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Mirror, mirror on the wall: Women’s self-image & phantom fat

By Karen Secord

The Brothers Grimm hit the nail on the head; mirrors are liars.

Mine has been tricking me for years. When I weighed 300 pounds it told me I was 160. Now that I weigh in at 160 it tells me I am 300.

I know it’s just a fairy tale, but when the Queen in Snow White confidently poses the question, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who in the land is fairest of all?” to which the mirror always replies, “You, my queen, are fairest of all” — those Grimm Brothers are so definitely speaking to the long-standing issues us gals have with our body’s.

To lose confidence in one’s body is to lose confidence in oneself.
~ Simone de Beauvoir

Self-image is a strange thing. For many women it is an obsession. How we appear to others is such a powerful concern that is becomes life-altering, prophecy fulfilling, behaviour modifying.

Some specialists use the term “phantom fat” to refer to this phenomenon of feeling fat and unacceptable after weight loss. I am full of this strangely comforting but not so oddly disconcerting “phantom fat”.

Joshua Hrabosky, a psychologist at Rhode Island Hospital who studies body image and counsel’s obese people undergoing bariatric surgery co-authored a research paper in 2004 that discussed the notion of the phantom fat phenomenon.

“We were kind of playing on the concept of phantom limb,” he told msnbc.com, in which people who’ve lost an arm or leg feel like the limb is there and even causing them pain or itching.

In his study, published in the journal Body Image, Hrabosky and colleagues questioned 165 women who were grouped into 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.

For me what has become a constant minute-to-minute hour-to-hour day-to-day worry about gaining the weight back has taken over my life. Every waking moment and often the sleepy time ones as well is focused on my size; mostly on the fact that numbers on the scale are up and therefor I am a lazy failure.

The logical intelligent me realizes that this is self-sabotage. The rest just doesn’t compute.

Experts in the field of obesity suspect this may happen because the brain hasn’t “caught up” with the new, leaner body, particularly for people who were obese for many years and then experienced rapid weight loss.

Body image is a lot harder to change than the actual physical body is, they say.

Many people who’ve lost large amounts of weight know they have a “blind spot” when it comes to their new body, so they really have to work at believing they look the way others see them.

For every diet there is an equal and opposite binge.
~ Geneen Roth

Dealing with how I see myself and the fear that I will gain the weight back and become a disappointment to others has led to the keeping of a nasty little secret. Overeating and vomiting.

The real truth is that I liked myself before the weight loss. My body was familiar. It wasn’t droopy. It was like a Christmas turkey, plump and appealing. Now it appears to me to be deflated. Hopelessly under inflated, as if it has given up, been used up. Wrinkles have appeared.

I avoid my mirror now. Snow White is on the scene and it is no longer telling me what I want to hear.

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.
~ Kahlil Gibran