When Megan Northrup wrote about her struggles with identity following a significant weight-loss, some people didn’t really understand her crisis in self, but I did. My sister often remarked during and after my own transformation that it was like I had become a new person. I did change in many ways, some for the better and some for the worse, but the one thing that remained constant was the way I saw myself as the same 300-pound ugly fat girl. Body dysmorphia disorder often goes hand-in-hand with eating disorders, but it exists even amongst non-eating disordered people, especially those who have lost significant amounts of weight. An MSNBC story today coins the term “phantom fat” to explain the phenomenon:
While many people are thrilled when they lose excess weight, not everyone is as happy as they expected to be — or as society assumes they surely must be. Body-image experts say it’s not uncommon for people, especially women, who have lost a lot of weight to be disappointed to some extent to discover that they still aren’t “perfect.” The excess fat is gone when they reach their goal weight, but they may have sagging skin, cellulite or a body shape that they still deem undesirable.
The story mentions an interesting study conducted by Joshua Hrabosky, a psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital, and published in the journal Body Image Hrabosky questioned 165 women who were grouped in three categories: those who were currently overweight, formerly overweight (and at an average weight for at least two years) and never overweight. Both the formerly overweight women and currently overweight women were more preoccupied with weight and had greater “dysfunctional appearance investment” — telling themselves, for instance, that “I should do whatever I can to always look my best” and “What I look like is an important part of who I am” — than women who were never overweight.
The article goes on to discuss how much of a cognitive shift drastic changes in body shape are for women and the psychological reasons for them, but it curiously omits any mention of external forces that can prove just as jarring. I lost 60 percent of my body weight in one year and for me, it wasn’t just the abrupt change in how I looked that proved difficult to reconcile, but also the ways in which I was treated by society. Servers and sales clerks were more helpful and looked me in the eye. Strangers stopped verbally harassing me on the street and instead, approached me with compliments. I was treated more like a professional at work and accorded more academic respect from professors and classmates. I could go to a store and actually find clothes in my size. People wanted to get to know me, wanted to be my friend. Early in my eating disorder I used to revel in telling people how much I used to weigh; their shocked expressions and congratulatory remarks helped reassure me that the self-castigation was all somehow worth the pain, sacrifice and damage I was inflicting on my body and mind (it wasn’t). It felt nice at first to be treated with respect and dignity, but then I began to get angry at the hypocrisy of it all and I am angry still.
But there’s hope for all those who think they’re fat and ugly and they don’t have to shed a pound to achieve it.
“You have to look at retraining your brain and understanding that you have been reinforcing this negative image for probably a long time,” says Adrienne Ressler, a body-image specialist and national training director for the Renfrew Center Foundation, which has several eating disorder-treatment facilities around the country.
“We need to learn to appreciate our bodies,” she says. “If we could all look in the mirror and say, ‘Hello, Gorgeous!’ I just think the world would be a better place for women.”