5 Tips to Build a Healthy Body Image After Weight Loss
The moment is different for everyone. You might notice that your fingers aren’t quite as fleshy when you’re washing them one day. You might realize that a necklace sits lower on your chest. Or you might need to tighten your belt a notch in the morning. Whatever signal you get that your body is changing, it’s a welcome event. Because while of course you’re losing weight to improve your health, you’re probably also excited to look better than ever.
But don't be caught off guard if you experience other emotions as well. “When patients are focused on weight loss, they only think of positive aspects and assume it will solve all their problems,” explains Alexis Conason, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Manhattan and a researcher at the New York Obesity Research Center at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. “But it’s hard adjusting emotionally and physically to a new body.”
You might not like the way your body looks at first, especially if you see cellulite for the first time, or newly-loose skin. And even if you’re thinking, “Damn, I look great!” you might be overwhelmed when everyone from your bus driver to your sister-in-law tells you the same thing. With your closet full of now-oversize clothes, the thought of shopping for new ones might leave you panicked. Some people feel vulnerable – more sensitive to colder temperatures – without that extra weight covering their body.
How can you get over that “weight loss shock” and enjoy your healthier, slimmer shape? Give your mind and body a chance to catch up to each other, with these expert ideas.
1. Don’t micromanage your mirror image.
Stop scrutinizing your drooping breasts or dimply thighs. Instead, congratulate yourself on your success. “Recognize what your new body can do for you,” urges Conason. “Every morning, think about one thing you’re grateful to your body for. It can be ‘I love the way my body is strong’ or ‘I can lift a heavy weight’ or ‘I can walk up stairs without losing by breath.’” Practically speaking, it can take several months for skin to tighten up. Help the process along by taking toning yoga or strength training classes. (If you’ve lost a lot of weight, you might want to look into plastic surgery to trim the excess skin.) As for those expensive firming creams, the jury is out on whether they work, but it can’t hurt to show your skin a little love with some coconut oil or shea butter.
2. Prepare yourself for attention.
Some experts say excess weight can serve as a kind of emotional cloak of invisibility. So when you shed those protective pounds, you might feel unprepared to deal with attention. Janis Rosenberg, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Culver City, Calif. who specializes in body image, recalls treating one client who wasn’t used to well-meaning flirting from men. “After she lost weight, all the attention almost felt like an assault, so we worked on her feeling more powerful on the inside,” she says. Rosenberg suggests visualizing an inner “wise woman” who can deflect the come-ons for you: Think about what she looks like, how you feel when she is present, what words she would say to you to help you tolerate the uncomfortable moment. Over time, you’ll feel stronger inside.
3. Accept awkward compliments gracefully.
It's hard to believe, but after a while, you might tire of friends and family remarking on your new body size. After all, you’re still the same person inside. “If someone says you look better now, it can feel like they're saying you didn't look good before,” explains Rosenberg. Her advice: Quit taking it personally. "Wow, you lost a ton of weight!" may sound more like a backhanded compliment than a sincere one, but always assume the source has good intentions. “You’re in charge of how you take it in,” she says. If you’re uncomfortable receiving praise, Rosenberg suggests practicing by giving yourself compliments in the mirror so you get used to them. And remember that fame is fleeting. Eventually, people will get used to your slimmer shape, and you'll become “you” again.
4. Get cozy in your skin.
When you lose that extra padding, it’s common to feel sensitive to colder temperatures. Even in the summer, an over-air conditioned room can feel alarmingly chilly. Always carry a sweater or wrap, and tinker with your home thermostat until your internal thermostat adjusts. You might also feel exposed or “naked”—even with clothes on, explains Rosenberg. The sensation can come on strongly and suddenly, and it helps to figure out in advance how to soothe yourself until it passes. Try taking a hot bath, wrapping yourself in a thick robe, wearing baggy clothes or practicing yoga. Over time, the vulnerable feelings will be less frequent. “As you grow into a healthy body esteem, you'll feel more comfortable,” says Rosenberg. “You own your body.”
5. Shop your comfort zone.
You need new clothes—that’s a fact. But if shopping hasn’t been fun in a long while, you might be reluctant to head back to the dressing room. If that’s the case, go easy on yourself: As soon as you have the time and money, head to a store where you already feel comfortable and just grab a handful of smaller sizes. Then head to the dressing room. Try on everything and don’t obsess about numbers; many stores engage in their own unique “vanity sizing”—meaning you could be a size 12 at one place and a size 8 at another. Once you’re feeling bold, experiment with different clothing styles. Go ahead and try on that strapless dress you never thought you could wear. It might look great now.