“People try to protect their kids from the worst possible thing [in their minds]: fatness.” This blunt and profound statement was made by a local friend and colleague, Avigail Gordon, PhD (www.putitincontext.com) during a group discussion among intuitive eating providers. And in its simplicity, this statement summarizes the heartbreaking reality of our current world: people fear fatness.
People seem to fear fatness more than they fear emotional pain or suffering. They worry about themselves or their children and will do almost anything to prevent it — spending money on crash diets or injecting themselves with non-approved medications that have no long-term research. They will avoid and deny — and ultimately look back on their own reflections with judgment and scrutiny rather than tolerance, appreciation or even acceptance.
Why are we like this? What has happened to us that causes this extreme fear?
It is so tempting to respond to that question by thinking that it’s all about health. Please don’t. If you’ve read my column before you know that there is a fair amount of evidence that although people may say it’s about health, we can easily pick this apart.
If you’re new here (welcome!) or just want a recap: if it is solely about health, how are we so willing to ingest powders instead of food? If it is solely about health, are you actually concerned about the thin person you know who eats the same as that friend of yours in a bigger body? Or does your concern for health only surround those whose bodies look different than the idealized thin body our culture has come to idolize? Yes, some health conditions have a correlation to weight. And relying solely on the pursuit of weight loss actually tends to ignore the individual and the condition; research also indicates that the “results” of weight loss do not last. In most cases the condition is improved by actually paying attention to the person, by hearing about their habits and the person’s whole experience. Not scribbling a weight loss recommendation and calling it a day.
So if I am to argue that it’s not truly about health, what has caused this craze of dieting and fat phobia?
1. Gender Gap. I read a novel in junior high that became one of my favorite books. I actually re-read it recently. The story took place in the 19th century and there was a poignant scene when one of the characters described the way she did not eat before a party in order to fit into her corset. By doing so, she needed to physically lean on her date and dance partner and did not have the wherewithal to mindfully engage in conversation; her thoughts were focused instead on her hunger and weakness. Weakness is a keyword. Most eating disorders and disordered eating include some aspect of restriction or denying oneself food according to natural hunger cues.
When women, specifically, are guided to restrict, this takes away a level of power. One of the textbooks that I use when I teach a graduate level course on eating disorders has an entire chapter outlining why eating disorders are a feminist issue; shrinking ourselves and feelings of weakness keep us within a specific role in society. Think of how incredible it would be if we were functioning at full capacity, with all of our neurons firing at rapid speed because we were nourished and strong and not consumed by thoughts about our bodies or what we will eat or restrict.
2. Social Media. There has been such an upward trend of reported eating disorders among teen girls, especially in recent years with the emergence of TikTok (Science Direct, 2022). When I first started speaking about eating disorder awareness in schools I was always asked about the impact of social media on disordered eating and eating disorders. This answer has changed in the last 10 years; it used to be that social media was simply another piece of the puzzle, contributing but not causing. While someone who struggles must have a plethora of factors that come together (we cannot attribute an eating disorder to any one factor), social media has posed a major issue in recent years. The access to misleading information, pro-eating disorder accounts and influencers who advertise that “anyone can look like them!” has promoted viewers to experience shame and then turn this shame inward. Viewers believe their lives can be “fixed” if only they looked a particular way.
3. Associations to Fatness. We are not born judging others. We learn from those around us and the media. There are associations people make with regard to how others look, assuming qualities of that person whether they be about health or personality. There is a fear due to unfounded trends that are perpetuated through stigma, hurtful humor and blatant judgment.
4. Desire to Fit In — Literally. Our society prioritizes thinness and marginalizes others. Whether this is in terms of waiting room chairs or sizes in clothing stores, people fear not belonging and they fear others not having space for them.
What can we do?
We can pause our own judgments and the judgment language we may be using about ourselves and others. We can promote inclusivity — being sure that venues we rent or clothing we sell are inclusive to all. We can recognize the way restriction is systematic and shatter these systems by feeding ourselves. We can accept that our self-worth does not lie in a clothing size or a skipped meal, and by endorsing obsessions about clothing size and by skipping meals we are promoting the message that some bodies are better than others. And we can recognize the full extent of how these practices cause shame and heartbreak to those around us. You have so much power to rise up about trend diets or promises of “feeling better once you look better!” Feel better by investing in you — all of you.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness, and a Metro-New York consultant at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.