weight.  And yet, she also seems to think that having your “guts rearranged” is extreme.  Ultimately, I sense that Larsen has mixed feelings about what she did to lose the weight and the end results of her actions. 

Some readers have observed that Larsen doesn’t really follow “the rules”.  She doesn’t seem to follow up with doctors or stick to a diet.  I think, in her case, while she was pretty healthy as a very obese woman (in terms of her cholesterol and sugar readings), she didn’t have the surgery to improve her health; she did it to look better.  That’s not an unreasonable thing, I guess.  A person’s mental health and self-esteem are important, too.  But Larsen comes off as being still raw from her experience, maybe to the point of not being all that likable to some readers.  On the other hand, if I met her, I’d probably think she was a hoot. 

Frankly, though I have often fantasized about losing lots of weight and becoming really skinny, I’m not at a point at which I would consider bariatric surgery.  For one thing, I hate going to doctors. For another, the idea of having surgery petrifies me.  I hate throwing up and having bowel issues.  I no longer have the need to attract men, since I have a wonderful husband who loves me for who I am.  And so far, I don’t seem to have any health problems.  Of course, I don’t go to doctors, so what do I know?


I thought Stranger Here was a good book.  So many people are dealing with weight issues and this is a pretty good account of what it’s like to go from being very large to being very small.  As Larsen points out, that much weight loss so quickly does do a number on your head.  When you lose the weight, your problems don’t go away.  But you can’t blame them on being fat anymore.  This book is a good reminder that there’s no such thing as a magic bullet for fixing your life.

Jen Larsen’s blog (which appears to be defunct).

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