Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Mind and body

Reverse body image distortion can be a big health problem

Lavinia Rodriguez

Lavinia Rodriguez

Those of us who treat people with eating disorders are used to addressing body image distortion with our patients. Body image distortion has to do with a person's perception of her body size. Compared to the real body size, any difference in their perception of it is a distortion. We all distort our body image to some extent, since we cannot view ourselves from someone else's perspective. The closest we come to viewing our whole body accurately is through mirrors and images of ourselves, yet those, too, distort our true size to some degree.

Some distortion is normal, but when the distortion is extreme, it can be a serious problem. You see this with people who have clinical eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. In such cases, people perceive their bodies to be significantly bigger than they really are. An anorexic woman who weighs 90 pounds can think she is obese.

Less common is a body image distortion in which people perceive their bodies to be smaller than they are. While this may not appear to be much of a concern, it can lead to a host of problems. Here are some:

Gaining excessive weight: Particularly if you're not active and tend to eat mindlessly, perceiving yourself as being thinner than you are can lead to weight gain that creeps up. It's not unusual for a person with a reverse body image distortion to suddenly realize, usually after a significant life event, that he or she is obese.

Denying health needs: Because of the mistaken belief that if a person isn't overweight he's healthy, overweight people with a reverse body image distortion (believing that they aren't overweight) may think there's no need to be concerned about their health. Or it may not even enter their mind. Important health issues that should be addressed, such as exercise, nutrition and health screenings, may be ignored.

Missing dangerous symptoms: Significant health problems such as diabetes, heart attack and stroke may seem to appear suddenly to the person with a reverse body image distortion, though there were signs all along that a problem was brewing. Bill, for example, would periodically get a tightness in his chest, but it would go away fairly quickly. It wasn't until he landed in the hospital that he realized the symptoms were serious, and that they related to his health and weight. From Bill's perspective, his body hadn't changed much in 30 years, but it had.

Lacking motivation to change: Combining a reverse body image distortion with denial leaves a person with little motivation to change behavior or lifestyle. Having a good grasp of reality is important to fuel the motivation to be healthy.

Rationalizing: We all rationalize on occasion, but if you do it chronically about your health and self-defeating lifestyle because you perceive yourself to be smaller than you are, you're likely to put important things off that affect your health.

Distorting the size of others: Sometimes parents distort the size of their children. There have been cases of parents of morbidly obese children who verbalize that their child is "pleasantly plump" or "just big for his age." These may be extreme examples, but there are other cases of differing degrees that are just as concerning. A young child's well-being is dependent on caregivers, as children don't have the same ability as an adult to make logical decisions about their health. Even if they did, they don't have the power to follow through with such decisions without the help of adults. Parents must look at children objectively, setting aside biases they may have about how they want things to be.

What should you do if you suspect you have a reverse body image distortion? Look for signs that you might be distorting and, as a result, not facing reality. Perhaps people have been trying to get you to see that you need to take better care of your health or that of your children. Maybe lab results have been inching in the wrong direction. Perhaps you have clothes in the back of your closet that you don't wear anymore because they no longer fit. Or you might be wearing loose clothes with elastic bands, not because they're more comfortable but because they make you less aware of weight gain.

Working on a reverse body image issue and its effects can be complicated, so don't be concerned if you can't seem to get things under control on your own. It's not unusual to need the help of a qualified professional.

Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at [email protected]

Reverse body image distortion can be a big health problem 07/24/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2014 7:06pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Cubs down Dodgers 3-2; force NLCS Game 5 Thursday


    CHICAGO — Javier Baez snapped an 0-for-20 skid with two home runs, former Ray Wade Davis hung on for a six-out save and the Cubs avoided a sweep, holding off the Dodgers 3-2 Wednesday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.

  2. One of the best places for investing in a rental house is in Tampa Bay

    Real Estate

    Two Tampa Bay ZIP Codes are drawing national attention.

    . If you're looking to invest in a house to rent out, few places are better than  ZIP Code 34607 in Hernando County's Spring Hill area, according to ATTOM Data Solutions.
 file photo]

  3. Bucs' Vernon Hargreaves: 'I'm not making any plays'


    TAMPA — Eli Manning gathered his receivers together on the sideline during the Giants' Week 4 game against the Bucs and told them he planned to target the weakest link of the secondary all afternoon.

    Patriots receiver Chris Hogan gets position in front of Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for a 5-yard touchdown pass in New England’s win on Oct. 5.
  4. Suspect in Maryland office park shooting is apprehended


    EDGEWOOD, Md. — A man with a lengthy criminal past who was fired from a job earlier this year for punching a colleague showed up for work at a countertop company on Wednesday and shot five of his co-workers has been arrested, authorities said. Three of them were killed and two critically wounded.

    Harford County, Md., Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler shows a picture of Radee Labeeb Prince, the suspect in the workplace shootings.
  5. Lightning's J.T. Brown to stop anthem protest, focus on community involvement

    Lightning Strikes

    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lightning wing J.T. Brown will no longer raise his first as a protest during the national anthem before games.

    J.T. Brown says he will work more with the Tampa police and groups that serve at-risk young people.