Accepting the New You: Overcoming Body Image Distortion

Community // 12WBT Staff

Have you lost a lot of weight yet still ‘feel fat’ or think you look overweight? The truth is, your brain takes time to adjust, and body image distortion after weight loss is a common side-effect for a lot of people. It doesn’t mean that it is something than can’t be overcome.

Over the past seven years, 12WBTer and mum of three, Louise has worked hard to lose a huge 35 kilos. Louise admits that long term weight loss was very much a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ process for her. But, reaching her goal also culminated in fulfilling a lifelong dream: to run 10 kilometres! “Wearing a size 12 when I used to wear a 22 isn’t so bad either,” Louise laughs.

However, Louise is also experiencing and unexpected down side to her weight loss – a bad case of double vision about how far she’s come and how much her body has changed. “I’m still trying to get my head around the changes; I’m still surprised when I see photos of myself.”

This manifests in other ways too.

“I’ll be at a BBQ and find myself making a fat joke because I used to be the fat person – only to realise I’m being offensive to half the people around me because I no longer look like a person who has the right to make that kind of joke,” says Louise.

“Or, I’ll walk into a shop and not even contemplate trying things on, or head straight for the large or extra-large rack without realising I probably need a medium. It’s a constant re-evaluation of my reality, and while I know logically that I’m skinny for a fat girl, and I’m looking absolutely fantastic for someone who used to be 35kg heavier, I’m still not where I want to be.”

Seeing Double

This ‘double vision’ is a good way of describing body image distortion, says Professor Phillipa Hay, from the Mental Health School of Medicine and Centre for Health Research at the University of Western Sydney. Professor Hay is also the co-editor in chief of the Journal of Eating Disorders.

“Often the rapidity of weight loss can play a part in it occurring – your brain and your neurons are catching up to your new persona, and not as quickly as your body is changing. But, I think it’s common for many people who’ve lost a lot of weight to struggle with it. Small children can readily accept changes in their bodies – say, if they suffer severe burns – because they’re in the process of laying down those images and views of themselves. But when you’re an adult your view of yourself is very much ingrained, and it can be difficult to reconcile changes with who you are as a person, because the person you think you are is very much also tied in to the body that you have,” she explains.“It can be a distressing and confusing experience for people.”

Weight loss in itself is a major life change, much like getting married or migrating to another country, and we need time to adjust, she adds. “We did a small study on people after bariatric surgery and many said they just weren’t prepared for the stress of the life adjustment after the weight loss. While for many people losing weight is a positive thing, you still have to integrate the changes in your own body image and your perception of self on all levels.”

What Role Do Other People Play In Your Body Image Distortion?

It may also come as a shock to find out how other people relate to you after you lose weight. “When people are heavy there’s a stigma, and a difference in interpersonal encounters,” says Professor Hay, “which is quite different to the way people relate to you when you’re thin. So that can be a major psychological adjustment too.”

Louise agrees, and says she’s been quite surprised at the number of people who’ve noticed her weight loss and told her not to lose any more weight.

“Those kinds of comments feed into what’s happening for me internally,” she adds. “My goal now though is to get into the middle of my healthy weight range – I’m at the top end of it right now. Just the idea of hitting a healthy weight range was the ultimate for me, I though I’d never get there. I’m also conscious that some people are never happy no matter where they get to and that’s a risk. So it’s absolutely about fixing how you feel about yourself as well as your body – actively working on that.”

Beating Negative Thoughts

Positive self talk is a biggie; it’ll help your mind adjust to your new physical reality. Doing things you couldn’t before is also key. “Get to know your new body, buy clothes, do a dance class or something that was really difficult for you before,” suggests Professor Hay. “All those things can help you adjust.”

Louise’s strategy is to give herself time, and learn to appreciate what her body can now do as opposed to how it looks.

“Looking good is great of course, but for me it’s about feeling better” she says. “The other day, a friend said to me, ‘I’m struggling to walk up the stairs. I’m puffing’ and I realised, yeah. I remember those days. So, what’s worked for me is gaining a sense of belief and confidence in my body. I mean, I can run 10km! That’s a huge achievement. I’m strong, I’m fit, and I’m healthy… It’s a different way of appreciating yourself.”

Having a healthy mindset is key to achieving a healthy lifestyle, 12WBT gives you the skills to gain confidence and achieve your best body for life. Register your interest today.