Weight Loss & Self Image- What’s In The Mirror Isn’t Always There 6

Self image and body transformation

Weight Loss & Self Image- What’s In The Mirror Isn’t Always There


Body image is a term we see used time and time again in reference to how badly people feel when they need to lose weight or are unhappy with their physical appearance, but there is very little in the way of literature in the fitness and weight loss world on how body image changes among those who are able to transform their bodies. One reason could be the fact that it stands as a direct contradiction to the omnipresent message in today’s media that a great body equals feeling great about yourself.  A notion that may be effective in selling weight loss and body transformation oriented products and services but one that fails to take into consideration the reality that a significant number of people are not necessarily happier after changing how they look.  In this article we will take a look at the neglected frontier of self-image among those who have transformed their bodies by either losing weight or building muscle. A piece that will explore how the stigma of being overweight as earlier in life can lead to negative self-image, increased likelihood of depression and low self-esteem even after you are successful at losing weight or creating the body of your dreams. With weight loss especially, for many losing weight is only part of a battle- and not by any means a full victory in the war, as the painful scars of living for years with a body labeled by society as far from ideal can linger long after the final layer of fat has melted away. A phenomenon that may play a role in why many people regain weight over time (See my article Why Losing Weight Can Make You Gain Weight). Parallels also exist among those who were physically frail or underweight and who undergo a program of strength training and bodybuilding to create a well-muscled physique. In both cases, few things are more tragic than continuing to suffer a continued sense of isolation and despair for not having ‘the ideal body’ when by everyone else’s accounts you have become a walking example of that very ideal. It is my hope that the information in this article- some of which is drawn from my own personal experience- will serve to help some of us begin a process of self-acceptance and assist others in understanding how someone with a seemingly perfect body could still be in conflict. Thanks as always for reading and do be certain to share this article with someone who you think might benefit by reading it.

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In the 21st century it is considered politically incorrect and distasteful in most developed countries to publicly make fun of or think negatively towards individuals with mental handicaps, people of different skin colors, genders and sexual orientations. While by no means is discrimination on these fronts totally eradicated, it is far less than it was in years past as public education and acceptance has gone a long way in taking away the shadows of stigma for being different in these ways. Ironically, in spite of progress on so many fronts, being overweight remains one of the most enduring of social stigmas in our society today.[1] Numerous studies report that most people perceive obese individuals as being less physically attractive than their thinner counterparts and that being overweight is a direct result of a moral flaw- be it laziness or gluttony.[1] As insensitive as it may sound, very large scale surveys show that overweight individuals on average earn less money than those who are thinner, accumulate less wealth and are more likely to report interpersonal and institutional discrimination. [2,3] Obese individuals also tend to have a higher likelihood of strained relationships with family and romantic partners. [4,5] In many ways there is something tragically ironic about such discrimination given that here in the United States 25% of the population is overweight, while 50-60% is significantly so.[6]

Self Image & Body Transformation: How Prejudices Against Being Out Of Shape Influences Our Lives

Self image among those wiho are overweigh

Even though the majority of Americans are overweight, obesity remains one of the most discriminated against physical attributes today.

Yet in a country where being overweight is the norm, a profit driven contradiction rears its head as the entertainment media inundates us with unflattering portrayals of obese individuals, while advertisers bombard us with the thinner and toned  look as an ideal and what you need to be happy. It’s an inescapable deluge of negativity towards most members of our society and unfortunately it continues on because it works wonders for selling products and getting viewers to tune in. One of the first goals of advertising is to create a sense of want in the would-be-consumer. That being said, what better way to stimulate the desire of millions of Americans in a predominantly overweight society than by portraying being slim and trim as an ideal and selling products where those who use them embody the idea as well? It digs deep and churns up the frustrations and anguish many who are overweight feel about their situation and makes them act, often unconsciously, on these feelings. Whether it’s buying a weight loss or health related product endorsed by people in great shape who you would like to look like as well, or picking up a magazine because the people on the cover exemplify an ideal that you would like to achieve for yourself. These signals, as overt as they may be have some very subtle effects on all of us. It persuades consumers to over consume, keeping our economy strong and prices low (Read more in in my article The Economics of Obesity- Why an Overweight Population is Profitable) but it also creates deeply rooted prejudices and brings even more pain to millions of Americans- females especially.

Self image and feeling fat

In the midst of a society where being thin is set as a requirement to being happy it is hard to imagine that those growing up with weight issues would not suffer negative outcomes as a result.

So strong is the effect of the overweight=inferior formula, that studies show children, adults and even health care professionals who work with obese individuals on a regular basis hold strongly negative attitudes towards them.[7] In the maelstrom of such hatred and negativity it is no surprise that for many this leads to a compromised feeling of well-being, including depression and low self-esteem. [8] We need only look at the prevalence of eating disorders among young women striving to attain a that very media-created ideal or the experiences of friends and family as we all either suffer from or know someone very close to us who is directly affected by these societal pressures. While not as strong a prejudice as being overweight, for many (males especially) the stigma of not being strong and powerful has a parallel storyline. Less than 10% of the US population falls into the category of being termed athletic and yet the media is filled with depictions of strong and sculpted bodies as the epitome of what it means to be a happy and contented. Just as you would (sadly) never see an overweight individual on the cover of a fashion magazine (even though they are the ones who are buying the magazines) you would also never see a less than well biceped male in an advertisement for anything remotely masculine. Except in some form of parody. Such black and white depictions make it very hard for young males to not feel driven to change their bodies in an attempt to identify with the image that they see portrayed as manly and sexually virile. In the same way, images of waif-thin fashion models drive many young girls to try to emulate the image they are presented with as the embodiment of what it means to be feminine and attractive. Beauty, masculinity, femininity  and strength all lie far outside of these artificial physical renderings- but these images nonetheless can have a devastatingly negative effect. Pushing many to pursue an ideal that exists only in the realm of Photoshop and computer generated images as most of the models hardly resemble the iconic portrayals used by the media.


Body Image & Body Transformation: Self Image Is Formed At An Early Age

Self image is formed early on in life

Self image is formed early in life and so how you saw yourself as an adolescent can often affect how you perceive yourself today.

According to Reflected Appraisal Theory, individuals can develop negative perceptions of themselves if they believe that others view them negatively, [9] however this reaction does not apply to each and every overweight individual since how we create our self-image is not as straightforward as people think we belong to a negative group so therefore we perceive ourselves as negative.  For some, this holds true but since perception of self is developed during the formative years of childhood and adolescence, adults who become overweight later in life after enjoying a slim and trim body in their earlier years do not always identify themselves as being inferior or stigmatized because of their weight.[8] Stigma theory suggests that the psychological consequences of being overweight are far more severe among those who were overweight all their life as opposed to those who become overweight as adults. [10, 11] The theory further proposes that having a stigmatized and discriminated against identify early on in life makes you more vulnerable to the negative emotional consequences of being a member of a stigmatized group. [10] Modified labeling theory (a lot of theories- I know-but bear with me) suggests that those who have what they see as a stigmatized identity early on are most at risk for suffering negative consequences of that association. [11]


Body Transformation & Self Image: You Can Lose Weight & Still Feel Fat

In spite of losing weight, continue to feel fat and out of shape long after the final layer of fat as melted away because they identify with the image of themselves that was developed earlier in life when they were overweight.

In spite of losing weight, continue to feel fat and out of shape long after the final layer of fat as melted away because they identify with the image of themselves that was developed earlier in life when they were overweight.

What that means in plain English is that those who were overweight earlier in life but later lose weight do not always enjoy the same positive body image, self-confidence or social ease as those who were thin during their adolescence. [8, 12] Just as amputees report sensations in their lost limbs, those who lose weight but were overweight earlier in life, seem to be affected ‘phantom fat’ that stays with them in their minds no matter how much weight they lose or how much their body changes. A factor that can have negative consequences with regard to building rewarding relationships. The difficulties with relationships come again from early experiences- overweight adolescents experience more strained relations with their parents and siblings than those of normal weight. Obese teenagers also tend to find themselves being isolated socially- having on average fewer friends than slimmer teens- circumstances that can go a long way in inhibiting their self-confidence and sense of wellbeing as adults- making it harder for them to have trusting relationships even when they lose weight. [13,14]

Body Transformation & Self Image: Self-Perception Among Those Gaining Weight Later in Life


Self image from gaining weight later in life

Those gaining weight later in life but who enjoyed their youth as thin or normal weight individuals often have trouble seeing themselves as being overweight.

The theories discussed above hold true for those who were of normal weight or slim during their early years and who gain weight later on in life. Many individuals (more so men than women) who become overweight as adults do not identify themselves as being overweight as they maintain a sense of self that was formed earlier on in their lives. [10] Such individuals unconsciously develop strategies to protect their point of view so as not to identify themselves as being fat. My experience  working with people who gained weight later in life correlates with what many researchers report as they very often view their current weight situation as being temporary. Or will say that advice regarding weight loss does not apply since they don’t really have a weight problem.[16] Also common is the perception that their weight gain is a transient occurrence resulting from an external circumstance; they gained weight after leaving school and becoming less active, they gained weight after having children, they gained weight because they are under a lot of stress and so forth.[8] These factors may indeed play a role in their weight gain, but it also insulates them from internalizing their position as an overweight individual in a society that frowns upon those not meeting the in shape ideal.[8, 17] This lack of identification could explain to some degree why so many people who are indeed overweight harbor negative attitudes to their obese peers as they are unable to see themselves as part of the same stigmatized group. The good part about this behavior is that these individuals, in my experience can also use this as a driving force to get back in shape- but only after being able to see themselves for where they are and come to terms with the fact that they need to change.




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