A man I don’t know said hello to me today. We passed in a doorway—him on the way out, me on the way in. And it wasn’t just your garden variety “hi,” either. He caught my eye and actually said “Hi, good morning,” with a warm smile. It was sweet. And very unexpected. Because, you see, I’m not that girl; the one that guys notice, let alone greet. At least, I haven’t been for many years. So many, in fact that, for a split second, I thought he must be speaking to someone behind me. But a quick glance around told me that I was, indeed, the intended recipient of his greeting.

Eight months ago, it’s entirely possible that Mr. Random McGuy would’ve walked right past me—maybe holding the door, maybe letting it swing shut on me before I was over the threshold. Because eight months ago, I was a totally different person. Quite literally. Let me explain…

It was during the summer of 2016 that one of my doctors told me about this new procedure—a weight loss surgery with a very high success rate. He claimed it could be a “game changer” for me. Now, under most circumstances, I probably would have nodded politely, gone on my way and never given the suggestion another thought. But my conversation with this doctor brought to mind one I’d had with another doctor a couple of years earlier. That doctor was my oncologist and he raised some very serious concerns about my weight after I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“As long as you’re this overweight,” he explained, “you’re literally doubling your risk of a recurrence.”

Yikes. Doubling.

As in: the cancer is twice as likely to come back.

As in: the next time there won’t be radiation and a lumpectomy, next time you’ll need a mastectomy and chemo.

Suddenly, weight loss surgery was looking more and more like a viable option for my long-term health, rather than a chance to look good in skinny jeans. Like many people, I once considered this kind of procedure drastic and extreme. Like many people, I figured I could lose the weight on my own. All I had to do was exercise more and eat less. Right? Wrong. That never worked for me, and it was never going to. And suddenly there was a whole lot on the line. Like my life. So I spent months attending support groups, talking to people who’d had the surgery. I met with a nutritionist and a therapist and got my head in the right space to do this. No way was I going to have 80% of my stomach removed and then gain the weight back because I hadn’t fully kicked the sugar and the carbs.

In the end, I opted to tell only a handful of people about my intentions before I had the surgery because I didn’t want to deal with well-meaning friends and family offering suggestions for alternative diets … and hundreds of reasons why this was a terrible idea. That was back in June. Now, here I am, eight months out now and nearly 80 pounds down. And since the surgery is safely behind me, I’m very open about my experience. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t the toughest thing I’ve ever dealt with, either. And I can honestly say that it was the right decision for me. I’m in the best shape of my life—looking better than I did when I was a coed more than twenty-five years ago. I can wear the cute clothes, climb the steps in the subway without stopping and I go hours and hours without even thinking about food. And I can sleep at night knowing I’m not doing anything that could invite the insidious beast of cancer back into my body.

But back to my encounter this morning…

I can’t even blame other people for “fat shaming” or discriminating because, as my brilliant Grandma Rodriguez says: “People do to you what you let them do to you.” So the low self-esteem, the feelings of unworthiness and the perception of myself as ugly and disgraceful aren’t on anyone but myself. And here I am, feeling all out of sorts weird because a man I don’t know noticed the fact that I’m alive. Suddenly I’m wondering: Can everyone see me? Or is it just him? Do I look ridiculous in these jeans? Was the lipstick a stretch? Does he know? Can he tell that, underneath the new clothes and hair I’m a former fat girl?

My new reality these days is a constant battle between the “me” that I see in the mirror … and the one I picture in my head. I’m not that fat girl anymore. I don’t have to sneak around at Kohl’s, looking over my shoulder as if I’m going to get busted for leaving the Women’s area and straying into the land of the slender Misses. There’s also still this nagging, niggling feeling in the back of my mind that I’m a fat girl in skinny girl’s clothing … that, any day now, someone is going to see me for the fraud that I am. But, again, that’s all on me. Hopefully it’s just a matter of time before my insides and my outsides match.

So, to you, Mr. Random McGuy, I say thanks for calling me out as I skulk around in the shadows. Thanks for seeing me—and making me see myself. Thanks for reminding me that I’m someone worth looking at—no matter what I look like.

Have you fallen into this trap, too—letting appearance impact your perception of yourself…or others? Has that changed over time and with age and experience? What, if anything, do you wish you knew “then” that you know “now”?

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