“I Feel Fat”: What’s Really Behind These Thoughts

I feel fat and gross

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If you’re a woman, you’ve probably been thinking about your body at some point during the last 24 hours. It may have been in regards to health and fitness; perhaps it was related to exercise or eating. Given the anti-fat-biased diet culture we live in, you’ve also probably thought at some point in time, “I feel fat”, or worse, “I feel fat and gross”.

However, as you may well be aware, fat isn’t a feeling. So then, what does it mean when you say that you’re “feeling fat?” In this post, we’ll take a closer look at where “feeling fat” comes from, how it is never about your body, and how to start freeing yourself from body hatred and weight stigma.

Very Important: In this website, we celebrate body diversity. We honor the differences in size, race, ethnicity, gender, dis/ability, sexual orientation, religion, class and other human attributes, in line with the Health At Every Size (HAES) principles. Here, the term “Fat” is used in this post as a descriptive term, such as “short”, “tall”, “blonde”, “brunette”, etc., without any pejorative connotations.

I feel fat and uncomfortable
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Understanding the roots of “I feel fat

As a 5’0, pear shaped (small bust, wide hips, thick thighs and a big butt) Latina woman, I’ve never fit the thin, “ideal” body type. However, I recognize that I live in a privileged, smaller body, and don’t pretend to have the lived experience of someone in a larger body.

Yet, I do know how difficult it can be to make peace with your body, as someone who is still far from the “ideal”, and I’ve also struggled with this. This culture is built to sell us body insecurities right from the start.

Learning to respect and take care of your body as it is right now is extremely complicated, but it IS worthwhile. And while I know that you most likely won’t be freed from your bad body thoughts by just reading this post, I do hope that by bringing awareness to where your body issues may be coming from, it’ll help start you out on the path towards body kindness, respect and liberation.

Decoding negative body talk is also vital in order to learn how to change our language and remove anti-fat bias around size diversity. Keep in mind: The more we associate the word “fat” with “bad,” the more we perpetuate weight stigma. Check out this eye opening article by Your Fat Friend.

And now, get comfortable while we take a look at the roots of bad body thoughts in order to start challenging them, and ultimately, moving past them.

Where do body image issues come from?

To start, in order to learn how to decode what’s behind the “I feel fat” thoughts, we need to take a look at where these thoughts and beliefs come from. Let’s dive right in.

In contemporary Western society, thinness is a highly coveted commodity. It is desired and idolized in marketing campaigns, beauty magazines, film, television, news media; it is an implicit requirement for women’s self-worth and attractiveness.

Women are indoctrinated with the notion that their value as human beings lies in the slenderness of their bodies, to the extent that the pursuit of thinness has replaced the pursuit of health. In fact, the pressure to lose weight far outweighs the promotion of mental health and self-care.

As stated in the must-read book When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, body hatred, a syndrome the authors dub “Bad Body Fever”, is considered central and explicit evidence of the ongoing oppression of women. “Bad Body Fever” is also at the root of being unable to accept the fact that dieting is futile and dangerous.

It is clear…that our culture’s hatred of fat is inextricably linked to our cultural ambivalence about female strength and power. A woman’s body hatred is her internalized version of cultural misogyny. She tells herself each and every day that her body is wrong and that she takes up too much space in the world.

Jane H. Hirschmann & Carol H. Munter, When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies

The Beauty Myth of the thin ideal

In another must-read book, The Beauty Myth, the author Naomi Wolf writes: “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancements: the beauty myth. It is the modern version of the a social reflex that has been in force since the Industrial Revolution.

As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it wanted to carry on its work of social control”.

Body obsession didn’t always exist. In fact, as Wolf explains: “Most of our assumptions about the way women have always thought about ‘beauty’ date from no earlier than the 1830s, when the cult of domesticity was first consolidated and the beauty index invented”. As women started to move away from their socially assigned roles of homemakers and baby machines, pushback from a male-dominated culture ensued.

Wolf poses the question of whether modern Western women, after all the freedom they’ve achieved when compared to other parts of the world, actually feel free. Since the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1960’s, Western women have fought hard to obtain:

  • Legal and reproductive rights
  • The right to higher education
  • Entrance into trades and professions
  • Radical changes in our socially assigned roles

However, Wolf also notices that “the more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us”.

The pressure to conform to the “thin ideal” is one of the many ways the current culture oppresses us. In fact, as mentioned in When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, one of the most powerful, influential and successful women of our time, Oprah Winfrey, once stated that losing 67 pounds on Optifast was one of the most significant achievements of her life.

I’m sure many of us have come across someone (or have even though ourselves) who has stated they prefer “being thin” over being successful, healthy, at peace, etc. That’s how distorted our values and priorities become under diet culture conditioning.

And although I can continue talking for hours about the racist, sexist and patriarchal roots of body obsession and anti-fat bias, today we’re going to start learning to deal with the “I feel fat and worthless” thoughts in a way that empowers and affirms us. But I do encourage you to check out resources such as the books already mentioned in order to help you start challenging these body ideals.

“Because we live in a society in which fatness is denigrated, each time a woman says ‘I feel fat’, she is saying ‘There is something wrong with me’. Each time a woman feels ‘fat’ {quotes are mine}, she is feeling self hatred and self disgust. The disturbing truth is that our culture fosters and supports this kind of self-denigration in women”.

Jane H. Hirschmann & Carol H. Munter, When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies

How our negative emotions turn into “I feel fat and uncomfortable” feelings

The ambivalence our culture has towards women is irrefutable: we are idealized and degraded, protected and abused, encouraged and censured. And each decade also designates a new shape for the female form. Hirschman and Carole explain that these conflicting and confusing feelings about being a woman in this world manifests as body dissatisfaction and preoccupation with physical appearance. And it all boils down to fat. “In our culture, fat has come to represent flesh, female, and undesirable”.

And so it follows that when living in a patriarchal, fatphobic society, body preoccupation is sadly, a given. Our body then becomes the container to house all of the difficult and painful feelings we have about ourselves and our lives. Thus, “I feel fat” unconsciously becomes our go-to thinking pattern when we want to stop feeling the way we’re feeling.

To direct our difficult, strong, negative emotions towards ourselves is something that becomes second nature, and unfortunately encouraged in our culture. “We turn our bodies into metaphors for all our bad feelings-and we find confirmation for doing so everywhere”. No matter what our weight is.

As discussed in the amazing book Moving Away from Diets, “Body hatred functions to create fear, anxiety and chronic body dissatisfaction. It keeps people (mostly girls and women) monitoring their bodies and continually trying to change them, but it does little to motivate them or take care of themselves”.

“Moving towards size-acceptance promotes health”.

Moving Away From Diets, 2nd edition

However, the problem, as we’ll continue to learn throughout this post, is never about the body. We’ve been conditioned to believe that unless our bodies correlate with what’s culturally determined to be the “right” body, we’re “worthless”. And instead of tending to our needs and living our own lives as we see fit, all of our energies have been misdirected towards weight loss and changing our bodies.

Why do I feel fat?

As you can now see, it’s all too easy to go down the rabbit hole of “feeling fat” thoughts. Any time you feel uncomfortable, or made to feel “less than”, these thoughts will start driving you towards body hatred.

However, it helps to always keep in mind where the root of it comes from: a culture where despite diverse and dynamic portrayals of women in popular media over the last twenty years, the dominant ideology continues to be one where thinness is equated with beauty, success, and desirability. Thin women are still able to conform to the male construction of femininity, as their bodies simultaneously fit into a cultural ideal and meet popular standards of beauty.

The struggle for women in Western society to gain equality and respect on an individual basis must occur within this context: one where women who do not conform to slim ideals are marginalized and deemed “less than”. Thus, a fertile ground for body hatred is firmly in place.

And so, the idea of your body being “too big” or “too much” is one that you’ve been trained to think, and which responds to socially constructed norms. Which means there’s good news and bad news.

The bad news is that it IS difficult to re-wire your bad body thoughts while living in a culture that puts enormous pressure into fitting us into a mold. The good news is that these beliefs are just that: arbitrary, questionable, and changeable. Let’s see how we can start dealing with bad body thoughts.

Why “I feel fat” ALWAYS means “I feel uncomfortable”

One of the most important things I learned from my mentor Tracy Brown, RD, is that when someone says “I feel fat”, what they actually mean is: “I feel uncomfortable”. Here’s a simple illustration of how this operates, when we take into consideration the cultural programming we receive:

infographic on the reasons why why i feel fat

Check out how Tracy explains this in the video below:

We’ve also been told over and over again to “do something” about these thoughts and feelings, and thus made to feel like the problem is our bodies. So how does this work? Instead of listening in and sitting with our uncomfortable feelings to understand what’s really going on, we tend to push them towards our bodies in order to “get rid of them”.

By focusing on “I feel fat and ugly” or “ugh, my thighs are huge”–instead of what’s really going on (personal, financial, relational problems)–we are distracted form things we may not know how to handle yet.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say we may have gotten into a fight with a loved one and all of a sudden start to think: “I feel fat”. What just happened here? When we don’t know how to tend to our feelings surrounding the fight we just had, it’s easier to move the focus onto our bodies (and our food as well).

Unfortunately, bashing our bodies is something we do know how to do well, and what to do about it.

And once you start thinking that your stomach is “too big”, you’re on your way to a huge distraction from your real problem. Because now all your focus and energy is shifted towards starting a diet and doing an exercise routine in order to get”rid of” your stomach. It can even provide a false sense of hope, as many diets and exercise plans are know to do. But happens to the original problem underneath?

Dieting doesn’t work. When we look at the evidence, as many as 80 to 95% of dieters gain back the weight they’ve lost within a period of 1-5 years. Which means that not only is our original problem still unattended, but now we’ve also added the diet/binge cycle, further feelings of failure, and additional body hatred to the mix.

Thus, continuing to fuel bad body thoughts in a never ending cycle. As you can see, “I feel fat” is never about the body, it’s just a way we’ve learned to redirect our painful feelings against our bodies in a way that feels familiar and manageable.

A body is a body is a body…we are all the same and we are all different–we are all composed of a variety of interesting shapes.

Jane H. Hirschmann & Carol H. Munter, When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies

What to do with your “I feel fat” thoughts

Working through bad body thoughts is very complicated, since we each have had our own conditioning, trauma and contexts that have shaped the way we regard our bodies. Some of the work on unraveling these thoughts about yourself may require the support of a therapist, since we may be dealing with very painful issues. Working with someone is especially helpful if there’s also an eating disorder that needs to be addressed.

Here is great list of HAES aligned practitioners you can consult if you need additional support. However, you can begin taking the first steps towards questioning and challenging these thoughts, and start shifting the way you see and treat your body. Let’s check it out.

What do you do when you feel fat?

First of all, when you notice that you start bashing your body, try to slow down. Next, practice the following steps, which are designed to short-circuit the automatic tirade against your body, and help you listen in to what’s really going on:

  • Identify the thought with no shame or judgement. When you hear negative body thoughts in your mind about your body size and/or shape, you’re experiencing internalized weight stigma. It’s helpful to identify when this is happening in order to help you become more aware of them. No need to feel shame or judge yourself. Remember, this is a conditioned response. Invite curiosity.
  • Apologize to your body. Bad body thoughts are abusive. If it’s helpful, you can also write them down in order to keep track of them. Then, when you read them, ask yourself: would I ever talk to anyone the way I talk to myself? What have I ever done to deserve this treatment from myself? By recognizing the way you’ve been unconsciously hurting yourself, you make space for more kindness and self-compassion.
  • Name the original source of these messages and decide for yourself what is true. Ask yourself: Where did I first hear this message? Why might someone have said or believed this? Did they have anything to gain as a result of my believing this message? Was this person conditioned to believe it as well? Did they have my body’s best care at heart?
  • Ask “who says?”, “for what” and “for whom” questions. This helps challenge the beliefs that drive bad body thoughts an feelings. For example, if you suddenly have the thought “my thighs are too big”, you are endorsing the cultural belief that there is only one “correct” thigh size in the world. By asking yourself: Who says big thighs bad? What’s inherently wrong with big thighs? For what are they too big for? For whom are they too big for? By continuing to ask yourself these types of questions, you may come to realize what it is that’s really bothering you. Soon, you’ll start realizing that bad body thoughts are never really about your body, and that there’s something underneath that needs your attention.
  • Learn to decode your bad body thoughts. The more you learn to listen to the real messages behind “I feel fat” thoughts, the less likely you’ll continue to bash your body as a way to deal with your internal conflict. Once again, it may help to keep track of your bad body thoughts as they come out, in order to investigate what they’re really telling you.

For example, you may notice you say to yourself “I’m too big”. What does “too big” mean to you? Too much? Too much of what?

Maybe, when you look closely, these thoughts may be related to you starting to assert your boundaries more frequently lately. And you may be feeling uncomfortable or ambivalent about that. In a culture where women are not “supposed to” speak up, lay down boundaries or assert themselves, starting to do these things may feel “bad”, “wrong” or “too much”.

As you can see, it’s not about your size but about feeling some discomfort with your newfound assertiveness, which this culture discourages. By turning your attention to what’s really causing your unease, you’re better equipped to navigate any discomforts you may feel about setting boundaries, without using your body as an escape valve.

If you feel you need the help of a professional when working through these steps, remember, by all means find one. You do not need to do this work alone. If you need a HAES aligned dietitian, you can always schedule a free discovery call with me right here.

Banish Bad Body Thoughts Workbook
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I know that body liberation takes a lot more work than reading through this post, but just learning to decode your “I feel fat” thoughts can help begin to gain more body wisdom and self-care. As you learn to identify with your real concerns, you’ll be able to love and care for yourself that much more. And to finish with a quote from When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies:

Remember that each bad body thought you intercept and uncloak is a step forward for you individually and for all women as well.

Jane H. Hirschmann & Carol H. Munter, When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies

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