Obesity and Body Maps

Early one morning, now decades ago, I looked far down a hallway and saw two very obese women walking toward me.  Backlit by the rising sun, the two women appeared only in outline; all I could see of them was the dark shapes of two large bodies surrounded by golden rays.  I stood, transfixed, watching their movements as they walked.  Their arms swung far out from their shoulders like ribbons on a maypole.  Instead of swinging easily to and fro with each step, their upper extremities flew back and forth like propeller blades.  The force of their arm rotations supplied energy to fling their hips and torsos forward, while their legs, stiff and straight, worked to catch up with each step.  It looked like hard work, and I forced myself to look away. 

Then, a couple of years ago, having arrived early to a large celebration, I saw a woman, clearly an organizer of some sort, crossing the still empty party room on some urgent last-minute mission.  What I saw astounded me.  Though of normal weight, she was flinging her arms back and forth like propeller blades.  Immediately, I knew.  She had not always been this size.  I also knew something else, and it troubled me greatly: Part of her brain still thought she was heavy.  Despite the many hours she had invested in her health and recovery, and despite her obvious success, not all of her had healed. 

Last week I saw it again.  This time it was a young woman walking along briskly on the sidewalk. 

Gastric bypass operations have become commonplace, and many individuals who thought they were consigned to a life of obesity, diabetes and knee pain have found a way out.  It’s not enough, though.  We seem to be making some headway treating the physical part of the disease.  We need to do a much better job treating the mental and emotional part.  I’m sure that Dr. Sara Stein, the renowned bariatric psychiatrist and author of Obese from the Heart, would agree.

This past summer I had the pleasure of reading The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, by the  mother-son neuroscience writing team of Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee.  Rated one of the top science books of 2007 by the Washington Post, it explains how our minds create networks of body maps that are exquisitely related to how our bodies interact with the environment.  Like a tree that grows new limbs while others are pruned, body maps change over time, shrinking and expanding in response to changes in our bodies and the environments within which we function. 

Doctors, and occupational and physical therapists, are now using the new research about body maps to develop methods to heal phantom limb pain, anorexia nervosa, and other body map distortions.  I look forward to its application for all those whose minds could use some help learning that the bodies they inhabit are no longer obese.
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