Are You Suffering from Optical Delusions?

A before photoThis was me about five years ago. I found the photo tucked away in a drawer.  For context (and to explain the casual, disheveled appearance), I was handing out awards after a team-building event at work.

If you had asked me to describe myself during that time, I would’ve thought fat to myself, but said overweight out loud. It’s a fine distinction, but it mattered at the time.

The word I would not have used to describe myself was obese and certainly not morbidly obese.  Yet, it’s very clear that I was obese, both visually and in the numbers, and I was on the borderline for morbid obesity.

That said, I wasn’t delusional. I knew that I needed to lose weight, and I was trying/failing via the diet cycle, but I didn’t see my size and weight as a health issue or anything that would hold me back from having a rich and full life. And it didn’t, to some extent.  Although I had some issues with blood pressure, I was rarely sick and had created a happy little life for myself. In this photo, I had been shooting hoops, playing skeeball, and bowling for a few hours and as you can see, I was smiling! And sweaty.

Seeing this photo and thinking things over reminded me of an article I read recently on SFGate that highlighted a discrepancy in what some overweight people see when they look in the mirror. Sara J. Bird likens it to the distorted self-perception that afflicts anorexics and coined the term “fatorexic” in her book, Fatorexic: What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror? According to the article, Bird looked at her reflection and saw ” a thin, confident woman. ” According to her doctor, she was obese at 5’10” tall and 238 pounds. (She’s since lost 20 pounds.)  Bird says she avoided facing reality by using a variety of tricks, including wearing elastic waist pants and avoiding full-length mirrors.

The article also cites the following studies to support Bird’s conclusion:
  • a 2008  British Medical Journal studies’ findings that one-quarter of obese or overweight adults did not view themselves as fat.
  • a Dutch study reported that 75 percent of mothers thought their overweight child was a normal weight.
  • American Heart Association research that confirmed that almost 1 in 10 obese individuals was satisfied with their size and did not think they needed to lose weight.
And for balance, they include some commentary from Andrea Garber, assistant professor of pediatrics and chief nutritionist for WATCH, a program for obese teens and children at UCSF, who thinks the problem is not so much what people see in the mirror but that they under-emphasize its importance due to the normalization of obesity.
When I think about how I viewed myself back in the days of this photo, I have to say that I probably straddled the line. A little bit of realism, mixed with a healthy (or unhealthy, in this case) dose of delusion.  I knew I was significantly overweight; I just didn’t know how much it was truly affecting my life.  On the other hand, I also used the elastic waist assistance for  pants and mirror avoidance to ease my path. I actually chose the casual outfit in the photo because I thought it was slimming.  Oh, brother. So maybe I was straddling the line with an emphasis on one foot.
I found the article and discussion interesting, especially in light of my own history.
Your thoughts/observations/experiences welcome.

22 thoughts on “Are You Suffering from Optical Delusions?

  1. I was very good at that (editing what I saw in the mirror). Still am. Psychologists say you don’t take away denial until you have something better to give. It’s not known as a “coping mechanism” for nothing. I was better able to deal with mirrors than photos, which tend to disable that internal editor which softens what we see.

    Oddly I am not that way at all with my own kids. The older two have recently put on extra pounds and while I doubt anybody else would look and say, “they’re fat,” it has been driving me batty. Very Jackie O of me. I probably need to get more Dutch about it :)

  2. I really find this interesting as when we are heavy, so often we don’t see ourselves as we really are in terms of actually being heavier than we think.. or maybe we just don’t want to accept it.

    Then once we loose the weight, so many of us still see the fat person in the mirror that used to be there but no longer is… the mind & mental “stuff” at work!

  3. Interesting post. I saw that article, too. I think there is a lot of truth in it. I can look at myself in the mirror and see “the real me” (the thin, confident, attractive me) and then, when I see a photograph of myself taken that same day, I’m dismayed and amazed at how big I am, and how unconfident and unattractive. Avoiding full length mirrors, the elastic waistband route, stretchy clothes, and denial all contributed. And I avoid the photos, too. I’m always the photographer, almost never the photographee.

  4. I suffered from some of this. I knew I was extremely overweight but until I saw pictures I didn’t hae a perspective on what I looked like in relation to things.

  5. I had the opposite problem. After I lost 136 pounds I still looked fat. I knew there was no way I could be when I was wearing a size six, but time and time again, I would see my reflection and not know who it was.

    I am pretty sure I know how big I am though. Hopefully as I lose weight this time, my mind will match the reality of how my body looks.

    I had to laugh at your comment on my blog about the yoga…since it was you that recommended the book that got me hooked on yoga. Life is funny!!!

  6. Holding up hand. Confession time. I am a fatorexic.

    I have a couple of photos that tell the truth. I hate, read, really hate looking at them but they come up on the slide show on my screen saver. I should take them off but they remind me what is truth.

    I keep hidden the couple I got TWJ to take of me in my swim suit. They are shockers.

    I can stand in front of a mirror and be reasonably satisfied, even on a bad day because I dress well/cleverly and hold myself well. But nothing disguises the awful truth like my swim suit, especially the side on view.

    The day is coming when I will have another photo that I’m proud of.

    I doubt if I’d have let myself become obese if I’d really looked at myself without some delusional mix.

  7. Kind of the opposite of my pithy post today.

    An unexpected, unflattering photo can be shocking to an overweight or obese person who avoids cameras, mirrors, and plate glass windows. Been there, done that. Hard to see/deny the truth.

  8. I do get a shock sometimes when I see a photo or catch myself in a mirror, not because I don’t know I am fat, but because I think I look better than I do. I am well aware I am obese! That part I don’t get. How someone can not realize they are fat with all the media and shopping for clothes and all, how can you not know that?

    Anyway, I just hope when the weight is off that I think I look good. I will never look fabulous and young again, but I would like to look good.

  9. I know it’s true, that I’m morbidly obese. But there are times I don’t feel that way. I try not to be, but at times I do find myself in denial. No full length mirror here and when I look at my face it doesn’t look the same as when I look at a picture. I’m almost always shocked/horrified when I realize that huge person in the reflection of a store window is me! I don’t know how or why I do it but how I see myself is distorted from how I am. Looking at my jeans after I take them off my body is always an eye opening experience!

    Interesting topic, Cammy! Thanks for sharing it!

  10. I have never been obese. But when I was overweight (each time), I think I had a very clear image. Yes, I wore baggy clothes and avoided mirrors. But I knew what was there. However, I think in my thin phases I may have more trouble with seeing myself as I really am.

  11. Weird to have a term like fatorexic, but that’s me! Great post.

  12. I am definitely fatarexic and have been for a long time… I also HATE the word obese. I don’t know why, but it bugs me. Maybe because I am? I’m not sure. Just the way it sounds…

  13. The mirror so lies! Like you, I thought I was dressing to minimize the problem. Maybe it was working… maybe I’d have looked even worse in other clothes. I don’t really want to know! Problem is… I still don’t know how to shop. I think I’m dressed well when I leave the house, but I feel like hiding once I see what other people are wearing. There should be a professional shopper who specializes in dressing successful weight losers. Anybody?

  14. Cammy!!!! Fantastic article. Now I know why all those magazines want you to write for them.

    I have DEFIANTLY had this problem in the past. And probably even now… I look in the mirror and don’t see what everyone else sees. That was the case with pictures too… I would have fit into that category of folks that did not see a problem.

    I don’t really know what “flipped the switch” for me, but for some reason I get it now.

    Once again, great article.

  15. Human nature is so interesting, isn’t it? I just saw something similar to the stats you cited about moms thinking their overweight child is normal, but those same moms also realized there was an obesity problem in this country. Interesting.

  16. I just found you again!

    You changed blogs during my concentration camp experience (3 month work contract) and I “lost” you. So happy to find you again (via Facebook).

    Intellectually I know I’m morbidly obese, but I’m always shocked to see pictures of myself. Somehow I just don’t think that I look THAT bad!

  17. Hi – I am Sara Bird – the author that has sparked this great blog. I suffered from this ‘delusion’ for many years and now that I discovered, understood and accepted FATorexia am a much calmer person. I am still fat – but am not gettimng any fatter and like many others after 25 years of yo yo dieting am really good at dieting – just really bad at sticking to it! Please have a look at my website and join my blog so that I may hear from you as part of my research for my next book.
    I have just started filming for a documentary to be aired in the UK in early 2011 studying the effects that this mis-conception (FAtorexia) many of us have about our body shapes can affect our lives adversely and how the medical profession need to take a different approach.
    I know the word is controversial but it needed to be reflective of the seriousness of the complaint and the truth is that it highlights very quickly to readers what FATorexia is about. Thank you once again for your comments and I do hope to see some of you on my website and blogs. Kind regards Sara x

  18. All good points I must ponder. I’ve never given thought to what I’m thinking as I gaze into the mirror.

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  20. My bag o’ tricks includes only viewing myself in skinny mirrors (14″ wide or less) and comparing myself to people who carry their extra weight around their waists (mine is all over my body, especially my legs). Yes, it is a good thing to face the facts. Thanks for the research info and for this “wake up” post!

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