When I was 14 years old, I babysat for the family who lived across the street. They had two children; a toddler and a baby of seven months. The mom, Kari, was not happy with the extra weight she gained from having the baby. She constantly dieted and exercised. She and my mother often traded diet tips and weight loss stories while drinking black coffee at our kitchen table.
One time, a few days into one of her restrictive diets, Kari came over to our house and sat down. She stretched out her legs, pointed her feet like a ballerina and said, “I feel so thin today. I know I’m not thin, but I feel thin.”
Thinness, to Kari, (to all of us back then) equated with being better, happier, and more attractive. That day, I got the message seared into my brain that feeling thin was proof you had willpower and you stuck to your diet. Fatness and feeling fat was bad, even if it was proof you just had a baby.
From then on, I tried my hardest to follow a diet. I wanted that elusive ‘thin’ feeling. I thought it was the only feeling that would relieve the terrifying ‘fat’ feeling that was beginning to invade my consciousness. So, instead of trying to help myself feel happy or content or peaceful or loving, I chose to work on feeling thin to combat feeling fat.
The things that made me feel thin were -following a low-calorie diet for a few days, jogging every day, or fasting. All these things led to losing a few pounds and I felt thin for a short time. Looking back now, I don’t know how I got through college or managed to have friends. Everything in my life was less important than losing weight.
Throughout my life, I have painstakingly weighed and measured my food, counting every carb, calorie and fat gram. And I did manage, a few times, to get to a weight I was happy with…more truthfully, I got to a weight that I thought would make me happy.
The problem was, in trying to mold my body for the approval of others, I succeeded in learning how to hate my body imperfections. When you are thin, you still think about your thighs, your stomach, the skin under your arms and a hundred other perceived flaws.
So, even though I became petite, my self-esteem was artificial. I felt thin when I was actively losing weight, but felt fat if I ate too much. And inside, I had hole in the core of my being even bigger than before I lost the weight. My self-esteem was linked to the number on the scale, same as always.
Being thin did not guarantee people were going to like me and it did not give me a foundation to handle stress. In fact, it triggered more stress because I felt a more urgent need to stay slim; to not disappoint myself and others. This attitude gave birth to a full fledged eating disorder and years of unhealthy habits (which were even worse than my mom’s fad diets.)
How does this all relate to ‘feeling fat?”
In the first ED program I attended, I was encouraged to express my feelings in a group therapy session after lunch each day. If I, or anyone in the group said they felt fat, we were told to find another word because ‘fat’ was not a feeling. This never helped me come to terms with the feeling of being fat, it just kept me trying to escape it. I kept thinking I was wrong about my feelings. I felt invalidated. And even though I looked for other words on a printed out list of feelings, none of them expressed how I felt.
I agree that we need to stop equating thinness with happiness, and fatness with negativity. I spend a significant amount of my time reading and writing about this. I am on that bandwagon. But emotions and feelings are very complex subjects, and trying to explain that fat is not a feeling just complicates things even more. Only by embracing my experience of feeling fat could I learn to recognize other emotions and get some meaning back into my life.
We view feeling fat as a negative event because of our beliefs. Initially, we get our beliefs from how we are raised, what we learn from society, and the experiences we have in our lives. If we dismiss feeling fat as an erroneous emotion, we can never come to terms with it. It will forever have a negative connotation. By not allowing ourselves to examine the feeling, it becomes this ominous thing we are afraid of.
If we are going to change the perception about fat and feeling fat, we have to face it head on; we have to study and re-define it.
Feelings and emotions serve us for survival, not to cause unnecessary suffering. So, by allowing myself to explore my ‘fat’ feeling I can determine the cause. How I interpret that feeling is really what counts. If I keep trying to vanquish it, I will never get to what my body is really trying to tell me.
For me, feeling fat is an expression of a mild physical discomfort, it’s not a debilitating pain, its not a negative thought, and it does not change my value as a person. It could be that I ate too much, or I feel bloated from a certain food, or my clothing is uncomfortable. Fat is the word I use to express these feelings. ‘Uncomfortable’ may be a more acceptable word, but fat fits my feeling more precisely.
Its not unlike having an itch or feeling sleepy or any other feeling you can name that requires you to attend to something about your body. Once the itch is scratched or you take a nap, you can go on with your life.
The problem most of us have is that when we feel fat, we think it means we should lose weight. We think it is a negative thing that cannot be alleviated by anything other than exercise, dieting and weight loss. But if we study it carefully, we can make ourselves more comfortable in our own skin by making a few adjustments.
Sometimes these are physical adjustments like loosening our clothes or drinking water instead of soda. Sometimes they are mental adjustments, like remembering that feeling fat is not a negative event. And like most other issues, when we acknowledge it and open ourselves up to it, we will have a clearer mind. With a clearer mind, we then have a choice to either accept it for what it is -a mild discomfort, or take reasonable measures to resolve it.
For more on trusting your body – Your Body Is Brilliant
For more on body image issues – Can I be Weightless?
“The breakthrough will come when we can embrace and examine feeling fat instead of trying to conquer it or run from it.”