My esteemed colleague and eating disorder therapist/pioneer Alexis Conason (PsyD) recently posted a research finding on her social media. It stated that a study performed on 900 young adults by Mizzou’s Center for Body Image Research and Policy showed that “over 40% of people agreed that it would be worse to gain 25 pounds during social distancing than to become infected by COVID-19.” I was disappointed, but not in shock when reading this, as the pervasiveness of diet culture and fat phobia is astounding. Now, as we sit in a pool of unknowns, people consider weight gain worse than this terrifying illness.
While the following piece will move away from the focus on COVID-19, I felt it essential to start with this information as an introduction as I continue to use this platform to discuss fat-phobia and the very real effects it has on individuals.
It has become so commonplace culturally to make self-loathing and degrading comments about oneself in relation to body shape, weight, size, exercise or overall appearance. How often do you casually hear people talk about “being bad” by eating certain foods or rearranging entire eating habits based on a food they consider to be “taboo”? Better yet, how often do people discuss exercising to “get rid” of food? (This, as an important note, is considered a purge; to “compensate” for eating by exercising falls under the category of purging.)
This has become so normal and yet is riddled with such judgment, shame, and can, and typically does, lead to food rules, feelings of worth being connected to appearance, and overall complicated relationships between the mind, body, and soul.
This mindset and approach can have long-lasting impacts; imagine if it was deemed normal for people to assign worth to the amount of times they blinked or exhaled per day. Eating and breathing are necessary functions for our lives, and yet food and eating patterns have become so bogged down by the multibillion-dollar diet industry, which establishes a culture that confuses correlation with cause concerning weight and health. Health has become defined as the pursuit of weight loss, when studies show just how detrimental that can be.
When an individual makes fat-phobic comments, this impacts not only that person but the people around him or her, and all those who inhabit bodies of size.
1. The impact on the self. Our thoughts, with time, can become automatic and fused with beliefs. Engaging in an internal and judgmental dialogue will lead only to sadness, frustration and shame. We must protect ourselves from being caught up in the mindset that how we look will better ourselves or our lives, as this is contrary to our values and to what we know to be true: body esteem does not equal self esteem. We bring ourselves down and into pain when we speak negatively to ourselves. Picture, if you will, a loved one of yours. What would you tell him or her if you heard that person judging himself or herself making statements about self-worth and value? Now, keep in mind the negative judgments you make about body, shape and weight, and challenge yourself to notice first the thoughts and then respond to yourself in a loving, supportive or, at least, patient and grounded manner. Regardless of what happens, it never helps to practice judgment and shame toward oneself; this will not propel you forward, it will only bring you down.
2. The impact on loved ones: How we speak to and about ourselves directly impacts those around us. When you speak negatively about food to family, children and friends, they may start to believe this too. We must be particularly careful with children who look up to us and may learn, based on what they hear, that their worth is tied to eating patterns or appearance. What a devastating thought for humans of all ages to believe. People around you will believe that if you are judging yourself, you are judging them. They may twist their beliefs based on yours when perhaps this had never been a real value.
3. The impact on individuals in bodies of size: I shy away from using the term “overweight” as this implies one specific weight as ideal. The term in the field being accepted at this time is bodies of size. Individuals are also reclaiming the word fat, as has been discussed in previous pieces, as a mere descriptor and have pointed out that there is no reason to use this word judgmentally just as we would not say “blue-eyed” with judgmental implications.
Stating fat-phobic comments directly impacts those who are in bigger bodies, those who are fat. When an individual in a smaller body judges his or her appearance, the friend or family member—or even stranger—will feel shamed and rejected when noting the easy comparison. She or he will believe that you must equate that person’s worth as lower because of your value of thinness. You are essentially saying, “I want to be careful so that I don’t look like you.” This is an absolutely awful way to live—to experience shame and rejection by a loved one, the community, and the thin-obsessed culture. Be mindful of who you could be hurting when you say what you do. Be mindful that this individual may completely love his or her body but that it can still bring sadness hearing others judge their own smaller bodies and therefore assuming your judgment of his or her size.
This process will stop when we all make an effort. To speak kindly to ourselves. To tolerate, accept—even love. Not to say, “No, you’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” because this implies that fat and beautiful are mutually exclusive. Additionally, telling a fat person that he or she isn’t fat implies that fatness is bad rather than accepting body shape and noting that this is not as valuable as so many other important parts of life.
Remember whom you can impact, and at this time, challenge yourself to find meaning and worth beyond numbers or sizes.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, is the assistant clinical director at Monte Nido Manhattan, works in private practice (virtually at this time) and writes and speaks about topics related to body image and mental health around the country. To learn more, visit www.temimah.com.