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My Life as a Thin Person

People like Lisa Marie Sohr, who lose 100 pounds or more with stomach surgery, find that with their new bodies often come new friends, new spouses, new lives. But happiness is not a foregone conclusion.


Photo Caption: Lisa Marie Sohr After (Photo Credit: Danielle Levitt)

To see her now—hips framed by low-slung pants, navel shot through with a $500 belly ring—it strains the imagination to envision Lisa Marie Sohr, a resplendent Long Island hottie, as an obese woman. She moves with the insouciance of someone who has always been 120 pounds, except when she stands up, when she looks a bit as if she’s been fired from a slingshot. (“It’s like, whoa—I’m used to going for the big lunge.”) Yet Sohr can recall the day her weight became not just an unsupportable physical millstone but a metaphysical one: It was her 33rd birthday. The New York City Police Department had just forced her into early retirement. And, at five foot four and 236 pounds, she had recently taken to climbing the stairs of her Baldwin home on her hands and knees.

In July 2002, Sohr threw herself a combination housewarming-birthday- retirement party. A week later, she went to Long Island Bariatric Center. And on August 7, in a five-and-a-half-hour laparoscopic procedure, a surgeon removed her gallbladder and cinched a gastric band around her stomach, making it very difficult for her to eat large portions of food at a time. Within a year, Sohr lost almost half her body weight, the equivalent of an entire person.

Sohr says she didn’t have outsize expectations of her surgery. But she says she did expect her husband, an auto mechanic in Glen Cove, to show a renewed sexual interest in her and was disappointed when he didn’t. She also noticed that a lot of the female company she’d kept, many of them women who’d struggled with their weight their entire lives, suddenly made themselves scarce. So she found herself a newer, younger, mostly male crowd. She started going out. She started acting out. She went to the local bar and played darts until seven in the morning. If she came home earlier, she’d sit in the car and wait until she saw her husband leaving for the garage, just to cross his path. It didn’t have the desired consequence. In September 2003, he asked her for a divorce.

“My ex was your typical awkward-rocker guy,” she says today, sitting on the sofa of her Tudor home, a cigarette dangling from her hand. “Long hair, ripped blue jeans, T-shirts with dragons on them, glasses. Very geeky, played Dungeons & Dragons on his computer. But when I was heavy, I thought he was all I was ever going to get, and my mother convinced me I wasn’t getting any younger—that if we didn’t marry, I’d be fat and alone and miserable. But there was no spark. All the way up the aisle, I was saying to myself, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing? Oh, my God, what am I doing? I can’t even run, because my dress will get stuck on a nail.’ ”

Back then, Sohr needed a five-pound steel-boned corset to cinch her 39-inch waist into her custom-made gown. That wasn’t the case this past month, when she remarried, rising up through the floor of the Chateau Briand wedding hall in an Ian Stuart size 6 (“which is like a size 4 in human terms”). Her new husband, a 32-year-old Israeli hunk named Bari, was her own version of Florence Nightingale: He sold her her first bikini in ten years.

Lisa Marie Sohr Before  

“My ex,” she continues, “is a self-conscious girl’s guy.” She points to Bari, whose long curls are gelled back into a perfect seashell. “This is a wild woman’s guy. Before, I was, like, on pause. And when you’re on pause, you’re willing to tolerate a lot. But when you’re not, you grow out of people.”

Sohr’s ex-husband, Paul Ruppert, doesn’t necessarily take issue with this interpretation, but frames it differently. He sees a woman who, after reacquiring the body of her late adolescence, started to relive it. “She lost a whole person,” he says, “and became someone different.”

It’s hard to think of anyone in American life who gets the freak sociological privilege of abrupt, overwhelming wish fulfillment. There are the impoverished kids who sign NBA contracts, perhaps, or cafeteria workers who win the lottery; on television, there are the lucky contestants who are selected for extreme-makeover shows.

Yet for the morbidly obese, the possibility of rapid and radical change, of a near-existential reorganization of life, is becoming increasingly common: Last year, the number of patients who underwent weight-loss procedures was an estimated 140,600, according to the American Society for Bariatric Surgery, more than double that of 2002.

Most people who undergo this procedure are not doing it to look pretty. They’re doing it to not die young, to save their knees, to be able to walk to and from the grocery store without gasping for breath. Yet the procedure often has striking aesthetic consequences, making conventional beauties of people whose self-images were previously organized, at least in part, around the very principle of invisibility or unsightliness. For them, losing weight turns out to be the least of their transformations. They don’t just have new bodies; they have new narratives, new public identities. “Many patients greatly underestimate just how significant the psychological transformation is,” says Warren Huberman, a clinical psychologist who evaluates prospective bariatric patients at NYU Medical Center. “I ask what they anticipate—and what changes they think will be unpleasant. They look at me like I’ve got three heads. They can’t imagine anything will go badly if they’re thin.”

In the annals of obesity literature, this is not a topic that’s received a ton of attention. But attend any bariatric support-group meeting, and this much is clear: One has to learn to be skinny. Even the smallest adaptive behaviors take years to shake—buying clothes too big, deeming a subway seat too small, refusing to be first through a crowded bar. “I had a man come to me a month ago,” says Christine Ren, a bariatric surgeon at NYU. “He’d started out at 525 pounds. Now he’s 250. And he says, ‘Doc, I don’t know what to tell people. Am I man who lost 275 pounds? Or who needs to lose another 60?’ ”

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