Monday, February 16, 2015

Phantom Fat and Lies My Mirror Tells Me

Last week I shared something of a love letter I wrote to my body thanking it for everything it has allowed me to do, and I remain unspeakably grateful for the life it has allowed me to live. But I still struggle—deeply—with how my body looks.

When I look in the mirror or see pictures of myself, I honestly can’t see a difference. The Before and After picture you see below? I don’t see much of a difference, if any. I mean I can kinda tell, a little bit, but not really. I rationalize that what everyone else thinks they see is probably just due to the lighting or the angle at which the shots were taken. And for the record, I was totally sucking it in in the after photo, so that’s not what I really look like. I’ve totally fooled you all.


Yet everyone tells me how great I look when they see me, and truth be told I do believe they can see a difference. I certainly don’t take offence at the comment, but inside I always think, “I wish I could see it too.”

My losses are measurable. I can’t dispute the numbers. I’ve lost over 110 lbs and 10 inches off my waist. I’ve had to buy new pants, new shirts, and new belts. When I bump into people that I haven’t seen in a while (especially those that I’m not friends with on any social media) they are taken aback by how much I’ve lost, so I know they’re not just paying me empty compliments in an effort to be nice. So why can’t I see a difference?

I do occasionally notice changes here and there. Sometimes I’ll go to scratch my stomach and it’s not where it’s supposed to be, or when I wash my face in the shower it feels smaller than it should; it’s a strange sensation I can’t quite describe: there’s a bit of tactile confusion in both my hands and my face as the sensory experience is somehow unexpected or even foreign. Like brushing your teeth with your other hand. It just feels weird.

I’ve found a number of message boards in various weight loss forums that suggest my problem is fairly common among people that have lost a great deal of weight. It apparently takes the brain a while to catch up to the body. I’ve seen it labeled as being mentally fat, psychologically fat, or carrying phantom fat (similar to phantom limb sensations experienced by amputees), or even something called Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

Although I have never been diagnosed, I think it likely that I have a very mild form of BDD, which the DSM-V describes as preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in one’s physical appearance. Those who truly suffer from BDD tend to obsess over minor flaws in their bodies to the point where they cover mirrors in their homes (or conversely check them obsessively), avoid social situations, and spend hours per day preoccupied by their perceived imperfections to the point where it interferes with daily living. Thankfully, none of those symptoms apply in my case. I feel for those who truly suffer from it, and I don’t want to diminish their suffering by suggesting that what I’m dealing with is anything comparable to theirs.

For me it is more of a general feeling of frustration and discouragement that I’ve lost 100 lbs but don’t see any change when I look in the mirror. Perhaps it’s because technically I’m still 100 lbs overweight (that’s one of the many problems with being 200 lbs overweight; when you lose 100 lbs, you’re only halfway there). I hold out hope that the closer I get to goal the more obvious it will be to me when I look in the mirror.

But that hope weakens when I come across message board posts from people that have successfully gotten to their goal weights yet still mentally distort the reflection they see in the mirror. I especially worry because my goal weight is well above what medical professionals consider a healthy BMI. At 6’0”, I should ideally weigh between 164-184 lbs (which translates to a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9). My actual goal weight is 215, which is a BMI of 29.2. To put that in perspective, one moves from the “Overweight” to “Obese” category at a BMI of 30. So I’m not exactly shooting for the stars.


Why is my goal weight above my “ideal” weight? Because I frankly don’t think my “ideal” weight would be sustainable, and I worry that I might look scrawny if I actually got down to it. I’ve grown accustomed to having a large, imposing physical presence, and I think I would feel a loss of identity if I were to actually become thin. I want to be healthy and fit, but I think I can feel that way at 215. But the fear remains that I’ll get there and still be completely unable to see a difference.

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