What does fat mean to you?

I was asked this exact question in therapy once. The fear I had around “being fat” was consuming my thoughts and behaviors; I was doing everything I could think of to “not be fat.”

My therapist asked “What does fat mean to you?” The only answer I could come up with was “big.” I didn’t want to be big. Over the course of many weeks we unpacked my fear of fat, and in that process I discovered an uncomfortable truth:

I judged fat people.

Culture is good at communicating that a large body is a bad body. If you are fat then you are lazy, unhealthy, gross, unreliable, undesirable, not disciplined in your eating habits, shouldn’t wear certain clothing, and should change your lifestyle in order lose weight.

I didn’t want to be gross and undesirable; I didn’t want to be thought of lazy and undisciplined. This is what fat actually meant to me.

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Those who know me well wouldn’t describe me as a judgmental person, and I try hard not to be. Yet in this area I was judging harshly without even realizing I was doing it. I was judging strangers, friends, and family as unhealthy, unhappy, and undisciplined. It was a humbling and healing truth to learn about myself.  Now that I had this understanding, I could see a little deeper into my eating disorder and the anxiety around my food and clothing choices, my social interactions, and my strict exercise regimens. I was seeing myself and fearing myself as that which I was judging harshly about others, and I was starving myself to death to avoid being what I had so irrationally feared.

For example, I would have changed my mind about an outfit believing that I looked fat in it…maybe my arms looked big or my stomach didn’t look flat. I would change simply because I judged myself as looking terrible because I had seen someone else in an outfit where her arms looked big or her stomach swelled out, thus judging her as needing to change her outfit. Body checking others led me to body check myself.  All I was seeing was bodies and body parts rather than knowing the people who lived inside the body shapes.

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We do this kind of judging as a culture, don’t we? There’s an expectation that larger bodies shouldn’t be in bikinis because what? It’s gross? No one wants to see exposed fat? Several brands of jeans have pants that “slim you down” because what? It’s not okay to show off the shape of your booty and thighs? Folks who live in larger bodies shouldn’t be eating “that cheeseburger.” Why? Because those people are fat and cheeseburgers are fattening and they should be eating a salad instead? Larger bodied people should be on diets to slim down because why? They’d be so much healthier?  (Note: Many folks in larger bodies are healthier than many of us in smaller ones. Health isn’t determined body size!)

Over time we believe the judgements about “fat people” and the expectations of what their lifestyles should be; we begin to apply those judgements and expectations to ourselves.

  • Summer’s coming and my body is so gross right now. I need to lose weight so I can wear a swimsuit.
  • I was so bad today eating those fries. I should have had the salad. I need to lose like 10 pounds. I should do a boot camp.
  • Oh my gosh I can see my rolls in this shirt. Ugh. I can’t wear this.
  • I gained six pounds this month. I am SO addicted to sugar. I need to cleanse and drop some weight.

These feelings suck, but instead of processing why we feel bad, we just avoid the feelings by going on diets, changing our clothes, regimenting exercise. We agonize over menus, ignore hunger signals, dread shopping, and become hyper-aware and anxious about calories, fats, and sugar. The bad feelings don’t actually go away. Anxiety, guilt, and shame around our bodies are constant because the messaging about “fat bodies” is constant. Our sucky feelings just grow because it’s impossible to achieve cultural expectations, thus leaving us constantly unsatisfied with ourselves.

The first step toward body satisfaction is to deeply understand what fat means to you and to notice (honestly) how culture’s messaging about fat is affecting how you view others in larger bodies and thus judging yourself in your own body. This is not an easy, quick, or comfortable step because it requires deep inner work. Body satisfaction doesn’t come from diets; it comes from deep inner work.

So, what does fat mean to you?

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