Radical weight loss can lead to a loss of identity

by Ruth Nichol / 20 December, 2016


Photo/Getty Images

Going from a large to a smaller version of yourself can involve a painful loss of identity.

Andrew Dickson thought the hard work was behind him once he shed almost a third of his body weight in 2006. After years of experiencing what he calls weight anxiety, he was delighted to have metamorphosed from “Fat Andy” into “Athletic Andrew” who could wear average-sized clothing and run 10km in 41 minutes.

“It was a marvellous feeling,” he says of the ­radical weight loss that saw him drop from 135kg to – at his lightest – a little under 86kg.

Dickson, a senior management lecturer at Massey University whose research takes a critical view of the weight-loss industry, slimmed down after taking an appetite suppressant for 10 weeks, ­followed by several months of hard-core dieting and exercise.

It made him feel good about himself and it also brought him a lot of kudos, including an article in a local ­newspaper with the headline ­“Monster to marathon man”.

The general assumption was that he must be delighted to be shot of Fat Andy. “Most people just assume that you hated your old body and you love the new one.” But it turned out his feelings were a lot more ­complicated than that.

“It’s incredibly strange to have such a radical transformation,” he says. “We think all the effort goes into losing the weight, but radical weight loss doesn’t really start until the weight is lost.”

Andrew Dickson. Photo/Getty Images

In fact, Dickson likens the process to recovering from a serious car accident or developing a life-changing medical condition such as type 2 diabetes.

“In those cases, people suddenly have to think completely differently about their body and there’s a huge loss that goes with that. But we don’t take the changes that come with ­radical weight loss seriously – we only see losing weight as a positive, wonderful thing.”

Dickson has long taken the view that it’s unethical for the health sector to promote radical weight loss to people who are obese, as they are unlikely to sustain it – research suggests about 95% of those who lose a lot of weight will regain most or all of it within a few years. However, he has no problem with people who voluntarily attempt radical weight loss, and says the health sector can help them by providing psychological support that may limit the amount of weight they regain afterwards.

“I don’t believe that people need to regain all the weight they lose. If they lose 70kg, they might regain 20kg, which means they would still be ­significantly smaller than they were previously.”

Rather than congratulating people who lose ­substantial amounts of weight then expecting them to cope with the consequences on their own, he says they should be eligible for at least 12 months of free counselling with a psychotherapist.

“People who lose a radical amount of weight don’t have a safe place to talk about it.”

Psychotherapy has certainly worked for him, allowing him to talk openly about the downsides of losing weight, such as the loss of identify he experienced, and the fact that there was a lot he missed about Fat Andy.

“I grew up as a large man who was the life of the party – bold and loud and funny. Then I lost a huge amount of weight and I started to feel uncomfortable in a party ­situation, partly because I refused to drink alcohol, but partly because I didn’t feel I had a connection to people any more.”

He missed Fat Andy’s upper body strength, too: “I was known as a guy who could lift anything. I was ­embarrassed about losing that, but at the same time everyone was clapping me on the back and saying you must feel so much better.”

Psychotherapy also helped him accept that weighing 86kg was never going to be a realistic long-term goal for someone who, ­according to his Plunket records, was technically “obese” at the age of two.

Instead, he is learning to enjoy his latest incarnation, “Dad-bod Andy”, who probably weighs about 105kg (he never gets on the scales), runs most days and trains regularly at a martial-arts gym.

“Those extra 20kg represent muscle mass, power and manliness. I don’t just accept them – I embrace them.”

This article was first published in the December 17, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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