Girlfriend Doesn’t See That She’s Lost Weight

Reader’s Question

Hi, my name is Daniel and after trying to do some research by myself I have come up with nothing so I was wondering if you could help me. I would like to know if there is a theory or a word for not noticing how your body changes because you see it every day. For example I have been working out for a year and have gained some weight and everyone says I look a lot bigger but I cannot notice it. Another example is my girlfriend has lost a good 15 pounds because she thought she was fat and I’m always trying to explain to her that she doesn’t notice the change because it was soo gradual. So is there a term or a theory for this?

Psychologist’s Reply

I don’t know of a word that describes our inability to recognize small changes in appearance or weight. We do know that the key is the “recognition” of a change. In almost all areas of functioning, the brain has limits of recognition — points when the brain tells us that something is heavy or light for example. Our senses have limits of recognition. When is something heavy enough for us to recognize that there is something on our arm for example? A flea…a fly…a bird? As you accurately describe, the brain changes these limits of recognition as we change. As a child, a gallon of water would be considered “heavy” but as an adult, that weight would be routine. In the same way, as we gain or lose weight, build muscles, etc. the brain changes its range of recognition. Living with your body every day, you and your girlfriend would have difficulty noticing physical changes while friends that have not seen you in months would immediately recognize that your appearance has changed.

There is a psychiatric term for this type of perception when it becomes distorted however. It’s called “Body Dysmorphic Disorder”. This psychiatric disorder is found in individuals who have distorted body image. These folks are hypercritical of their appearance and may have 10 surgeries on their nose because it doesn’t look right to them. Folks with anorexia typically exhibit this distorted body image. Symptoms include a near-total preoccupation with their appearance, compulsive mirror checking, social withdrawal, excessive grooming behaviors, multiple plastic surgeries, obsessive preoccupation with idolized celebrities, and compulsive measuring of body characteristics.

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