“I feel fat.” I never liked saying it, but based on how much I used to say it, either out loud or to myself, you’d think it was one of my favorite phrases. The expression spreads like a virus from woman to woman. It pops up at preteen slumber parties, in high school locker rooms, at suburban dinner parties, downtown bars and black tie awards shows. “I feel fat.”
The thing about fat is that it isn’t actually a feeling. One of the biggest hurdles I had to awkwardly climb over in letting go of fat talk was the truth that, “I feel fat,” was my way of safely announcing to the world some bigger, scarier feelings that usually aren’t appropriate for polite conversation. It was a way to commiserate and connect with other women. An agreeable way of saying, “Wow, life sure is hard. I’m worried I’m not doing it right!”
The body is such a convenient focal point for of all those big, intense feelings because the diet, fashion, food, beauty and health industries have sold us on the idea that normal bodies are flawed and should be fixed by weight-watching. Counting calories feels so much easier than facing our fears. Focusing on weight loss seems like a solution to the problem we were told we had. The real problem is not our too-big bodies. It’s that we’re not sure how to deal with cultural prejudice and all the too-big feelings it creates.
Fat talk doesn’t only interrupt our ability to process emotions. It has another secret side effect…it makes us hungrier and causes food cravings. When we slap negative judgments on our bodies, we send shock waves of stress through them. We feel the same as we would if a driver on the freeway flipped us off, then followed us around and yelled at us all day. The attack triggers a series of chemical reactions in our bodies. “Get ready, something bad is going to happen!” our bodies say.
Chronic, low-level stress, like the kind we experience when we have a habit of criticizing our bodies, has been linked to a myriad of issues including decreased immunity, digestive issues, irregular cholesterol levels, fatigue, anxiety and depression. For purposes of this discussion, chronic, low-level stress results in higher levels of cortisol (http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/111609p38.shtml) in the blood, which causes the body to store fat. High levels of cortisol also trigger the release of ghrelin (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22749794), the hungry hormone, into the blood. The more free-flowing ghrelin in the blood, the more we crave sugar and carbs (http://www.foxnews.com/health/2014/06/04/stress-receptors-in-taste-buds-may-explain-emotional-eating/). Eating those foods will temporary calm us down by raising serotonin levels in the brain.
While obsessing about our bodies, weight and food all day long, many of us never suspect that the problem is the worrying itself. Bad body talk will only increase fat stores, food cravings and emotional eating as we reach for food to soothe the pain that fat-talk causes. Such a disturbing paradox, isn’t it?!
So what can we do to ease the pain and put a stop to the hungry flow of stress hormones? Pledge to stop using the “F” word…FAT, against yourself. And challenge your friends and family to do the same. The next time you find the habit creeping up, send it away and undo the hurt by looking in the mirror and saying “I’m so sorry that I just stressed you out and made you hungry. I going to do my best to start feeding you with love.”
Want help making the shift into a healthier mindset and body? Join us at Center for Eating Recovery for an 8-Week Eating Psychotherapy Group, Heal the Hungry Brain, or for Repair Your Reflection, our monthly, body image workshop where you will update the lens through which your see your body and start to build body esteem.
Alison Ross is the founder of Center for Eating Recovery in Agoura Hills, California. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in eating and body image. Alison was inspired to start the Center after healing her relationship with food and her body. Her mission is to help others rise above the obsessive and self-hating diet mentality in our culture to find true health through empowerment, awareness, love and self-care. The Center offers treatment for eating and body image problems across the spectrum including food addiction, binge-eating, emotional overeating, yo-yo dieting, bulimia and anorexia.