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One of the most difficult and irritating things to hear in eating disorder treatment was “Fat is not a feeling.” It was a phrase that was repeated over and over, and until recently, I didn’t fully understand what it was meant to convey. All I knew was that, shortly after hearing those words, I’d be forced to come up with what I was feeling on an emotional level rather than shove it under the label of “fat”.
When I was first told that “fat” isn’t a feeling, I wasn’t sure what to do with that information. I felt physically fat. Of course fat was a feeling. It had to be. If it wasn’t, why did I feel so massive? It wasn’t until recently, when I was reflecting on my time spent in an intensive outpatient program last year, that I fully understood: it wasn’t that I couldn’t feel physically fat, but rather that my distress surrounding the idea of being fat was the true heart of the issue. I was using “fat” as a code word, a stand-in to express that I was feeling certain emotions that I had come to associate with being fat.
I would later discover that I was actually feeling like I was lazy; that I lacked self-control; that I was a failure.
Those are some pretty heavy feelings to shove into to a simple description of one’s physical size.
I know that I’m not alone in my appropriation of “fat” as a way to express disgust with myself. The word is avoided at all costs when describing someone’s physical appearance, replaced instead with more palatable descriptions. It is regularly used as an insult, something to indicate that someone is lazy or slovenly or clueless. Describing yourself as “fat” -- no matter how accurate -- is sure to be met with responses such as, “No, you’re not!” or “You’re so pretty!” because the association with the word is so negative. This sort of ritualistic call-and-response is more than a simple social interaction, though; it propitiates the idea that being “fat” is inherently bad.
Herein lies the problem: as a society, our understanding of weight, health, and worth have become so enmeshed that one almost always seems indicative of another. If someone loses weight, that means they’re determined and healthy (the method used is rarely questioned, and even weight loss caused by short-term illnesses like the flu is often celebrated). If someone gains weight without appearing to be entirely emaciated initially, then something is obviously wrong. They’ve “let themselves go” or they overeat or have become lazy or some combination of the three. Gaining weight and being fat are both associated with such negative actions and attitudes that the very word “fat” has taken on a meaning entirely different than its original use as a descriptive term. It’s become shorthand for “lazy”, “out of control”, “unhealthy”, “gluttonous”, and a slew of other negative things.
Here’s the thing, though: being fat doesn’t mean any of those things. There are healthy fat people and unhealthy fat people. There are healthy thin people and unhealthy thin people. There are fat people who have nutritionally balanced diets, run miles every day, and are in good health in general, and there are thin people who have nutritionally poor diets, prefer couch time over treadmill time, and have terrible bloodwork. Weight isn’t a good indicator of how one operates as a person, and it certainly isn’t a good indicator of personal worth.
When we respond to loved ones’ distressed statements of “I’m so fat!” with immediate assurances that they certainly aren’t, we reinforce the idea that “fat” is synonymous with something negative. This sort of response doesn’t address the feelings undergirding the statement, but rather communicates that being fat is something to be avoided at all costs -- as if it’s on the same level as being cruel or lazy or rude.
The truth is that fat people exist. Period. “Fat” is a description of size. It doesn’t indicate an individual’s worth or determination or ability. It can’t tell us if someone is lazy or diligent, mean or kind. It’s literally just a description of size. It should be neutral, not inherently associated with all things negative.
So, what should we do when someone we love says that they’re “fat” in a distressed manner? I don’t have an exhaustive list of answers to that, but I know that when I presented with information I don’t fully understand, I like to start with asking questions. If a friend is using “fat” as shorthand, asking, “What do you mean by that?” or “Why do you say that?” could be a good conversation starter. They may just mean “It’s near my period and I feel bloated” or “I am a person who can be described as fat”, but it could also mean, “I’m feeling worthless.” Delving deeper into the issue rather than just accepting “fat” as a feeling will help to get to the heart of things and, in the long run, will help return the term “fat” to its rightful place as a descriptor.