You've been dieting for months, and you're close to your goal weight. Still, when the invitation to your high school reunion arrives, you toss it without a second thought.
Your best friend suggests you celebrate your weight loss with a vacation at a beach resort. You scoff, and wonder aloud why anyone would even suggest you go somewhere a swimsuit is required!
You've lost the weight and now the shopping fun begins. But while your eye is immediately drawn to a rosy pink sweater, you walk by it and head straight for the "black rack."
If any of this sounds familiar, you may be one of many dieters who just can't shake the old image of themselves. For many folks, experts say, shedding the pounds is easy compared with losing their mental picture of the plus-sized person they used to be.
"Losing the fat is sometimes only half the battle because the baggage is not only the weight, it's tied into what you felt like when you were heavy -- and sometimes it's tied to the whole reason you got heavy to begin with," says Abby Aronson, PhD, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders.
What's more, says Aronson, the longer you have lived with your plus-sized image, the harder it may be to ditch behavior and responses that had become automatic.
"If you continually avoided certain situations fearing humiliation because of your size, you unknowingly created a pattern of thinking that, over time, gets imbedded in your brain," says Aronson, author of The Final Diet. "It can be hard to let go of this kind of conditioning, even after you reach your goal weight."
In Search of a New Self-Image
That was the case for Lisa Goezte, a one-time chronic overeater who once tipped the scales at 550 pounds. Even after "stomach-reducing" surgery at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia helped her lose more than 350 pounds, it took some time before her new self-image kicked in.
"I had people consistently telling me that I was losing weight, but it was bizarre because I never saw it. I was so used to seeing myself in the mirror looking a certain way, that this was the image I continued to see," says Goezte, now a personal trainer at Can Do gym in Edgewater, N.J.
Even as she approached her goal weight, she stuck with dark colors and baggy clothes, and tried to hide her body as much as possible, she says. It wasn't until she won certification as a personal trainer that her mind began to catch up with what her body had accomplished.
"The fitness world is place of perfect bodies, and when I began to see that I was accepted there, in that world, I began to look at myself differently," says Goezte, who admits she still occasionally has a day when the woman in the mirror seems larger than life.
Passing for Thin
While liking the image you see in the mirror is a good start, you may not be mentally "fat-free" If you've been battling the bulge for any significant amount of time, says Los Angeles psychologist and body image expert Yvonne Thomas, PhD.
"Reacting as if you are still fat -- or what being fat means to you -- can become a natural reflex, driven by the subconscious, and capable of influencing our behavior in ways we sometimes don't see," Thomas tells WebMD.
That means you may often find yourself in an emotional tug-of-war between the person you are now and the one you used to be, she says.
"We may think we are reacting to our life in the here, but in reality, every day is like walking through a minefield of emotional, and sometimes, humiliating memories of what we endured when we were overweight," says Thomas.
In her new book Passing for Thin, author Frances Kuffel -- once 338 pounds and now a svelte size 10 -- details this very experience.
"It is hard to put that humiliation you felt as an overweight person behind you, partly because, I think, that at least some of the problems that caused you to overeat are probably still with you," says Kuffel. "You don't automatically lose those when you lose the weight."
While she finally enjoys shopping for clothes and doing some of the things her weight once kept her from doing, she says it's hard not to want to hide in the background for family photographs or to make herself invisible at social functions.
"Old habits, old ways of thinking about yourself can be very hard to break," says Kuffel. She admits that when she looks in the mirror she still sees a woman who doesn't deserve happiness -- much as she did when she was overweight.
Loving the New You
One way to escape some of these problems, experts say, is to start trimming the fat from your self-image almost from the moment you commit to your weight loss plan.
"Self-acceptance is different than liking your body, and you don't have to wait until you like your body to accept yourself," says Aronson. To this end, she says, make yourself a promise to stop putting yourself down because of your weight. Instead, pat yourself on the back as often as you can for taking steps to lose those extra pounds.
"You can turn your weight into something positive if you use it as an example of your resolve and your determination to turn health and your life around," says Aronson.
Once you actually begin to lose weight, Thomas says, create a visual diary of how your body is changing. Then keep those images front and center in your mind.
"If you have a friend or family member you really trust, have them take a picture of you in a bathing suit -- and then photograph you again each time you lose 10 pounds," says Thomas. Having concrete proof of how your body is changing, she says, can help you accept the new you.
What can also help: Celebrate each significant loss with a fantasy shopping trip -- and be determined to try on everything you think you can't wear.
"Pick out a size, a color, a style -- anything you were conditioned to believe would not look good on you because of your weight -- and try it on now," says Thomas. While not everything you pick will look terrific (because the truth is, even people on the skinny planet can't wear everything they like), you may be surprised to discover how much better you really do look and feel.
And what if you're not all that thrilled with what you see in the mirror right now? Aronson says you should act hot, even if you think you're not!
"Think of how you would act or walk or talk if you thought you looked thin and gorgeous, then hold that feeling in your head as you interact with others," says Aronson. The more times you replay those positive thoughts, the more likely it is you'll come to feel that sense of confidence all the time.
Then, when you do finally reach your goal weight, she says, your mind and your body will be on the same page.
"Your new image will be better integrated into your thought process and you'll be less likely to continue reacting to your inner 'fat' cues," says Aronson.
If, no matter how you try, you still can't get used to the new you, finding a therapist who specializes in eating disorders might help you spread your wings, Thomas says.
"If you haven't been able to shake your fat phobia within a year of reaching your goal weight, then it may be a good idea to explore what else besides the pounds may be holding you back from living your life," she says.