Have you lost a lot of weight yet still ‘feel fat’ or think you look overweight? Perhaps you’ve absent-mindedly picked up your old size when trying on clothes.
This disconnect between reality and how you perceive your body is what we refer to as body image distortion.
Why it happens
Professor Phillipa Hay from the Mental Health School of Medicine and Centre for Health Research at the University of Western Sydney says it’s down to how ingrained this perception of ourselves is.
“It’s common for many people who’ve lost a lot of weight to struggle with it. 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.”
How other people contribute
It may come as a shock to find other people treat you differently after losing 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.”
So if you are going through a weight loss journey, it pays to be mindful of the reactions from friends and family. Don’t succumb to criticisms or sabotage, even from those you once thought were well-meaning.
How to overcome it
While giving yourself time to adjust to a new body is important, combating negative talk with positive is crucial.
“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.”