There are a lot of misconceptions out there about body image and eating disorders. I can’t even begin to address all of them here. But there’s one I’ve been thinking about lately–that problems with body image are caused solely by comparing yourself to unrealistic standards, and can be solved by simply comparing yourself to the “real” bodies around you instead.
First, a disclaimer–I’ve never had anorexia or bulimia. However, I’m not entirely out of my depth here. Had I gone to see a psychiatrist at some point prior to this year, he or she would probably have taken note of my obsessive calorie-counting, severe dietary restrictions, compulsive weight-checking and fat-pinching, and general conviction that I was “fat,” and diagnosed me with something called “eating disorder not otherwise specified,” or “EDNOS.” This means that one doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria for any of the eating disorders, but is definitely disordered nonetheless.
(For the record, I’m much better now.)
Anyway, one thing I remember very vividly from my years of thinking I’m fat was one particular response that I often encountered. Some people (mostly other girls), upon learning how I felt, would respond with this: “If you’re fat, then what am I?”
Now, I understand exactly where this comes from. Many of my peers were probably insecure, too, and it makes sense that they would be reminded of their own insecurity once I mentioned mine. Since I was indeed thinner than many other people, that response makes sense on some level. If I’m fat, they must be obese!
But it doesn’t really work that way. It would certainly be convenient if people’s self-concepts were always rational and based on reality. But the very definition of mental problems is that they’re distortions of reality–they’re unrealistic. That’s why grief after the death of a loved one isn’t considered a mental disorder, but depression is.
And that’s exactly why “If you’re fat then what am I” is not an effective response. At the time, I didn’t give two shits what other people were. It didn’t enter my thought process. In my case, my conviction that I was fat was mostly caused by cultural factors; namely, the fact that Russians are fucking preoccupied with beauty and weight. Absolutely preoccupied. It was also caused by years of ballet lessons, my depressive personality (which magnifies personal flaws), the belief that I could lose 10-20 pounds and still be healthy, fear that guys wouldn’t find me attractive if I had folds on my stomach, and many other causes.
For other people with body image and eating issues, the causes may be different. Some people develop the feeling that they’re unable to control their environment, so they control the only thing they can–their body. Others may start out actually overweight, start to diet and lose weight, and find that they’re addicted to the feeling of getting thinner. Others develop an overwhelming guilt whenever they eat, especially when they eat unhealthily, and they start to purge after eating. Some may have friends who constantly talk about their bodies’ flaws (remember Mean Girls?) and start to think the same way.
Whatever the causes are, these issues are much too complicated to be defeated by a simple glance at someone who weighs more than you.
Of course, “If you’re fat then what am I” also fails one of the most basic requirements of being a good listener–don’t change the subject to yourself. If your friend feels crappy and needs to talk to you, don’t make it about you. If your own issues are making it difficult for you to listen, tell your friend that. Sure, they might be disappointed that you can’t listen to them, but that’s much better than how they’re going to feel when you take their pain and turn it into a conversation about you and your weight.
It’s easy to resent people who, according to you, “should” be perfectly happy with their weight but are not. I can’t say I don’t get a twinge of annoyance whenever I witness a girl much smaller than me freaking out about her weight. But then I remind myself that she’s not me. Poor body image seems almost like a cliche among young women these days, but it’s so much more complex than you might think.
Great post; I felt the same way growing up as a “fat kid.” I would always see these other guys with the six-pack abs and start to resent them. It took me a long time to let go of those feelings but I’m kind of glad that I went through that, in hindsight, because I used it as motivation to do something about my body size. Great post and I look forward to sharing more with you:))
Thank you! 🙂
Interesting points. Since I am actually somewhat overweight, my first response when other people complain about feeling fat is the, “well, what would that make me?” It’s because, for me, weight is one of the touchiest subjects, and if I hear people thinner than me moaning about being fat, it triggers my own emotions about my weight. Recently, I have actually started saying telling people that I can’t have that discussion with them. Better to stifle it before I get triggered, though I feel guilty for not giving them an outlet. Usually it’s fine, though. When I mention that I’m not capable of discussing fatness, we change the subject. So I do think that’s a wise course. 🙂
I think that’s a great course of action. It’s a gentle reminder to people to be a bit more sensitive, it allows you to escape getting triggered, and it prevents other people from unnecessary feelings of guilt that they’d feel if you DID say “What does that make me?”
Also, honestly, the more people like you say that stuff, the less “fat talk” there’s going to be. And that would do EVERYONE a favor. 🙂
Thanks for reading!
That’s what I do as well. I’m almost always larger than the person who initiates fat talk with me, and I work very hard to be happy with my current weight. (Because for me, there’s a difference between being happy with the natural product of my life choices and actively needing to out-think all the “fat is bad” cultural messages I see on a daily basis.) I do pretty well most days, but when someone — particularly someone not fat or not as fat as I am — asks me to validate “fat is bad” back to them… I go, “I can’t have this talk.”
I’m working on my weight simpluy to relieve the pressure the extra kilos put on my scoliosis and bulging discs in the lumbar spine.
Also I like to wear a certain style of clothes and I can’t witht he extra kilos I acquired during my battle with Goliath.
I’ve never had an eating disorder either, but I’ll tell you something. As soon as I give up and actually buy clothes a size larger to fit the extra inches, the damn inches fall off! It has just happened again! Why couldn’t I lose it BEFORE I bought the damn clothes??????
So what is the psychology behind that! It has to be psychology, there is no other explanation.
That’s not psychology. That’s just Murphy’s Law. 🙂
I think it is also worth discussing thin girls. I have been very thin my whole life and I have always felt like I wanted to gain weight because everyone commented on my body size. Not being able to have the “I feel fat” conversation almost excludes a connection with some women. If you aren’t in the “I need to lose weight, cut back on junk food” conversation you miss out on something cultural.
That’s quite true and probably deserving of its own post. People tend to sort of “police” each other’s bodies whether they’re large or small, and most thin people I know have been subject to plenty of nosy and inappropriate inquiries as to their eating and exercise habits.
As for your last point, that definitely also applies to people like me, who aren’t all that thin but have chosen to opt out of those discussions for mental health reasons. I don’t think I need to lose weight and I don’t particularly think I need to cut back on junk food (though I do need to go to the gym, but that’s for general health reasons), so I don’t really have anything to contribute when girls around me start harping on about that.
I think a lot of these conversations also miss the vast range of individual factors. I could be “fat” in the strict health-related sense at a BMI of 22, in the sense that that amount of weight would not be healthy on my frame. There are other people who might be healthy at a BMI of 27. You just can’t compare without taking into account a bunch of other features, such as bone structure.
Most measures of “fat” that we have are statistical, and thus suffer from the fact that almost none of us have a completely average body. It’s a flaw of the medical system to treat statistical normality as personal health. What we are actually doing is prizing a certain combination of bone structure and natural metabolism.
As a thin person, I do have to echo Kourtney’s comments about wanting comments to go away. My biggest pet is the general assumption that if I am eating something perceived as healthy, that is somehow the key to my low weight or that I am doing it in order to maintain my weight. I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons, as well as making food choices for the sake of my health in general and specifically as an athletic individual. I have also felt that many women feel the need to put me down as “exceptional” in some regard, with comments like “you’ll look like us in 10 years” or “just wait until you have a kid”. The effect is often that I feel like I, personally, am somehow attacking them merely through my body type.
Oh, yeah, I’ve gotten those comments too. In general, I’ve found that insecure people absolutely love to try to fuck everyone else up too rather than take care of their own issues. It’s unfortunate.
Yeah, when I was dealing with anorexia, I was so self-obsessed I honestly did not care what other people’s bodies looked like. I was concerned with my own. But sometimes I’d notice that I was the thinnest in the room and that made me happy. I also enjoyed, in a demented way, how uncomfortable me being thin and not eating made other women. It was very twisted and I’m happy that I’m healthy and done with all of that now. Also being 15 at the time didn’t help. Very insightful article.
Glad to hear you’re better now. 🙂
Something I’ve found when speaking with friends of mine that are significantly smaller is that although it seems silly (to me) to flip out over gaining 5 lbs, on someone who is only say, 110-115 lbs, 5 is going to seem like a lot, whereas for me, it’s not such a big deal. I stopped doing the ‘oh pshaw’ thing because at any size, an insecurity is going to seem very real and it’s unfair to invalidate someone for their feelings.
I totally agree with what you said about taking someone’s concerns and making them about you. Not only is it kind of insensitive, I find it often ends up being a ‘who has the biggest flaws’ free-for-all, when really we should be pointing out everyone’s awesomest qualities.
Agreed. I’ve always wanted to start a little tradition with my friends where we tell each other what our favorite things about each other (physical or otherwise) are. It would flip the whole “fat talk” thing on its head. 🙂
I dunno… certainly with those struggling with eating disorders, it’s not the kind of comment that’s likely to make an impression. But among normal, healthy young women who just like to moan about their own insecurities, it can serve as a gentle reminder that you’re being really tactless.
I’m not a pixie, but through a lot of work I feel pretty good about my body and I find the whole ‘let’s sit around and trash talk our bodies’ genre of conversation really tedious, especially when half the time, all people want is their ego stroked (“Noooo, how can you say your fat? Just look at my thighs!” “Oh but at least you don’t have flabby arms!” etc etc). Sometimes a wry “If you’re an elephant, I must be a friggin blue whale then,” does the trick and stops them thinking about themselves for two seconds. Which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly a bad thing
Well, it stops the conversation, but it does it in an awkward, insensitive way. Just because the person looks “normal and healthy” to you doesn’t mean their insecurities aren’t real and painful. It’s unkind to dismiss them like that, in my opinion.
Pingback: Links I like |Books | Rebecca Howden