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An Image Problem : Great Weight Loss Poses Psychological Challenges

August 22, 1985|LIZ McGUINNESS

Mavis used to weigh 300 pounds.

When she decided to get serious about dieting, she lost enough to need a new wardrobe and to feel pleased with her new silhouette. At that point she lost something else: her husband.

"I was more appealing to him when I was fat than when I was thin," said Mavis, wryly.

That didn't stop her determination to lose weight, though it obviously didn't help a lot. She's been a member of Overeaters Anonymous for 18 years, and at approximately 170 still has "about 40 pounds to go," she said after a recent meeting of the group in Costa Mesa .

However, said Mavis (who, like other members of the group, uses a pseudonym when talking for publication), she has a new marriage now, and "this one's better."

"Life is sweet today," said a smiling, though still-chubby Mavis.

Mavis' experience is not unusual, say psychologists, weight program spokesmen and other dieters.

Joan George of Irvine, who lost 137 pounds through Weight Watchers and now works as one of the group's instructors, said that while her own marriage survived--and, in fact, "the overall relationship is better because I feel so much better about me"--it wasn't easy.

At first, she said, her husband tried to sabotage her. "Candy is my Frankenstein," she said, and her husband knew it. He would bring home big Cadbury candy bars to tempt her.

"But when he realized I was really serious," said George, "he became supportive.

"Now," she added, "he's tremendously proud."

But it's not only husbands who panic, added George. She recalled a woman, "probably one of my very best friends."

"When I started (the Weight Watchers program), I weighed over 70 pounds more than she did," said George. "She was my cheerleader--until I passed her up." At that point, the friend "simply stopped talking to me."

"We were eating buddies," said George, "and had been on lots of diets together. It totally destroyed our relationship." Now, she added, the two have rebuilt the friendship, but on a different basis.

It's not only "other folks" who may sabotage dieters, say the experts: Sometimes it's the dieters themselves.

And that often relates to problems with body image.

"The concept of body image is basically how we see ourselves," said Linda Trozzolino, clinical psychologist and director of behavior modification for the weight-control program at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. "A lot of people have distortions: They're attractive and don't see it; they're fat and see themselves as thin, or thin and see themselves as fat." Whatever the distortion, it can cause problems in a weight-loss program, she suggested.

"If you are going to be thin, you have to see yourself as thin in your mind; if you see yourself as fat, you're going to be," said Weight Watchers' Joan George. "Getting a slender picture of yourself, I would think, is No. 1 in getting and staying there."

That, she admitted, is easier said than done. George said it took her "at least a year (after reaching goal weight) to think of myself as normal." With a bit of embarrassment, George told a story: She was working in the kitchen and suddenly "jumped"--there was a thin arm on the counter near her. It was, of course, her own. There were other times when she walked by mirrors or store windows and "didn't recognize myself."

"I almost had an identity crisis for a while, wondering, 'Who am I?' " she said. When the dieter cannot resolve such problems, the diet appears likely to go up in smoke--or, more realistically, into a piece of double-chocolate fudge cake.

Dr. Frank Toppo, co-owner and medical director of the Risk Factor Obesity Clinic in Orange, recalled his surprise at the reaction of the first patient he had who lost more than 100 pounds. In order to celebrate, he said, the clinic bought a full-length mirror, so she could admire her newly slimmed self.

"She started crying!" said Toppo. "She didn't see any difference; yet 100 pounds is a big difference! She still perceived herself as someone overweight and not very attractive."

In a similar vein, George recalled that "at one time I had lost 50 pounds . . . and felt heavier than when I started! I think that happens because, for the first time, a person is admitting to herself where she is.

"I had hidden under tent dresses, so when I started wearing dresses that fit, it was very threatening." Her instructor at the time suggested a technique that helped: "She had me come home and try on the dress I had joined (the program) in. It was way out to here!"

If such problems can't be worked out, said Toppo, the dieter is "guaranteed to gain the weight back."

Another common cause of problems is the assumption that "thin" will mean the end of all life's irritations.

"A thin person is someone with no problems, who is never late, who never has runs in her nylons, who has no car trouble," said Nancy Sullivan of Garden Grove, who lost 160 1/2 pounds with Weight Watchers, where she--like George--now works as an instructor/lecturer. It may be mostly "media hype," she said, but "we fall for it."

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