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Dis-appearance and dys-appearance anew: living with excess skin and intestinal changes following weight loss surgery

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The aim of this article is to explore bodily changes following weight loss surgery. Our empirical material is based on individual interviews with 22 Norwegian women. To further analyze their experiences, we build primarily on the phenomenologist Drew Leder`s distinction between bodily dis-appearance and dys-appearance. Additionally, our analysis is inspired by Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and Julia Kristeva. Although these scholars have not directed their attention to obesity operations, they occupy a prime framework for shedding light on different dimensions of bodily change. In doing so, we were able to identify two main themes: The felt “inner” body versus the visible “surface” body and the “old” body versus the “new” body. In different, though interconnected ways, these main themes encompass tensions between changes the women experienced as contributing to a more “normal” and active life, feeling more accepted, and changes that generated ambivalence. In particular, their skin became increasingly problematic because it did not “shrink” like the rest of the body. On the contrary, it became looser and looser. Moreover, badsmelling folds of skin that wobbled, sweated and chafed at the smallest movement, aprons of fat hanging in front of their stomachs, batwing arms, thick flabby thighs and sagging breasts were described as a huge contrast to the positive response they received to their changed body shape when they were out and about with their clothes on. At the same time, they expressed ambivalence with regards to removing the excess skin by means of plastic surgery. Through their own and other women`s experiences they learned removing the excess skin by means of surgery could be a double-edged sword. By illuminating the experiences of the ones undergoing such changes our article offers new insight in a scholarly debate predominated by medical research documenting the positive outcomes of weight loss surgery.

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    (Social and Health Department of Norway 2007).

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    Similar messages can easily be found in Norwegian websites. In 2010, for example, a newly established private clinic used the picture of a naked woman to communicate to potential patients the “positive” outcomes of weight loss surgery. By undergoing surgery, women can, as explicitly stated in the text beneath the picture, lose weight on a permanent basis and thereby regain their “self-confidence” (http://www.volvat.no/Global/Pdf/Volvat_kampanje_overvektskirurgi.pdf, 13.01.10).

  3. 3.

    This is not to say that men’s experiences of bodily change following surgery are not equally significant. However, our aim with this article is to compare and contrast women’s experiences of bodily change.

  4. 4.

    Weiss distinguishes between distorted and nondistorted body images in her discussion of abjection. However, her discussion of various body images is beyond the aim and scope of our article.

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    If this meta-perspective “fails”, as is the situation for persons suffering from body dysmorphic disorder, shame risks becoming “pathological”. For these individuals shame is likely to gain a pervasive, unbalanced power, according to Fuchs (2002).


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We are grateful to our participants who willingly shared their experiences with us. We are also grateful to Professor Eivind Engebretsen, University of Oslo, for his comments on our use of Kristeva’s work in the early drafts of this article. Finally, we would like to acknowledge two anonymous reviewers for providing useful comment on our article.

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Correspondence to Karen Synne Groven.

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Groven, K.S., Råheim, M. & Engelsrud, G. Dis-appearance and dys-appearance anew: living with excess skin and intestinal changes following weight loss surgery. Med Health Care and Philos 16, 507–523 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11019-012-9397-5

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  • Dys-appearance
  • Excess skin
  • Inner body
  • Surface body
  • Phenomenology of the body
  • Weight loss surgery
  • Women