Anorexia Recovery: The New Body Problem

New Body Problem = the thoughts and feelings that arise when we move through physical change in Anorexia recovery.

I got an email this week from a person in a state of despair because he has weight restored somewhat and doesn’t like his weight-restored body. Mostly his despair was due to thinking that he has failed at recovery because he knows he should immediately like his healthier body, but doesn’t.

Whoa. Where did that idea come from?

Some of us like our weight-restored bodies off the bat. But even those of us who want to — in or rational brain’s at least — put on weight can get caught out by the reaction when it happens. Due to my competitive nature, I wanted to win against Anorexia, and winning meant putting on weight. My body became a trophy. But even then, catching my reflection in the mirror brought a momentary shock wave as I thought “Who is that stranger in my house … oh wait, it’s me.” 

Or the “what’s that?” jolt that came if my legs rubbed against one another and caught me off guard. The disappearance of the thigh gap was welcomed by my healthy brain, but that didn’t stop it feeling weird and different. The same was true every time I flexed my arm and felt flesh touch flesh on the inside of my elbow. That feeling was new, alien to me. My whole body was alien to me.

Of course it was. I had been underweight for over 10 years. The way my healthier, larger body moved was different. The spaces that I fit into (or didn’t fit into) had changed. I had gone from driving a Fiat Cinquecento to a Bentley. Moving around the world was altered in every sense from the way that strangers greeted me to the fact that I could no longer sit in a child-size seat without getting stuck. All different. Not profoundly good or bad, just changed.

Some of us put on weight and don’t like it one bit. And that is okay to admit. There is no point pretending it doesn’t happen. If we do that, we cannot effectively make it better for people to deal with when it does happen.

Most of us don’t like our healthy bodies immediately. We know we should, but that doesn’t make it true … yet.

(Oh, and as a note about that notion the person who emailed me had that he was weight restored … I’m going to get into that in a whole blog post of it’s own sometime soon. Let’s just say that for a variety of reasons you may think that you are weight restored when you aren’t. )

I think that the reptilian brain has a lot to do with this

The human brain is programmed to maintain homeostasis and feel very stressed should homeostasis be lost. As far as your reptilian brain is concerned, change is not desirable therefore as it is seen as a threat. This is outdated in the modern world, but still something that our brains operate on by default. The brain is neuroplastic, so the resistance to change updates as we mature and learn by experience. Some of us become less resistant to change. Some of us become more resistant to change. It depends on what your life experience has been as to how much of a threat change feels like to you.

If you have been underweight for a prolonged period for time, your brain will unfortunately become to see this underweight state as homeostasis. But you cannot stay there. You have to change by putting on weight in order to recover and be healthy. So you put on weight, and the brain freaks out a bit. Regardless of the logical brain saying “This is healthy, you should like this” the monkey brain is like “Are you freaking kidding me? Go back! Go back!”

And thats assuming that you don’t have body dysmorphia thrown into the mix!

Sometimes it takes us time to adjust to new houses.

When I was about 8, my parents stared to think about moving house — probably something to do with having three squabbling girls in one bedroom. I loved our house and did not want to move at all. They took us to go and look at another house. I hated it. Despite the fact it was bigger and better and newer and had more land. I hated that new house. I hated it only because it was not our house. On the day that we went to look around it with the estate agent, when nobody was looking, I kicked the door frame of the front door to that new house and told it “I hate you, you are not my house” (yes, I was a charming kid).

We didn’t move house in the end. I would have liked to have thought that my endless tears and tantrums about it were the driving force there, but I think it was more to do with not being able to get a mortgage. However, I am pretty sure that if we had, I would have hated that new house for a couple of months. Then I would have hated it a little less. Then I would have accepted it. Then I would have liked it. Then I would have loved it.

Sometimes it just takes us time to adjust to new bodies. And you will, it will just take time for that monkey brain to get with the program.


Mind control

Where your attention goes, energy flows. There is a balance to be had between working though something in a positive manner and then dropping it, and continually indulging in negative thought loops. Obsessing about the things that you don’t like about your body is not going to help. All that will do is strengthen these negative thought patterns. I made that mistake many times. For example, that “oh, that’s new” thought at feeling the flesh on my arm, would quickly spark all sorts of other, less innocent and more judgemental thoughts.

A thought is just a thought. Having a though doesn’t mean that thought is true. Having a thought doesn’t mean that you have to believe that though. Having a thought doesn’t mean that you cannot choose, in that instance, to dismiss that thought without further ado. When you invest your attention and energy into negative thoughts, you strengthen the neural pathways that spark them. The more energy you give those thoughts, the stronger and more prevalent they become. A large part of recovery for me was learning to shut negative thoughts down. Stop.

This takes some mental discipline. It gets easier with practice. You never, ever, have to allow a thought or emotion to dominate you. You are the wizard in control of your own brain. Start acting like it.


Tips for dealing with the “New Body Problem”

  • Don’t take it personally. Not liking your new body right now says nothing about you as a person, and it doesn’t indicate much about the future either. It is a reaction that is very normal in eating disorder recovery, and is not indicative about your true feelings regarding your body.
  • Be patient. Recovery is a long process due to the many physiological systems involved. The mental restoration lags behind the physical, and it can take months or even years for the full remission to me reached.
  • Differentiate between something being different and something different being bad. Your body is changed, this is true, but that doesn’t mean that change is bad. Obverse change without judgement.
  • Find someone you can talk to about it in structured and effective manner.
  • Work to discipline your thought patterns. When you find yourself obsessing over your body in an ineffective and detrimental manner: shut those thoughts down.
  • Keep eating. Always.

The New Body Problem is only really a problem if you allow it to be. Give it time, curiosity and food.


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What do you think?

  1. Excellent article, thank you so much for your honesty and lack of bullshit!

  2. Great blog Tabitha thanks, my monkey brain is most definitely shouting at me very constantly and extremely loudly!!! I absolutely detest my new Buda belly and am finding it difficult to accept and as for my tree trunk legs which have now ballooned and become very swollen since stopping my daily 8k run, well let’s just say I am feeling a little sorry for myself right now. It’s good to read this blog and remind myself that it is entirely normal to feel this way and that these are just thoughts. Your words give me the strength to keep going even on the hardest days, so thanks once again.

  3. I really like the comment that different isn’t bad. It is as it is. It may seem bad because it’s not how we imagined or anticipated it to look or feel. But change is different. Like you say, we don’t have to fall in love immediately; we don’t have to fall in love at all. But we can learn to see clearly, manage and accept changes as positive, natural and inevitable.

  4. Sooo….what if one to two years in, if anything, you distain it more, with increased weight gain? To a certain point, the weight was okay, and I could like it in a way, that at least I might have looked “good” or acceptable to certain standards, but now….not so much, and it just makes me want to go back…but then of course at the same time not, because I don’t want to start this stupid cycle over.

  5. Hi Tabitha, great article. I am not close to being weight restored right now; I am trying to start the gaining weight stage. Do you have any tips on the mental discipline part. As you say here you had to shut the negative thoughts down. How did you do this? This is something with which I struggle a lot.

  6. I just want to take this moment to express my gratitude for you – your wise, strong, elegant, beautiful, articulate self. Thank you Tabitha. After 20 years of anorexia, of not reaching a healthy weight as an adult, I’m going to recover this year, and you’re helping me get there

  7. Hi Tabitha, I’ve got a question; I’ve gained a lot of weight, probably close to a recovered weight, but my muscles are still very weak. Like, walking to the bus stop at the end of the block is challenging, and my legs wobble when I get up in the morning. I know I shouldn’t exercise yet, but how do I gain my muscles back? My mum thinks I should exercise but is that detrimental? I haven’t stopped getting extreme hunger yet, so not sure about all that. Thank you, your blog is the sole reason I am able to recover, it is so hard when I’m constantly swamped by messages that dieting and losing weight is the only way for someone to be healthy. Thank you