After you lose weight, most people assume you’re feeling healthier and happier—and you might be. But adjusting to a new body size can do a number on your self-esteem, no matter what the number on the scale says. You may not recognize yourself anymore and face body issues such as stretch marks or loose skin. You may even struggle with receiving attention or compliments stemming from your weight loss. In fact, one study found that losing weight doesn’t automatically make you happy. It can even lead to a higher risk of depression and anxiety. Our experts explain how weight loss affects body image, and they share their best tips for positive body acceptance.
Your reasons for losing weight likely impact how you feel afterward.
According to Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., a psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center, weight loss usually occurs in order to change life habits. This is in an attempt to be healthier, as well as to improve endurance, energy levels, and mobility. However, sometimes people are motivated to lose weight based on external pressure and idealized social norms. Or they want to gain acceptance and value from others. With the first type, body acceptance is more likely, but with the latter, self-image tends to be more negative.
“Body image after weight loss can be very tricky,” says Erin Wathen, a food addiction counselor and holistic health and life coach. “Even an extra 15 pounds can be an excuse to not go for the big job or the rationale for why we don’t speak up for ourselves in our relationships. We have to reconcile what the extra weight did for us. Maybe it kept you safe—e.g., not having to go back into the dating pool after a breakup. Or it served as a human shield from criticism for choices you made as a parent because of your size. If everything about being a different weight was bad, we wouldn’t have stayed there as long as we did. The key is identifying it, acknowledging it, and finding a new thought process for not staying small in our own lives.”
Weight loss can lead to a really positive relationship with your body.
“Let’s start with the good,” says Aaptiv Trainer Kelly Chase. “Weight loss can improve your body image. You will gain more confidence in your new size, appreciate the dedication you put in to achieving your weight loss goal, and be inspired to want to help others feel happy and confident, too. I do believe that everyone, no matter their size, can have a positive relationship with their body and beautifully accept their curves. On my own weight loss journey, I personally have accepted my body much more now that I have lost unwanted weight. But when I was heavier, I would try to say positive affirmations daily to shift my mindset and accept my body for what it was, which helped keep as much of a positive mindset as possible.”
Weight loss can encourage a desire to take care of your body, look in the mirror and feel good about yourself, and more regularly identify with parts of your body you really like. Additionally, Mendez says, it can reinforce healthy behaviors and validate feelings of accomplishment regarding your weight loss goals.
But even if you feel great physically, the emotional side can tell a different story.
Many people who have lost weight know firsthand the difficulty of looking good on the outside but struggling emotionally on the inside. That’s common, says therapist Heidi McBain, and hearing praise about losing weight doesn’t always help because it either reinforces you were overweight before or emphasizes the physical versus who you are on the inside. And if you’re constantly comparing your body to other people, or it doesn’t feel like you’ve lost “enough” weight, shame can be the prevailing narrative, Mendez says. That’s because body image is perceptual, not physical. This means that even if you lose weight, you may see yourself as larger, heavier, shorter, or stockier than you really are, she adds.
“Weight loss doesn’t always create a positive body image,” Chase says. “It can result in having loose skin, losing your muscles or curves or booty gains, and having stretch marks. It may also create an even bigger problem, like fear of food or fear of eating too much and gaining weight again. It’s best to surround yourself with positive people, or even a health coach, to support you on your journey. So you’re surrounded by positivity and people lifting you up, which should create a positive mindset.”
Body acceptance has nothing to do with how much you weigh.
“Weight loss is not at all a surefire path to body acceptance,” says Devin Alexander, who has maintained a 70-pound weight loss for more than 20 years and now serves as the chef for NBC’s The Biggest Loser. She explains that many people don’t have a realistic view of themselves due to drastic body dysmorphia.
“In my case, I dropped 70 pounds, was a size two, and still thought I wasn’t attractive. [This] landed me in Overeaters Anonymous after many broken plans because I couldn’t find anything to wear,” Alexander says. “I had always thought that if I was a size two, I’d be able to walk into a department store, throw anything on, and look great. Instead, I stopped feeling girlie because I still had big hips, and my chest and curves were disappearing. When I got my head straight and gained a few pounds back, I realized my body is best at a size four. Not overly lean, but fit.”
The bottom line, Mendez concurs, is that body acceptance requires each person to go on an individual journey. It takes more than weight loss to challenge negative perceptions. By believing you deserve and have a right to happiness and contentment regardless of your weight or how your body looks, you can start to see your own value.
“Body dysmorphia can affect anyone no matter their size,” Chase says. “I have known many women, who either lose weight or have always been thin, who have unhealthy or negative body images of themselves and think they’re [still] ‘fat.’ The mind, at this point, needs to be shifted. You transition your mind from negative to positive self-talk.”
If you’re struggling, you can use these tips to get back on the right track.
“Sometimes the hard work—keeping the weight off—begins once we’ve reached our goal size or weight,” Chase says. “Therefore, surrounding yourself with empowering and supportive friends and family or even a new community of friends will do wonders for your self-esteem. [It will] promote positive body acceptance.”
Here are some tips for body acceptance after weight loss, per our experts.
- Maintain a realistic perspective by reflecting on the goals you set for yourself.
- Write out and say positive affirmations daily.
- Believe that you have a right to be proud of your efforts.
- Start a meditation practice to help you feel more centered and grounded.
- Take photos of yourself to see your progress.
- View yourself as a whole person, not just a person who lost weight.
- Keep a gratitude journal to focus on all the positives in your life.
- Give yourself time to adjust to the physical, psychological, and emotional changes that come with weight loss.
- Dress for your new body, or hire a stylist to help you find clothing that makes you feel great.
- Share your journey with others.
- Talk to a counselor for support around body image distortion or negative thinking patterns.
“As part of my recovery, I started wearing a baby picture of myself in a locket ring with the commitment that I would never say anything to myself that I wouldn’t say to a small child,” Alexander shares. “It’s amazing how mean we are to ourselves. I forced myself to behave with love toward myself like I do to everyone else, which changed my mindset massively.”
Talk to an expert.
Pay attention to red flags that can indicate you need more help on your path to body acceptance. Mendez says these often include overwhelming or paralyzing negative thoughts and feelings, withdrawal from friends and family, lack of hygiene or self-care, neglecting responsibilities or tasks, or increased substance abuse. Chase shares that looking back, she experienced a lot of fear around eating and gaining weight. It wasn’t until she put trust in a health coach that she overcame that fear to have a more positive relationship with food and accept her body.
“We speak to accountants and financial advisers and arborists and attorneys and so many other professionals who have studied topics that we haven’t,” Alexander says. “So why do so many people have a tough time turning to trainers or psychologists or other personal experts? It takes strength to recognize that you don’t know everything and might benefit from another person’s expertise. If you’re struggling, as Nike would say, just do it.”