Are You Suffering From “Phantom Fat” Syndrome?

Elizabeth Millard
by Elizabeth Millard
Share it:
Are You Suffering From “Phantom Fat” Syndrome?

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.


READ MORE > HOW MINDFUL EATING TECHNIQUES CAN AMP UP YOUR WEIGHT LOSS


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.

About the Author

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth is a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness, as well as an ACE certified personal trainer and Yoga Alliance registered yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in SELF, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and CNN.

Related

8 responses to “Are You Suffering From “Phantom Fat” Syndrome?”

  1. Avatar Sharla-Ann Fujimoto says:

    OMG!!!!! This article hits HOME! I was telling my husband about this last year, and he totally agreed that there’s something to be said about phantom fat syndrome…and then I see this and I don’t feel as crazy anymore! I can’t tell you how much of a relief this is…!!!!!! I lost 92 pounds, but still feel like I’m the big person I once was….I wasn’t sure this would ever go away or if I could ever convince myself that this was my new normal, but I’ve learned to take it day by day

    • Avatar Michael Towne says:

      I talk about this to one other person at work….and that was it! I didn’t want people thinking I was looking for attention because I lost so much weight. I just wanted to know I wasn’t crazy! I kept thinking (feeling) like I was still big, and it was actually weird to see myself in the mirror.

  2. Avatar Mein Kartman says:

    I still get the urge to eat the entire buffet table.

  3. Avatar Jenn Briggs says:

    I needed to read this! Thank you! I’ve made it through the phantom fat phase but I am happy to now have some understanding about what I was going through and that I’m not alone.

  4. Avatar Justin Tinker says:

    Wow this explains everything. Maybe this can get my fiancé to understand what i was going thru ! This is what help me in places that need extra work

  5. Avatar Christine Kesling says:

    10 years on from the start of my weight loss and 100kg (220 lbs) lighter and I still identify as obese. I hate what my body looks like.
    I think people are judging me for what I eat, often I eat in secret to avoid this feeling. The stupid thing is rationally I know i am not obese anymore, I know people don’t look at me and see what I see, I know I am healthy and active, I just can’t adjust to being slim. I’m so glad to read it’s not just me that is having difficulty accepting my new body.

  6. Avatar Denise Herniman says:

    Is there a term called Phantom Thin or Skinny because that is what I see no matter how hard I look in the mirror! The only times I really see myself as overweight is on the scale, in a recent picture and in my clothes sizes. I have caught a glimpse of myself before my brain had time to process that it was me and I am shocked when I see that fat person looking back at me.

  7. Avatar Christie Eller says:

    Holy crap! This is me. I never knew there was a name for it. Well this really gives me hope. I’ve lost 139 pounds and struggle with body image. Losing weight has been great, but there’s this downside where it’s not what I expected. Yes, I still feel fat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Never Miss a Post!

Turn on MyFitnessPal desktop notifications and stay up to date on the latest health and fitness advice.

Great!

Click the 'Allow' Button Above

Awesome!

You're all set.

You’re taking control of your fitness and wellness journey, so take control of your data, too. Learn more about your rights and options. Or click here to opt-out of certain cookies.