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Body Image Mysteries: Why You “Feel Fat”

mirrorIn my last post, I shared about a fascinating new book I’m reading called “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own” by Sandra & Matthew Blakeslee.

One of the reasons I got the book was because of a chapter called “Dueling Body Maps, or Why You Still Feel Fat After Losing Weight.” I really, really, really wanted to know the answer to this question!

I still remember reading singer Jennifer Hudson‘s confession that, even after her dramatic weight loss, she still felt the same size on the inside. I thought she was very brave to admit this….and I could totally relate.

Given my own lengthy (although happily now concluded) battle with an eating disorder, I too have been many different sizes over the years, and it has always seemed that no matter what size I am (or how healthy I am at that size) when I go to shop for clothes I can’t ever figure out what size I actually am. What is oddest, however, is that often I’ve found when I get larger, I still pick out smaller-sized clothes, and when I get smaller, I still pick out larger-sized clothes.

In these moments, it almost feels as if my mind is playing catch-up – it is slow to adjust to my body’s alterations. And as it turns out, this is EXACTLY the phenomenon that is addressed in this chapter of the book!

The Blakeslees explain that the scientific reason for why this happens is due to the presence of two body maps – a body schema and body image. The book provides these helpful definitions for each map.

Body schema: a felt sense based on physical properties of your body.

Body image: stems from learned attitudes about your body. 

The body schema arises from within you, prompted by sensory signals embedded in your body’s autonomic nervous system (including “muscle memories” and other felt sensations) and your inner ear (forming and maintaining your sense of balance). In this way, you maintain a sense of personal proprioception (this term literally translates as “perception of one’s own”).

So with the help of your body schema, you are able to maintain a fairly continuous unconscious sense of what you can and can’t do and where “you” are within time and space.

Your body image, however, was formed less accurately through conscious thought and belief. These past thoughts and beliefs you have collected about your shape and size are now stored in your cells in the form of “prediction.” So, for instance, when you look in the mirror, you are more likely to see what your past thoughts and beliefs predict you will see than what is actually reflected back to you in that particular moment. In this way, actual reality and your sense of reality can be very different – sometimes disturbingly so.

The authors go on to describe a number of techniques that therapists and trainers use to help people with body schema or body image distortions (or both) to regain an accurate real-time perception of their physical selves. These techniques range from relaxation techniques to wobble boards (which can positively alter the individual’s sense of balance), to an interesting cat suit experiment that helped one patient enhance her felt sense of the body’s boundaries (unfortunately, she later absconded with the cat suit, which explains why no further research has yet been done).

But what I find most helpful from it all is simply to understand with my brain as well as my body why sometimes my sense of where I begin and end feels so out of whack. It is good to know that these changes can happen, that there are certain underlying biological and sensory reasons for the changes (that are actually positively protective in many ways), and that, over time and with diligent effort, predictive reality and actual reality can once again and meet and make friends.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you or someone you care about ever struggle with feeling that your “inner” and “outer” shape and size are not one and the same? Does the information from this chapter help at all to ease any stress that may cause?

Woman in a mirror image available from Shutterstock.

Body Image Mysteries: Why You “Feel Fat”

Shannon Cutts

Parrot, tortoise & box turtle mama. Writer. Author. Mentor. Champion of all people (and things) recovered and recovering.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2014). Body Image Mysteries: Why You “Feel Fat”. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 24 Jan 2014
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