People change all the time. You can think of life as a process of becoming. But one of the funny things about identity, as a psychological state, is that you retain traces of the person you used to be in the person you are. After thinking of yourself a certain way during the formative times of your life, you internalize that identity, even when your reality changes.
One example of this that I have personal experience with is weight loss. Many people who were heavy and lose weight still think of themselves as big. I lost my weight as a young teen, and even though I’ve never struggled to the same extent with my weight again (just a more typical 10 or so pounds that appear and disappear), my instinctive self-image remains large. Others have the same sort of experience. Take Andie Mitchell, who writes in her weight loss memoir It Was Me All Along (emphasis mine):
The thinness I’d achieved came with its own brand of indignity . . . the fatness of my shadow that followed me . . . I wanted badly to conceal the fact that, despite a radical transformation, I remained as screwed up as I had ever been.
Staring at my body, pinching my love handles, I struggled to absorb that these changes were real. I wanted to stay this way. Without that mirror, without any way of physically seeing my own form in plain sight, I still believed myself to be the fat girl. My mind and eyes were in opposition.
I recognize myself in this description; I’m not the only one. Comedian Judd Apatow reports having similar feelings to Mitchell. In conversation with Amy Schumer, he noted:
I was much smaller than everybody . . . and by the time I caught up a little bit, in sixth or seventh grade, I had been defined. . . And as a result, I always feel like a nerd. I have a a beautiful wife, I’m successful. But I still feel like the kid who’s been picked last in gym class.
Whether it’s because we see our physical shortcomings as a metaphor for our spiritual ones or a concrete hangup on our bodies, being overweight early in life shapes adult identity.
[There’s also an expectation that losing weight will lead to happiness. Sorry to say, that’s not usually the case, as abundant research suggests.]
In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about what this “forever fat kid syndrome” means for behavior change, both good and bad.