Although Sarah Donawerth has lost 70 pounds over the last couple years, the 27-year-old Californian still tries on clothes that are easily three or four sizes too big. She’s also conscious of where she sits in public places because she believes people will avoid sitting next to her.
“I feel like they don’t want to be squished by being next to me,” she says. “Even though they wouldn’t be.”
In many ways, Donawerth still feels like a “plus-size” woman and identifies as that not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally.
“I connect with the struggles, feelings and emotions of plus-size people much more than average-size women,” she says. “That makes me worried that I may slide back into old habits. I have to remind myself continually that every day is a chance to succeed or fail.”
WHAT’S GOING ON?
This phenomenon of seeing yourself — sometimes literally — in a previous version is called “phantom fat,” and it can happen to anyone who’s undergone a considerable transformation like losing weight or gaining quite a bit of muscle, according to clinical psychologist Sharon Chirban, PhD, of Amplify Wellness & Performance.
Phantom fat sometimes falls into the category of body dysmorphia, a condition often associated with anorexia and bulimia, but it differs from those disorders, Chirban says.
“When the body has changed significantly, the mind can take years to catch up, much like what happens when losing a limb,” she says. “The person who has moved from obese to normal bodyweight may still have the internal responses that have been reinforced for years.”
For example, those responses might include feeling judged by strangers for being overweight, or seeing people choose to sit somewhere else rather than next to you. Just because you’ve lost weight doesn’t always mean these responses change instantly, and because of that, there can be a disconnect between what’s in your brain and what your body looks like. This can be made worse by feeling frustrated when you’re not thrilled about the transformation.
“Some think that when they reach their goal weight, they’ll be happy,” says Chirban. “The disillusionment that losing weight will change how we feel about ourselves becomes a whole new battle for the person who’s made a significant body change.”
STRATEGIES FOR ADJUSTMENT
For those like Donawerth who are trying to get the brain and body in sync, there are some coping mechanisms that can help during the adjustment period. First, Chirban advises, it may be useful to see weight loss as just that — a loss.
“It’s normal to be sad and struggle, the same as you would with grieving,” she says. “Give yourself time to work through that process, instead of putting expectations on yourself that you should be feeling a certain way.”
As with any loss, it can help to talk to others like friends and family — just make sure you’re choosing someone who’s willing to really listen to what your struggle is about, instead of being dismissive and saying you should “get over it” or you should be happy about how you’ve transformed.
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Chirban also suggests keeping a journal and letting it all out. Most of all, understand that it is a common reaction to weight loss or body transformation and it may take time.
For Donawerth, part of her adjustment to being thinner is simply recognizing when these “plus-size” feelings come up, and how they affect how she sees herself. Right now, it takes quite a bit of self-reassurance, but she’s hopeful that, over time, her brain will catch up to her body.
“It’s a hard process, but I’ll get there,” she says. “I remind myself that my feet don’t hurt from standing anymore and that my back doesn’t feel strained at the end of the day. It’s those little victories that remind me that the fat girl I still see in the mirror isn’t a true picture.”
If you feel like you just can’t get your perception to meet reality and it’s been a year since your weight loss, Chirban suggests reaching out to a professional for help.