“Feeling Fat” and Eating Disorder Recovery

While people often refer to fat as if it’s a feeling, it is, of course, not a feeling. Fat is a body type. The expression “I feel fat” is universal and uttered by people of all genders, ages, and body sizes. The phrase is typically a narrative that we use to describe some kind of negative feeling state(s) that we think, in the moment, may be connected to our bodies. The onset of “fat feelings” is usually associated with a worsening mood, social withdrawal, and preoccupied thoughts. Dieting or food restriction are common responses to “feeling fat,” perpetuating problematic cycles including restricting/over-eating, purging, extreme dieting measures, and more.

About “fat”

Before we elaborate on the common phrase of “I feel fat,” I first want to clarify something critically important. Our culture has taught us that “fat” is a negative, harmful, insulting word.  “Fat” has become associated with being unlovable, lazy, slovenly, and poor. It is used to represent gluttony, selfishness, and poor health.  When someone exclaims, “I’m fat,” we often respond with reassurance: “Oh no, you’re not. You’re ok, and you’re beautiful.” When we disavow the word “fat,” we are inadvertently reinforcing that it is indeed a negative thing.  When we shy away from the term, we are saying that it is indeed bad and harmful as opposed to being a simple, neutral description of a particular type of body.

Over the last decade, many people in larger bodies are proudly and emphatically reclaiming the term “fat” and using it without conflict as they would any other descriptor. The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), founded in 1969, is leading the fat liberation movement and boldly embracing “fat” in its name.  The movement is growing by leaps and bounds, fueled by the enthusiastic voices of fat activists and influencers all over the world.  

So as we address the common use of the term “fat” as a catch-all term for negative sensations, feelings, and judgements about oneself, I want to be clear that pairing the term with negative connotations is inherently problematic. We have a lot of work to do as a society to open our minds and to embrace the beautiful diversity of humankind. So let’s work on extinguishing “fat feelings” and on changing our relationship with the term “fat.” All of us will be better off for it.

What has “feeling fat” done for you lately?

As a first step in shifting your language and thinking around “fat,” consider what “feeling fat” does for you. In other words, when you “feel fat,” how do you engage in the world around you?  How do you feed yourself? What happens to your general mood? How does it impact your relationships? If you recognize that your sense of well-being and many important self-care behaviors are directly tied to how thin or fat you’re feeling, it may be time to get angry – and channel that anger into your motivation to put an end to this constant battle.

What can you do if you’re feeling F.A.T.?

Let’s consider this acronym: F.A.T.

F is for function. Repetitive negative thoughts about your body can serve a function. The distraction they cause can work for you in a way, by pushing away a whole range of other feelings that may be even harder to cope with than “fat feelings.” For example, when people feel shame, embarrassment, self-consciousness, or guilt (to name a few common emotions), it’s easy to funnel these feelings into the familiar “I’m just fat” or “I feel gross.” As painful as these self-statements can be, there is a comfort in the simplicity and familiarity. I mean, there you have it… you’re just plain fat. And if you’re simply fat, well then, the assumption is that you can fix it through dieting. And then all of these messy feelings will go away. 

While this line of thinking is not conscious, the loop of feeling bad, engaging in negative self-talk, and then “fixing” the discomfort through the hope and promise of the next diet is a classic pattern. Engaging in this pattern keeps you busy and keeps a lot of more complex feelings at bay.   

A is for antecedent. Next time you “feel fat” or “disgusting,” consider what happened right before you verbalized or internalized the fat statement. Did you just finish eating? Are you wearing tight-fitting clothes? Were you feeling full, hot, sweaty, or tired?  These are normal, natural sensations and experiences that people may interpret as evidence of weight gain or body fat.

T is for trigger. With T for trigger, we think about the emotion that may have triggered fat feelings. Consider if something might have prompted feelings of shame, embarrassment, loneliness, or sadness. Are you feeling self-conscious? Are you perceiving rejection? For many people, feelings of inadequacy or doubts about your desirability reduce your worth to a body – a body that is not good enough, thin enough, or sexy enough. Of note, sometimes, even positive feelings can prompt an immediate self-sabotage reaction: “Oh no, I can’t be happy because I first have to fix my weight.”

Now what?

Once you understand the function of your negative self-talk, along with the settings, situations, and emotion that prompt it, you can begin to tackle it.  

  • When you notice the feelings coming on, ask yourself what’s really going on. What are the emotions beneath the fatness? What are your needs right now and how can you meet them without beating yourself up or starting another diet?
  • How can you change the circumstances or setting to reduce the probability of triggering these thoughts? Put on some light, cool clothing. Make yourself comfortable. Do something energizing like playing upbeat music or distracting with some uplifting entertainment. Treat yourself kindly and with respect. Show yourself and your body compassion.
  • Shift your focus from your body on to something else, preferably something meaningful or potentially fulfilling. What other factors make you a valuable person besides your appearance? If you have trouble identifying other aspects of yourself besides weight/shape, then do your best to pick a few things that you wish you could develop more. Consider domains like relationships with your family and/or community, work or school pursuits, hobbies or interests. Who do you want to be? What’s really most important to you? And if you can identify a few things, see if you can mobilize to take any small step toward action. Reach out to an old friend. Visit a craft store.  Stop by a local animal shelter. Anything that can take you outside of yourself to remind you that you’re more than a body.

In our culture in particular – and more so now that smart phones and social media rule our lives – body dissatisfaction is pervasive. We know that body dissatisfaction is a risk factor for the development of eating disorders as well as being a core feature of active eating disorders. For many people who struggle with negative body image, professional treatment is essential. This blog includes some handy tips for reducing problematic self-talk, but in many cases, a more robust and comprehensive approach to body image disturbances will be necessary. Specialized treatments like Enhanced Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are structured to efficiently eliminate eating disorder symptoms and address the over-importance/over-valuation of shape, weight, and their control.  

If you are struggling with “feeling fat,” poor body image, or a preoccupation with food and eating, it’s so important to get help. Contact Columbus Park for information about how we treat body image and associated eating difficulties: info@columbuspark.com.