Body Maps for Healing Obesity

Do you know anyone whose faint accent or slight lisp becomes pronounced only when they are excited, or distracted? I think that something similar is happening to people who were once obese, but whose weight is now closer to the normal range.

Early one morning decades ago now, I looked down a long hallway and saw two obese women at the far end, walking toward me. Behind them, the sun was rising through the window at the end of the hall. Backlit, the two women appeared only in outline, so all I could see of them was the dark shapes of their bodies surrounded by golden rays. I stood, transfixed, watching their movements as they walked. Instead of moving to-and-fro with each step, their arms flew furiously back and forth like propeller blades, and their hands swung far out from their shoulders like ribbons on a maypole. They used the energy supplied by the arm rotations to fling their hips and torsos forward, while their legs, stiff and straight, worked to catch up with each step. Frankly, it looked like hard work. I looked away, and tried to forget what I had seen.

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

Last year I saw it again, for the third time, in a young woman walking briskly along 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. While we’re making headway treating physical aspects of obesity, a lot more remains to be done in the realms of mental and emotional health.

Some years ago I had the pleasure of reading The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, by the mother-and-son neuroscience writing team of Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee. Rated a top science book by the Washington Post, Blakeslee & Blakeslee explain that our minds create networks of body maps exquisitely related to how our bodies interact with the environment. Like trees that grow new branches while others are being pruned, body maps also change over time, shrinking and expanding in response to changes in your body as well as the environments within which you function.

Doctors, occupational therapists, psychologists, and physical therapists are using this research about body maps to develop methods for healing phantom limb pain, anorexia nervosa, and other body map distortions. I am looking forward to seeing them use body map research to help people whose minds need guidance adjusting to the fact that the bodies they inhabit are no longer obese.

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