‘I feel fat’. It’s something most (not all) people with an eating disorder diagnosis can relate to, and often it can be a real barrier to making progress in recovery. If you feel ‘fat’, how can you possibly allow yourself more food, more rest, or to consider the possibility that weight gain might actually be a good thing?I have times when I genuinely experience my body as ‘fat’. It is an overwhelming sense of being ‘too big’, and it feels very real. I feel this regardless of the ‘facts’. I know my weight. I know that I would not be encouraged by the people who care about me and various professionals (whom I trust) to continue to gain weight for no good reason. Yet I still ‘feel fat’. I still think I am too big for my body at a ‘healthy’ weight. On days when it is very intense, ‘fat’, for me, is an all encompassing, physical sensation. It leaves me wanting to crawl out of my skin.
In a group at the ED service recently, we discussed the factors that can influence how we judge our weight and shape. Things like excessive scrutiny (paying too much attention to particular body parts) or body avoidance, the cultural message that weight loss is unquestionably desirable, regardless of whether a person medically needs to lose weight, and the role of perfectionism, self criticism and emotion. It is this last issue that I want to pay particular attention.
Now, I know logically that ‘fat’ isn’t a feeling and that when I ‘feel fat’ I – at least some of the time – displace other feelings onto my body. The problem is that this doesn’t change the feeling. And it doesn’t change the logical solution. Weight loss.
I think when younger and in a much more ‘unwell’ place than I am now, I had no real language for feelings. I’m not sure I didn’t know how I felt, but circumstances meant that I could not allow myself to acknowledge difficult feelings, or to express them in any meaningful way. ‘Fat’ was easier. It was a way to say ‘I feel like rubbish’, whilst remaining at a safe distance from whatever my real feelings were. Maybe ‘fat’ was also about anger. Certainly towards myself for ‘not being good enough’, but probably other things too.
Restriction, hunger, the effects of semi-starvation crowd out difficult feelings, and create a sense that you are doing something meaningful to take control. To ‘feel less‘. The sense is that that ‘my feelings are not allowed’. They have the potential to overwhelm others, leave me vulnerable, crushed. My feelings, needs, are too much. Therefore, I am too much. My body is too much. So you reduce the amount of space you take up. You squash or push away your feelings. ‘Feeling fat’ can be a very effective way of silencing ourselves. The paradox is that the more weight we lose, the more intense the ‘fat’ feeling often becomes. The ‘rules’ grow stricter, and any breaking of them becomes more emotionally charged. The goalposts keep moving and you shrink, and your world shrinks and your sense of who you are shrinks with it. And it all becomes weight and numbers and the fat feeling.
Of course, ‘feeling fat’ isn’t limited to those who have ‘clinically recognisable’ (whatever that is) problems with food and weight. To speak of ‘feeling fat’, is common, normal even. Maybe we’ve overindulged or have broken a self imposed food rule. Maybe we feel bloated or too full. I wonder about the intensity of these ‘fat’ feelings though. I’m not sure an occasional, transient experience of ‘feeling fat’ is the same as the relentless, all consuming sensation that fuels the drive to lose weight at any cost. But it’s probably on the same spectrum.
So, perhaps instead of ‘fat’, the challenge is to stop and try to feel whatever our feeling is. To begin to make sense of and tolerate pain or discomfort which may have been kept out of awareness for a long time. To begin to say stuff, express opinions, ask for things, say no. In doing so, we become more visible. And that’s a risk. It can feel hugely threatening, especially if some things have been unspoken of and pushed down for a long time. But it’s a lot more meaningful than ‘fat’.