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Friday, April 08, 2005

Who is the stranger in the mirror?

The massive weight loss achieved by patients affects the most profound physical and emotional transformation a morbidly obese person will ever experience.

The change is so rapid and so dramatic many patients report mid-way through the phase of rapid weight loss that they do not recognize the person looking back from the mirror. Prior to surgery when I first heard about this phenomena I thought people were being overly dramatic: how could you not know your own reflection and how could you so easily lose the person that you are? It didn’t seem possible.

But it is possible and it does happen. I had never seen my cheekbones, then suddenly, there they were in the mirror. My squinty puffy eyes suddenly became round and wide open. I had a collar bone. I looked pretty – surely this wasn’t the Little Fat Girl looking back at me? More than once I was startled when I’d catch a glimpse of this stranger reflected in shop windows or a random mirror. And others confirmed my suspicion – I was no longer me. People I’d known for years didn’t recognize me. It should have been rewarding, but I became tired of hearing, “I would have never known you if you hadn’t said something – you aren’t even the same person.” I’m sure they meant it as a compliment, but the words I heard in my head were “you were defined by your fat and now your fat is gone and I don’t know who you are.” They didn’t recognize this person and neither did I.

For many, this is the most unsettling period of the weight loss experience. We are torn between who we were and who we are becoming. In the early stages many of us will say I don’t want weight loss surgery to change me. But weight loss surgery does change us. It changes us profoundly. We are treated differently by others, and we treat others differently. We treat ourselves differently. We want to think we are above the superficial, that our body packaging doesn’t matter, but it does.

When I was morbidly obese I was a loud talker and a repeater. I wanted so badly to be acknowledged so I talked louder and repeated myself until someone responded. This I did at work, in business transactions, in interpersonal relationships. I just wanted somebody to validate the Little Fat Girl. After losing weight I found people more attentive to my softer spoken words. Merchants were more likely to help me with store purchases and answer my product questions. At work I was asked for my opinion; I did not have to speak loudly to force my peers to listen. People seemed attracted to me, they wanted to be with me.

If I’m honest with myself, I did not like the person I used to be – the body or the spirit. I was loud, pushy and defensive. While before surgery it was impossible for me to comprehend the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual changes that were to come, there is no doubt that I did view surgery as an opportunity for change, a rebirth if you will. Clearly, I wanted to change physically: to become healthy, fit and attractive. But I also wanted to become someone I liked, someone I wanted to be with.

As I became this person whose company I enjoy I did lose much of the old person, the pushy loud fat lady. It wasn’t a bad loss or one that I mourned, in fact, I don’t recall a defining moment when I became the “new me.” But I do know that in time, the stranger was no longer in the mirror – that person was my friend – someone I liked and I treated her well. The stranger was in old photographs and fleeting memories I did not often recall. One day, looking at our wedding pictures I wondered who that stranger was marrying my husband – could that have been me? I turned the pictures face down on the dresser, I wanted new pictures there instead that portrayed who I’d become.

It isn’t wrong to like the person we become as the result of this profound transformation. It means we are shedding the self-loathing, the poor health, the sadness that dominated our obese life. We won’t forget our former selves, we just won’t stay the same. The great philosophers have said we are the sum of our experience – that everything we have been is who we are now. If this is true, then I was using my collective experience as a fat person to make friends with a thin stranger.

I don’t think I wholly gave up my former self, I recognize much of her in the new me. New me still has strong opinions, but a different way of delivering them. New me still likes to bake bread, she just doesn’t eat it. New me still loves playing ball with the dogs, reading magazines and gardening. New me is still deeply compassionate toward the obese and sheds tears when she sees young girls suffering through adolescence as they battle their own Little Fat Girls. New me is the sum of my experience: and I like her. Isn’t that the most amazing gift this weight loss surgery can give a person?

Are you making friends with the new you?


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