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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Life as a skinny girl

Originally published April 29, 2006, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

As a rule, I don’t leave Tracy much. I grew up in a small community, and the mall is enough to keep me in town on weekends. Having a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods would almost guarantee I’d never leave, but such decisions are not for me to make.

Because I stick close to home, I don’t meet many people who don’t already know about me, either through this column or mutual friends. At the least, strangers know I’ve lost a significant amount of weight; at the most, they know I’ve had gastric-bypass surgery.

My recent trip to Virginia was the first time I was able to interact with people who had no clue of my history. It was a trip, in more ways than one.

My cousin (pictured above with me), who has been my biggest fan my whole life, treated me as she always has. She just kept pointing out all the things we were doing that we never would have done before, like trekking for miles around Washington, D.C., in the pouring rain without having to stop for me to catch my breath.

For her, my visit was profound because the rest of the world could see me for the person she had always seen hidden within a fortress of fat. She commented on my emerging confidence, my posture, my openness. And we spent a lot of time discussing my interactions with others.

Despite losing 175 pounds, I still have the emotional core of someone who is morbidly obese. I’ve always identified myself as a “big girl” with all the positives and negatives that accompany that label. It took 48 hours for me on this trip to realize how my perception of myself is quite different from that of others.

What was my first clue? Somebody made fun of fat people in front of me. Yup. You read that right; somebody actually made a rude comment about overweight people in my presence. I was so shocked that I couldn’t even speak.

At first, I got hot in face with embarrassment and rage. How dare somebody say such a thing to me and laugh? Did they have any idea who they were dealing with? And then the truth hit me like a ton of bricks: No, they didn’t. I looked down at myself and the people who had joined us for lunch and realized no one had any reason to see me as being different. Size-wise, I was average. There were a couple of people a little bigger than me, a couple of people about the same size as me and a couple smaller than me.

Looking at me, they couldn’t tell I used to be morbidly obese. They had no idea how offensive such a comment was to me. And, I’m ashamed to admit, I had no idea how to bring it up. I thought about a simple, “Uhh … that’s not cool,” comment, but what if the response was, “Why do you care? You’re not fat”? Should I say, “Yeah, well, I used to be, and comments like that still offend me”? Maybe, but I didn’t think I needed to be that blunt. The fact is that my past wasn’t their business. In hindsight, an appropriate response to such a challenge could have been, “Yeah, well I’m not black either, but racist jokes still offend me.”

I tried to shrug off the comment. It was a five-word sentence at most. And it was more a thoughtless comment than an outright insult. Thinking back, the rudeness was more inferred than implied. A woman made a comment about “fat chicks” being attracted to her husband and made an “uggh” sound to show her displeasure. But the fact is that if I had sat at that table a year ago, she never would have uttered the sentence.

The worst of it is that I’ve spent more time thinking about the comment than anybody else, particularly the speaker. Did I let it ruin my good time? No. But I did let it make me feel bad about myself. And I did because I have a secret fear. I am afraid that I will get so caught up in the new me and the positive attention this new body brings that I’ll forget who I used to be.

Those who have read my column from its inception know that I did not have gastric-bypass because I wanted to be thin. There were health problems that required drastic weight loss; if I thought there was another solution to those problems, I might have chosen a different path. Spending two decades dealing with morbid obesity shaped my character. As much as I cringe when I think of all the teasing and discrimination I suffered back then, those experiences are what led me to become the compassionate person I am today. For the most part, I like her. Sure, I’d like her to be a little more confident, maybe show a little more backbone at times, but she’s an all-around great person — imperfections and all.

I don’t ever want to lose my connection to my past, and my inability to speak on my own behalf at lunch that day made me feel it was slipping away.

In truth, I never would have been successful at losing weight over the last year if I had not changed. But it’s important to me that the “new Tonya” is a combination of the best parts of super-size Tonya and normal-size Tonya. I like to call it the “new normal,” in a whole new world.

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