July 23, 2024
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What ‘Feeling Fat’ Actually Means About Yourself and Others

People often ask how to prevent body image issues or eating disorders. This is perhaps the number one topic I’m asked to speak about when meeting with students or providing training programs to the staff at an institution or in parent programs. And the number one “easy” response I give is to simply not comment on other people’s bodies. That’s really it.

Then again, how often do we give a compliment or overhear the classic, “You look amazing, it’s been so long! Have you lost weight?” Comments about appearance are nearly ingrained within us as a social platitude. And yet, by commenting on appearance we are inherently communicating our value of appearance. Can we still comment when someone appears to have had a hair cut or gets a new pair of glasses? I’d say yes. Because these comments typically do not denote messages about self worth. Comments about weight, shape, and size though, support our society’s reliance on worth being tied to appearance.

“How is my innocent comment about my friend’s work toward weight loss supporting this message?” people often wonder. Well, first of all, you do not always know the reason for any person’s change in weight, shape, or size. It could be because of a conscious decision, or it could be because of medical illness or mental illness. It could be the result of trauma or a reminder of pain. I have heard time and time again that when changes in size result in compliments, the receiver simply hears: now I can’t possibly go back to how I looked before because clearly I’m better this way. Or perhaps the person with an eating disorder feels that the disordered voice is validated, supporting the drive for weight loss. People tend to hear that they should be working to change and that others around them are unaccepting of their natural size.

So the number one recommendation is to stop commenting on size. Stop judging and joking about size. And this also applies to you, reader, about yourself. I met with a client recently who made such a profound statement in our meeting and graciously permitted me to share this with you.

She was reflecting on a conversation with a friend and noting the experience of people in smaller bodies judging themselves in front of her. When someone criticizes her own body, this sends the message to anyone in a body of similar size or bigger body that this person’s body is also meant to be judged. My client noted that when people use the expression “I feel fat,” they’re just saying that they feel like me— as if this is bad or wrong, and they’re not thinking about how this comment feels to others. They are not considering marginalization of those in bigger bodies, or the impact that these three words, spoken casually, can have to perpetuate shame.

Most people might respond and say, “No, I’m not judging anyone else’s body but my own when I criticize my reflection!” And yet, I have heard time and time again how hurtful it is, especially when folks in thin bodies make these comments. Though they do not intend to do so, they send messages to others about not belonging.

We talk about fat as if it is a feeling. We do not say, “I feel freckled today.” The word “fat” must stop being synonymous with something bad. We have to make space for individuals of all sizes, regardless of their health status. This is about respecting others and not making assumptions that we know anything about their lives, what they eat or how they move. We need to remove “fat” as a feeling from our vocabulary. If we feel dissatisfied looking in the mirror then say that “I feel unhappy.” My hope, reader, is that you can reflect on the impact of diet culture and emotional underlying issues that lead you to this thought. But we need to stop discussing fat as if it is to be avoided and instead talk about how we feel and give more respect and compassion not only to others’ bodies, but also to our own bodies.

My first and main recommendation is to remove joking language and criticism about bodies from how we speak. It will take practice and time but my hope is to support one another while doing this so that we may boost rather than deflate one another’s morale and thereby provide a comfortable space for everyone in our society.


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.

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