Phantom fat
Photo Illustration: Eddie Guy
You can lose all the weight you like, but until your self-image catches up with your new, thinner body, you're in danger of gaining it right back. O reports on the phenomenon of phantom fat.
Sandra Blakeslee reentered her body one afternoon about 15 years ago. As a young woman in her early 20s, she had gotten heavy and, like many who struggle with weight, thought of her body with loathing and shame. This persisted even after she discovered exercise in her 30s, became slim and fit, and managed to maintain her weight loss. Intellectually, she knew she was in shape; emotionally, she still believed she was plus-sized. "I felt there was an iron plate between my head and my body," she says of those years. Then, when she was 50, she was taking a long, solo bike ride into the wilderness of New Mexico, and as she ascended a trail everything shifted. "Suddenly, it was like I was hit by lightning. My body completely changed." She had an image of herself as a beautiful 16-year-old girl—the girl she had once been and long ago left behind. "I started to cry," she recalls. "It was a sense, all of a sudden, that I was in a body I didn't hate."

What had happened to Blakeslee, a science writer who is now 64, was that her image of her body and her actual body shape dramatically and instantaneously got in sync. Even though she had long ago left her excess weight behind, until that moment in the wilderness, she was still dragging it around with her in her head. Her experience was the basis for a chapter in her latest book, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own. (Her son, Matthew, is her coauthor.) Blakeslee describes how for some people with weight problems, the warring maps in their head between what their body really is and their emotion-laden mental image of it can sabotage successful dieting.

Margo Maine PhD, says she has seen many patients who've lost a lot of weight continue to experience what she calls "phantom fat"—it's analogous to the phantom pain an amputee can have in a missing limb. Maine, a Connecticut psychologist specializing in eating disorders and coauthor of The Body Myth: Adult Women and the Pressure to Be Perfect, says she's had patients who continue to wear what they call their "fat clothes"—though everyone tells them they need to go shopping—because they still feel that layer of flesh around themselves. Sometimes after patients lose weight, they have trouble emotionally letting go of their outsize presence because it served as a shield against social interaction. "It's scary to be their new size," Maine says. "They might feel more noticed and be embarrassed by the attention their bodies are getting."

When dieters come to Judith Beck, PhD, a cognitive therapist and the author of The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person, one of the first things she does is have them work at accepting their bodies—whatever stage they're at. "They may decide keeping the weight off isn't worth it. They've done this hard work and they don't feel any different," she says. Beck tells a client to take advantage of the more objective vision of family and friends by asking them to cut pictures out of magazines of real women who are her size, or to point out in crowds women whose bodies resemble hers. Beck suggests looking at the magazine pictures frequently and saying, "This person is similar to me." Seeing one's body shape reflected in a stranger won't trigger all the emotional associations of seeing a photograph of oneself.

Rosalyn (not her real name), 43, a teacher in New Jersey and a client of Beck's, prides herself on being a logical person. She knows that after more than a year of Weight Watchers, she is, at 170 pounds, 102 pounds lighter than when she started, and she has gone from a size 26 to a size 12. "But I have had to work at thinking of myself as smaller. That when I meet people, the first thing they think is not 'Boy, she's huge.'" One night at a family gathering, Rosalyn's sister, who is of average size, came up with an idea. "She made me switch clothes with her," Rosalyn recalls. "She said, 'I know we're the same size.' So I put on her clothes, and they fit. That was mind-blowing." Rosalyn continues to work at knowing she has lost the weight. She sometimes goes out for retail therapy: Even if she doesn't intend to buy anything, she picks size 12s off the rack and tries them on; she says she's surprised, then reassured, when the pants fit: "There are times that the waistband on a pair of pants looks tiny to me."

Gina MacDonald, a dance movement therapist in Branford, Connecticut, has many techniques for helping her patients banish what she calls the "ghost image" of their heavier bodies. In one, patients get involved in literally redrawing their body map. They stand in front of a large piece of paper while partners trace a precise outline of their bodies. When they step away and look at what their size really is, "they do not believe it," Macdonald says. She also has clients close their eyes, envision their bodies, then place their hands out in front of them at the width they believe their waist is. "I have them open their eyes and look at their hands, and I guide them back to where they should be. They can see the difference in inches. Some start crying."

Sometimes a woman must recalibrate her body image before she can begin to address her weight issues. For years Michele Secaul, 45, an office manager who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, thought of herself as a floating head. She could look in the mirror at her face—how many times had she heard she had a pretty one?—but not below it, at her 288-pound body. Desperate about the shape she was in, she tried a movement therapy class at the Renfrew Center, a facility that treats eating disorders, in Coconut Creek, Florida. It was the "lotion therapy" that finally helped her connect her head to that body. Although she hated to touch herself, the therapists made her go home every day and gently apply lotion to her whole body—"to feel my body, to take care of it, respect it," she says. It was this reconnection that prompted her to want to address her weight issues.

Secaul had a gastric bypass and within a year weighed 150 pounds and was a size 10. "I was on top of the world, but again, I wasn't really dealing with how my body had changed," she says. The weight started coming back on—almost 40 pounds—until she went back to movement therapy and realized she was no longer applying her lotion. Once more, she had lost the connection between her head and her new shape. Now she does lotion therapy every night. Inhabiting her body again has allowed her to be kinder to it—she eats mostly protein, walks three miles a day, and has lost 20 pounds. "It's when I lose touch with how my body feels and how I feel about it that I put on weight. That's the key."


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