My parents always used to describe me as a “big boned” girl, but I didn’t start needing to shop in the “Pretty & Plump” size clothes until I hit second grade at which point I started really packing on the inches eating my way up to 155 pounds by 4th grade. As a therapist, I can spend time telling you all of the reasons I decided to eat my way into a protective fat cocoon, but that isn’t really the point I want to share in this blog. I feel compelled to write this blog in the hopes to reach those of you who may still feel it is helpful to make overt and painful comments to others in hopes of shaming them into losing weight. I work with clients in my private practice who suffer daily under the hurtful “jokes” other kids make; or even the comments their parents make on having “such a pretty face if only you could lose a little weight sweetie”. If only. There is no tough love approach to a young adolescent or teenager that will help them make smarter food choices, get their bodies moving, or not want to eat what their friends eat at parties. I know because I was one of them.
I proudly put a lock on my door when I was 8. I told my mom it was to protect my “stuff” from my two older brothers, but the truth was much simpler than that. I wanted to eat without anyone watching. I became really good at this. I hid like a shame filled drug addict and ate food obsessively and without joy. I would sloppily lick hot chocolate packets I hid under the socks in my drawer eating the powder straight out of the foil when I was sad. Or hurt. Or lonely. One of the highlights of my early years was when it was time to do the candy bar fund raiser because I knew I had a supply of at least 15 candy bars that came in their own cardboard carrying case for my closed door pleasure. I would eat guiltily and quickly forcing myself to lie to the school fund raiser committee about already turning in my money, or explaining that it was stolen…again.
I was constantly self conscious about my developing body. The more body fat I put on my body as an adolescent the more quickly I hit puberty and grew larger parts that just attracted the unwanted embarrassed attraction of the boys I went to school with. The taunts came at me tinged with equal parts jeering fat comments and fascination with my blooming chest. This combination of negative and positive attention was very confusing for me as it is for my current clients in private practice. I found myself caught between excitement that someone (anyone!) is noticing my body and horror because they’re criticizing what they’re attracted to and it left me feeling dirty.
I want to tell you as siblings of overweight family members, parents of young children, and friends of overweight kids in classes; be kind. It is unbelievably hard to want to fit in so bad and yet feel so different. This internalized “difference” can set someone up for a lifetime of longer term problems like low self esteem, substance abuse, addictive food patterns, and negative attention seeking behaviors. It makes you feel lonely surrounded by others.
When someone uses food to soothe, cope, or hide, it is a form of self harming behavior. No one is forcing an overweight person to eat. No one who is overweight is not fully aware that they are. When they find themselves eating a second portion, hiding in their rooms or cars while shamefully eating, or constantly thinking about food, there is typically something larger going on in their life.
I believe that we are a fat shaming society that attaches all kinds of unhealthy, not supportive, labels on fat people. Some of these labels are: lazy, smelly, disgusting, gross, unworthy, less than, ugly. I suggest an alternative approach to considering another person who has a weight challenge. Ask yourself what may be going on with them. Challenge yourself to stop judging…be a better friend. We are not kind to one another most of the time regarding this issue. We are competitive, judgmental and cruel. I believe that women are some of the harshest critics of all. We are constantly criticizing ourselves along with slapping our labels on others.
I see the suffering this brings on each day in my private practice when I work with the shell of some of my clients who are suffering so greatly they have lost self respect. When this happens there is only one place that brings comfort: food. This cycle is destructive in ways that you cannot imagine if you have not been judged for your weight or for any other perceived characteristic that makes you “different”.
I tell my clients who come to see me for weight challenges, “Sure I can help you learn about healthier eating habits and self control”. “I can help you understand how to work out”….but then I need to tell them the truth. I tell them that their weight problem is typically the frosting on the forbidden cupcake. The tip of the iceberg. The larger issue is always the cake underneath that really needs to be addressed. I believe we walk around in bodies that represent how we feel on the inside. The work lies in finding out what my client is trying not to feel. Typically when a client learns how to feel their feelings, accept their truths, and learn to become empowered in their life; they then can have a body that represents their authentic nature. This process is not a journey for the weak of heart and can be some of the hardest work to do in therapy; however, I stand beside the belief that uncovering your best self is always worth the fight.
Yours in Health,