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Exorcising “phantom fat”

23rd June 2009

Exorcising “phantom fat”

posted in Personal |

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.”

Word.

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There are currently 17 responses to “Exorcising “phantom fat””

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  1. 1 On June 23rd, 2009, Rosalie said:

    Admittedly, I am currently pretty fit by society’s standards, but in my head I will forever be the “hates sports,” “picked last,” “awful at sports” girl. I think this was all because in middle school/high school, I often came in last or nearly last in the mile run test or something. Although I swam in HS, I was one of the slower girls, and year after year, never advanced to varsity. I ended up quitting my senior year because I felt ashamed of being slow.

    It does become an identity, and when our bodies change, it takes awhile — sometimes a really, really long while — for our identities to change with it. It’s too bad that people only realize that life isn’t going to all good after losing “the weight”/getting the body/making whatever physical change until they’ve done it already and found themselves still having the same issues, but I guess it’s one of those lessons you learn in retrospect…

  2. 2 On June 23rd, 2009, Cammy said:

    There is a really excellent book called “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own” that talks about how our mental image of ourself often lags far behind physical changes, whether it is weight gain, weight loss, amputation, or any other major alteration. I found a lot in it that had relevance to eating disorders, and it was definitely interesting food for thought.

  3. 3 On June 23rd, 2009, LivingTheQuestions said:

    I so appreciate what you’ve written here. There’s also this bit of a script: when a person has lost weight, he or she often says or is expected to say, “I have so much more energy!” (If I have a nickel for all the times I was asked, “And do you have much more energy?”) But even having experienced a noticeable weight loss a few years ago (from somewhere near 275 to somewhere near 220), I cannot say to what extent that early boost in energy was the result of the weight loss and to what extent it was the result of so many people giving me so much praise. (Somewhere on the Fatosphere in the last few days, someone also suggested that that boost in energy may be the body giving a self it sees as starving the energy we need to go find food…) But that external response when someone has lost weight is enormous, and powerful–for good and bad and all sorts of stuff in between, I think.

  4. 4 On June 23rd, 2009, Ruth said:

    I apologize to my body, for the crazy stuff I put it through in the past (was very bulimic, have a history of losing and gaining weight quickly and dramatically, smoked, etc., etc.), and I thank my body for being so consistently healthy and strong despite all that.

    For me personally, this is even more powerful than “Hello Gorgeous”. Sometimes, I feel gorgeous, sometimes ugly, but always grateful for my amazing body–it’s the only one I’ve got!

  5. 5 On June 23rd, 2009, Rachel_in_WY said:

    For me personally, this is even more powerful than “Hello Gorgeous”. Sometimes, I feel gorgeous, sometimes ugly, but always grateful for my amazing body–it’s the only one I’ve got!

    I couldn’t agree more. I understand the idea behind the “gorgeous” comment, but think it reinforces the women’s-bodies-are-valued-only-for-their-appearance shtick. And I think being an athlete all my life helped me weather the storms of adolescence and young-adulthood in terms of body issues, because I already viewed food as something that fueled my body rather than something dangerous and fascinating and that I ought to be disciplining my body with. Although I realize that this may not be the case for all athletic girls.

  6. 6 On June 23rd, 2009, Ruth said:

    “I understand the idea behind the “gorgeous” comment, but think it reinforces the women’s-bodies-are-valued-only-for-their-appearance shtick.”

    Too true!

    As someone who has experienced lots of self-hatred based on my perceived terrible appearance, I want to learn to truly and unconditionally love myself.

    I want to be able to look in the mirror after I’ve had a good cry, and I have slitty eyes, a runny nose and blotchy skin and say, “You look terrible, and I love you anyway!”

    For me, that’s where it’s at.

  7. 7 On June 23rd, 2009, david said:

    Thanks for the words. I’m now down over 50% of my body weight. I was a binge/emotional eater. Losing the weight may have saved my life from that threat but now I can get skinny enough. I’m down to 1200 calories a day and eating anything makes me feel fat. It’s a struggle to eat and I’m getting to love the headache’s that come from skipping meals. I’ve got people trying to help but they don’t understand what it’s like to go from what people used to think of me, and say to me, to being just a little bigger than normal. I really hate ED but just can’t seem to give it up.

  8. 8 On June 23rd, 2009, Tanz said:

    My experience was the opposite to yours. I lost my weight in high school and no-one ever mentioned it. I didn’t become popular and the boys hated me as much as before. And to top it all off I wasn’t ‘thin’ in my own eyes – even almost starving myself I could only get down to a New Zealand size 13 in jeans. My mother says I was gaunt looking at the finish but all I remember is looking in the mirror and seeing myself as fat as ever. I think the fact my world *didn’t* change is what helped me to gain again (all I lost plus *heaps and heaps* more).

  9. 9 On June 23rd, 2009, Becky said:

    Our mental image of ourself often lags far behind physical changes, whether it is weight gain, weight loss, amputation, or any other major alteration.

    That’s really interesting, and I think it’s what happened to me only with weight gain. My image of myself didn’t match what I saw in the mirror, which meant every time I looked in the mirror or saw pictures of myself it was jarring because what I saw was so much fatter than what I imagined in my head. Now that I seem to be at a stable weight, my self image and actual appearance are starting to match up, and I am amazed at how much easier it has made self acceptance.

  10. 10 On June 23rd, 2009, Rachel2 said:

    Body image. Oooh. Right.

    This one has always been a prickly and hairy issue for me. I’ve been through both sides of it, but have spent the majority of the time cursing myself for being so fat, ugly, and downright hideous. It’s quite the process to change one’s own self-image, and I imagine that it will take many years before I can comfortably look in the mirror.

    Sometimes I think that: “Hey, I don’t look so bad!” but then the next moment it’s: “Hey, though, I’m all pudgy here, here, and here. Hideous.” My perceived self-image is the least of my problems, however. I’ve found that there’s a root to all of this, and now that I’m dealing with it, the negative self-image thing is starting to subside~if only a wee bit at a time.

    A few important things that I am TRYING to keep in mind:

    #1~now that I’m off of the hormonal birth control, I can really observe and appreciate the differences in my body in various parts of my cycle. I might be a special case because this PMDD thing makes me hyper-sensitive to [insert anything here] during certain parts of my cycle. This is something that the birth control spared me. Now that I am thinking about and attempting to breed, however, I went off of the BC, and I can see the dramatic differences that occur in my body in a 4 week period (ha ha, I thought of that one myself!) {And yes, I know. Breed?! Me?! WHAT?!!?!?!!! Mmmkay, time to find the pill to quell maternal instinct and desire.}

    #2~Be nice to myself. I have to sometimes sit myself down and force myself to be nice to myself. Yes, I’m very critical, but that spawns from a lot of personal, cultural, and societal issues that all merge together to from The Perfect Storm (of Misery), and it’s very easy to get sucked into a hole if caught unaware. It’s OKAY to have the ice cream cone, dammit!!

    #3~It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to deal with those issues that are causing these bad thought processes. I’ll be better for it in the long run. As long as I QUIT running away from the issues!!!

    #4~I’ve got a new focus in mind. A new mission. That Mission: Mental WELLness and Recovery. This is all part of it.

    And y’know what? It’s getting better. Slowly, but surely.

  11. 11 On June 24th, 2009, Rachel said:

    @David: I hope you are able to seek out professional help to help you in overcoming these feelings or at least to learn to manage them better. There was a time in therapy when I told my therapist that I would kill myself if I ever got up to XX pounds again and at the time, I think I truly meant it. I’m now at that weight again and it really isn’t the end of the world I thought it to be at that time.

    @all: I’ve come a long way self-esteem wise, but sure, I still look at myself sometimes and think of how fat I’ve gotten. The loose skin on my abdomen especially bothers me even though only myself and my husband see it. Whenever I have “fat thoughts,” I tell myself this: When I first began dieting, my “goal” size was a US size 16. It was only then when I got to a 16 that I couldn’t stop and kept going and going until I landed into a size 4. So now I just tell myself when I’m feeling down, “Hey, wait — you’re in your goal size, remember?” I also try to concentrate on those features I like about myself, such as my fabulous hair and my cool retro glasses. It isn’t a cure-all, but it helps. Plus, I find that as I get older, the self-esteem thing gets easier.

  12. 12 On June 24th, 2009, Blimp said:

    To all the weight-watchers posting here:

    Remember the poem by John Keats,
    “Ode to a Grecian Urn”:

    Beauty is truth, truth beauty
    That is all you know, and all you need to know.

    So, if you would be beautiful, be a bright light of science and of history. Reveal the truth unto the public. And eat whatever helps you increase your intellectual rigor, the key component of which is irony.

  13. 13 On June 24th, 2009, Rachel2 said:

    @Blimp: Nicely said.

    @Rachel: Also nicely put.

  14. 14 On June 25th, 2009, Jackie said:

    “Admittedly, I am currently pretty fit by society’s standards, but in my head I will forever be the “hates sports,” “picked last,” “awful at sports” girl. I think this was all because in middle school/high school, I often came in last or nearly last in the mile run test or something.” – Rosealie

    I had the same problem with that stupid mile run test myself. Did the gym teacher make everyone wait after class for you, when the run was over, to ensure the entire class would hate you for making them late to the next class? My gym teacher did that, I think it’s cruel. The person who’s last learns nothing from it. All I learned was to make myself emotionally numb, to cope. Oh and my gym teacher gave me this, “It was okay to walk” BS, but obviously I couldn’t do that with the being last punishment now could I?

    They need to take the competition out of Phys Ed, and just make it about exercise. Like Gymboree, most everyone liked Gymboree, cause it was about doing things as a group, not always being against each other.*

    *The only reason I even remembered Gymboree, is cause it was referenced in Family Guy, where Stewie complains to Brian that he’s going to be late for parachute day at Gymboree.

  15. 15 On June 26th, 2009, melponeme_k said:

    Wonderful Post.

    I lost about 30 pounds due to stomach digestion problems. It occurred over the course of about 3 to 5 months. But it felt like an overnight change. Before the problem started I had just learned to accept myself at my larger size. I went from being healthy, strong and solid to being gaunt and weak.

    It was upsetting to look into the mirror and not see the person I knew. Even now, a year later, I have mixed feelings about it. The worst was that when the weight loss happened, people would compliment me on my success and ask me for tips. It is strange to walk into a store and know that everything will fit me. When that wasn’t the case before.

    I guess the kicker is, is that I had no control over this weight loss anymore than I had gaining it (when I wasn’t rebounding from a diet). But I now do firmly believe that fat, far from being unwanted inert matter, is vital to our health. It is a last resort sustenance when the body is in distress. I’m glad I had extra to lose, because if I didn’t, I would have certainly been in a bad way.

  16. 16 On June 26th, 2009, Becca said:

    A friend of mine emailed me the “Phantom fat” article yesterday. Beginning in 2005, I lost 150 lbs on weight watchers in 1 year, 8 months and in the process, developed an ED. It has been a long road to recovery. At one point I kept hearing myself say “I’d rather be dead than fat again!” Really? When my body is just one simple part of my total being?

    I started focusing on intuitive eating (eat when hungry, stop when full, eat what sounds good and not what I ‘should’ eat)and my eating normalized but 1/2 of the weight came back on. I’m healthier than I have ever been in my life (eating well and keeping active), but I still think I look like I did when I first stepped on the scale at 315 lbs. This article is so validating to me. It helps me look at my ED from a biological perspective and not just the psychological, OCD side of it. I can look in the mirror one minute and think “I’m ok, I look good” and within minutes look again and think “I’m so fat, I can’t stand it.” I’ve come to learn and truly believe that when my head is in that place, it is a distorted image and not reality.

  17. 17 On September 18th, 2009, samantha said:

    I joined a gym and got a personal trainer at the begining of april and weighed 234lbs. It’s now the middle of septemeber (5 1/2 months) and I weigh 162lbs. It’s hard cause I KNOW I look better than before, but better is still not perfect, not skinny. I keep making smaller and smaller goals for myself. At 180 I thought I’d be allot tiner than I was, then when I got there I decided at 160 I’d be small enough, now @ 162 I’m aiming for at least 155 cause that’s what’s “healthy for my height’ but I really want to end anywhere from 130 to 115… I really want to be a waif.

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