Is “Fat” a Feeling?
I feel fat. — If you struggle with an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, and/or body dissatisfaction, you have likely verbalized or mentally acknowledged this experience, whether it’s a fleeting thought or a constant rumination. Sometimes such a “feeling” is triggered by physical sensations in the body, including bloating, fullness, stomach pain, or feeling the snugness of one’s clothes. However, during the absence of these physical symptoms or similar others, often times we use “fat” to describe our emotional experience, and particularly one that is negative. What do we mean when we say this? As humans we are capable of experiencing an overwhelming variety of feelings. Is “fat” one of them? Is it possible to “feel” fat?
When we say this, we seem to be equating a word that is physically descriptive and meant to be emotionally-neutral to a feeling. Nowhere in the Dictionary.com definition of “fat” is there a reference to any emotional experience.
However, the culture of our society has created a negative association with the word “fat.” To me, this is similar to the concept of saying I feel “blue.” We often use “blue” to refer to feeling sad or melancholy. Given this analogy, I had a thought: if “blue” implies “sad,” what feeling does “fat” insinuate? In other words, what emotion are we trying to convey when we say we feel “fat”? Exploring this answer can be a core part of healing and recovery for those struggling with their body image.
What might we be actually communicating when we say we feel “fat”? We may be trying to express a deeper underlying emotion that is not apparent to us in that moment.
For instance, imagine a woman who is surrounded by a group of her girlfriends and begins to mentally compare her body size to theirs. She perceives that she weighs more than all of these women. Regardless of whether or not this is a reality, her automatic thought during this experience might be “I feel fat.” As this woman physically compares her body size to that of others, is there another deeper emotion that she may be experiencing?
Given our societal glorification of smaller bodies, she may perceive that her body size, and therefore she, is not acceptable. This may result in feelings of shame, low self-worth, and/or sadness. Thus, when she says she feels “fat,” she may actually be communicating these other emotional experiences. In our diet-obsessed culture, when we focus on feeling “fat,” rather than on these underlying emotions, we turn to alleged solutions – changing our diet or intensifying our exercise regimen. However, when we try to change our bodies, these feelings underneath are not processed and do not necessarily go away – we are still left feeling ashamed, unworthy, or depressed.
Often what we experience internally when we feel “fat” may not even have to do with our bodies. We might be feeling sadness about a breakup or anxiety about an upcoming performance, and such emotions can manifest as poor body image. We sometimes view these overwhelming feelings as emotional “fullness,” similar to the physical fullness we often associate with feeling “fat.” Thus, we might perceive this emotional heaviness as physical heaviness. Focusing on one’s body image can also provide another focal point or distraction that may seem easier to endure or control than our actual distressing emotions.
Address Your Feelings, Not Your Body
Why is this important? For those of us struggling with negative body image, we may feel that the solution is to change our bodies. However, this can become an empty pursuit, given that we are ignoring the emotional foundation of our negative body image.
Next time you find yourself feeling “fat” or experiencing dissatisfaction with your body, ask yourself – What am I actually feeling? Try to label the emotion. See if you can detect where you might be feeling this emotion in your body. In what other situations do you tend to feel this way? It’s difficult to feel solely “fat” without experiencing an attached emotion. Thus, try and dig deeper and you may notice a variety of feelings: depression, guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, uneasiness, anticipation, etc. You may even discover some more positive emotions.
Once you recognize them, ask yourself what you really need in that moment instead of a desire to shed a few pounds. Do you need support from a friend? Words of affirmation? A few minutes away from your desk? During these moments, having a toolbox of practices for emotional regulation and self-care is invaluable for attending to these feelings.
Bio: Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a psychotherapist and psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She offers individual and group therapy for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body image concerns, and comorbid mood or anxiety disorders. Bahar has provided mentorship to individuals seeking eating disorder recovery and has facilitated Reshaping Body Image support groups. She is also completing research investigating the role of culture and family on disordered eating and incorporates this into her work with clients. Contact us today to book an appointment with Bahar Moheban.