By Judith Matz
Have you ever uttered the words, “I feel fat?” If so, you’re not alone.
The truth about the “F” word is that it’s actually an adjective, not a feeling. Just like the words tall, short, and thin, the word fat simply offers a description of body size. Unlike those other words, however, in our current culture fat is often associated with “bad,” imbuing a sense of moral inferiority to those who earn that status.
Saying, “I feel fat,” actually means that something feels bad, and it’s expressed through a description of body size.
Maybe you’ve gained a few pounds. Maybe the dress that you loved at the store doesn’t look as pretty on you as you remembered. Maybe your boss yelled at you at work, or maybe the kids are just not doing what you want them to do. Maybe you’re having a really bad day. Or maybe you’re a higher weight person who’s taken in society’s message that you should apologize for your body size.
What are we passing down to our children when we say, “I feel fat?”
We know that there’s an epidemic of eating disorders in young people who believe they are too fat. Dieting is a national pastime, yet adolescents who diet are approximately at three times greater risk for weight gain – as well as binge eating and other eating disorders – compared with their peers who do not engage in weight-control behaviors.
The words “I feel fat” reinforce a narrow definition of beauty and acceptability, resulting in tremendous worry, preoccupation and shame about body shape and size for our next generation.
We need to change the conversation!
In this age of emoticons, it’s not surprising that Facebook recently offered a “Feeling Fat” symbol. It didn’t take too long for a petition to emerge criticizing Facebook for this emoji with chubby cheeks and a double chin. The petition pointed out that this status makes fun of people at higher weights and, as the author of the petition states, “Fat is not a feeling. Fat is a natural part of our bodies, no matter their weight. And all bodies deserve to be respected and cared for.”
Kudos to Facebook who immediately removed the emoticon stating: We’ve heard from our community that listing “feeling fat” as an option for status updates could reinforce negative body image, particularly for people struggling with eating disorders. So we’re going to remove “feeling fat” from the list of options.
In a New York Times Op Ed about Facebook’s decision, Northwestern University researcher Renee Engeln confirms that saying “I feel fat” is likely to bring you down, as well as those around you. While fat shaming is typical in female conversations, she describes research that shows how we’re passing on negative body feelings to those around us. That would include our children.
“Most important, fat [shaming] talk is not a harmless social-bonding ritual. According to an analysis of several studies …fat talk was linked with body shame, body dissatisfaction and eating-disordered behavior. Fat talk does not motivate women to make healthier choices or take care of their bodies; in fact, the feelings of shame it brings tend to encourage the opposite.”
We need to change the conversation!
Diversity is a buzzword these days, and we teach our children to respect people of different race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation. What would happen if we taught our children about size diversity? The truth is that human beings naturally come in different shapes and sizes, and every body deserves respect. We can teach our children to take care of their bodies – by eating when they’re hungry and stopping when full, eating a wide variety of foods, engaging in physical activity, getting enough sleep, and learning ways to manage stress – without a focus on weight.
The idea that everyone can be a certain size with enough determination is not held up in research that considers genetics, evolution, and adaptation. As Ellen Frankel and I write in The Diet Survivor’s Handbook, “…even if everybody ate the exact same foods and engaged in the same amount of daily activity, there would still be a wide variation of body sizes.”
We need to change the conversation!
I’ve been distressed to find that there are books for young children that encourage dieting behaviors and promote weight stigma. As both a therapist specializing in eating and body image issues and an author, I wanted to do something to change the conversation. I recently collaborated with illustrator Elizabeth Patch to create a children’s book that changes the message about body size. Amanda’s Big Dream is the story of a girl who dreams of having a solo in the ice show. When her coach makes a negative comment about her weight, Amanda loses confidence and quits skating. But with the help of her parents, doctors and best friend, Amanda learns the true secret to following her dreams.
The adults in Amanda’s life are changing the conversation, and the conversation guide available through www.amandasbigdream.com helps parents and teachers to talk with children, pre-teens and teens about body image in a positive way.
What can you do to change the conversation?
First, please remember that as someone who lives in this culture, you’ve likely absorbed the “fat is bad” message. You may be struggling in your own relationship with food and your body. You may feel shame about your weight. You are not alone!*
At the same time, keep in mind that what you say, what you do, and even what you think affects what you’re passing on to your children.
Here are 10 ways to change the conversation with your children, no matter what their age:
1. Avoid diet talk and dieting behavior in front of children (and altogether, if possible!)
2. Avoid commenting negatively on other people’s body weight, shape and/or size, as well as your own, in front of children.
3. Refrain from criticizing your child’s weight or appearance.
4. Do not categorize foods as “good” and “bad”.
5. Feed your child and encourage physical activity using guidelines based on age, not based on body size.
6. Compliment your child on positive behaviors and characteristics, rather than focusing on body size and appearance.
7. Encourage physical activity for enjoyment and fitness, rather than weight control.
8. Promote a healthy relationship with food. This includes honoring cues for hunger and fullness, providing a wide variety of all types of food, and sharing family meals whenever possible.
9. Support self-care behaviors—rather than weight loss—as the road to happiness, health and success. Examples include getting enough sleep, good grooming habits, developing creative hobbies and interests.
10. Teach kids that people naturally come in different shapes and sizes, and that everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
We need to change the conversation so that our children feel strong and confident in their bodies and, like Amanda, are free to follow their dreams.
But it’s not just our children who get hurt when we demonize the “F” word. Let’s stop fat shaming talk and return the word “fat” to a description of body size that’s neither good nor bad. Let’s take care of our bodies the best we can, treat each other with respect when it comes to weight, and speak compassionately to ourselves. Let’s use our power to change the conversation so that all of us can live more peacefully in our bodies … and in the world.
*If you are caught in the struggle with body image, are caught in the diet/binge cycle, consider finding ways to get support.
Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: In addition to her newest book, Amanda’s Big Dream, Judith Matz, LCSW is co-author of two books on the topics of eating and weight issues: Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Comprehensive Guide to Treating Binge Eating Disorder, Compulsive Eating, and Emotional Overeating (2nd edition, 2014) and The Diet Survivors Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care (2006). She is the director of the Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating, Inc., has a private practice in Skokie, IL, and is a popular speaker at local and national conferences. Descriptions of her work have appeared in the media including the LA Times, Fitness, Good Housekeeping, Self, Shape, Today’s Dietitian, Diabetes Self-Management, Psychotherapy Networker, and NBC News Chicago with Nesita Kwan, Huffington Post Live, and she appears in the documentary America The Beautiful 2.
Upcoming North Shore Workshops:
Mindful Eating: Making Peace With Food
Deerfield, Illinois on Thursday, April 30 th at Indigo – registration by calling 225.515.8117