Claiming the “Fat Self”

Claiming the “Fat Self” Quick, free associate: what are the words you think of when you think of “fat”? Make a list for a few moments, and then do the same for “thin.”

When I give this task to audiences at workshops the resulting lists are pretty consistent.

  • Fat: Ugly, depressed, needy, unhealthy, slow, lazy, out of control, out of shape, vulnerable, rejected, loser
  • Thin: Beautiful, perfect, together, successful, sexy, energetic, healthy, conceited, confident, fit, happy, athletic, in control, disciplined

You will notice that basically, the “loser” ideas are associated with fat, and the “successful” ideas are associated with thin. Occasionally, someone from another culture will propose “healthy” or “wealthy” or even “sexy” for the fat list, and “stingy” or “sick” for the thin list, and the white Americans will react with surprise. Sometimes this is their first inkling that the association we learn between loser and fatness is arbitrary, an artifact of our particular place and time. To us, it seems so inevitable, so relentless, so consistent, that it must be true. For young women with eating disorders, this equation between fat and all the things that their mothers bemoan in themselves can fuel the effort to prevent fat from appearing on their bodies, in order to prevent their lives from following the downward path into those same feelings of being thwarted and disrespected.

The problem is, every one of us has a “loser” self, which in this culture we think of as our “fat self.” Every one of us has times when we feel the feelings that we learn to associate with fat, which is why a woman can say, “I feel fat,” and the other women around her know exactly what she is feeling – even though “fat” is not a feeling. It is also true that every one of us has a thin self, if by that we mean times we feel relatively confident, energetic, “productive,” etc.

As a purely existential matter, we would rather not feel the unhappiness and distress that gets attributed to the fat self. But this state is even more problematic because of its equation with something visible on our bodies like fat. Now we have to worry about not just having the feelings, but also having other people see us in terms of those negative feeling states, which is humiliating and shameful.


The Disowned Self

Each of us has the task of creating some kind of relationship with our fat self. What will we do with this set of feelings, this part of ourselves that seems vulnerable and upset, needy and impulsive, unacceptable to others? Will we reject it, creating within ourselves the very thing we are afraid will happen at the hands of other people? Ignore it, and hope it disappears? “Work on it,” trying to perfect it away? Or have a real relationship with it, with honesty, struggles and compassion? Will we claim it as us?

Trying to lose weight is one of the ways people try to whittle away the fat self, but when dieting doesn’t work it seems like the fat self has thwarted the will of the thin self, and the result is more bad feelings. Trying to restrict intake more and then ending up bingeing more also has this affect, where the parts of self become more and more polarized and antagonistic. I have seen this impasse culminate in some people wanting gastric bypass to force the fat self into submission or starve it into oblivion.

People who are not typically seen as fat by others still have the task of dealing with their feelings of vulnerability, neediness, impulsiveness – and even many of them will seize upon the “solution” of trying to rid their bodies of fat, as if the more lean they become, the less the outside world will have the power to humiliate them. In reality, because the “loser” feelings have nothing to do with the fat on their bodies, they are forever threatened by the possibility of being shamed, because they haven’t come to terms with the loser feelings within themselves. This is one reason why people battling anorexia keep aiming for a lower weight, because achieving their weight loss goal didn’t entirely get rid of the feelings of vulnerability. At 90 pounds, they will say, “I just need to lose 5 more pounds,” or “I just need more of a safety zone between where I am and a three-digit number of the scale.”

It is a powerful drive to try to make ourselves safe from the kind of shame and humiliation we associate with the loser self.

Real Fat and Symbolic Fat

If you are fat, the task is even more daunting. Not only do you have the standard issue, everyday human loser feelings, but you have to contend with other people projecting the loser stereotype onto you. There are many more opportunities to be humiliated at the hands of other people. There are many more opportunities to not fit in. There are many more opportunities to blame yourself for this mistreatment, to blame the fat self, and your fat body. There are many more opportunities to ignore your own experience and collude with the lie that weight is a choice, that you can choose to be a winner, i.e., thin, if you try hard enough. And indeed, there are many more opportunities to temporarily lose weight and set yourself up for increasingly compelling evidence when you regain that you really are a loser.

“Trapped” Inside a Fat Body

It seems quintessentially American, the land of the “before” and “after” pictures, to believe one can obliterate the loser self, or to stubbornly refuse to identify with it. Thus fat people are seen as thin people trapped in a fat body, and the public health message is to eliminate the fat self. Therapists try to analyze the psychological reasons why the patient regained weight, as if it is her neurotic attachment to the fat self that has “sabotaged” her weight loss efforts. And the subjective experience of feeling like a loser when we regain weight seems to confirm that our failure stems from that part of us refusing to go quietly.

People don’t want to be seen as losers. People don’t want their fat to show. But how can you not show your fat? People wear black and vertical stripes, refrain from sleeveless shirts and shorts and swimsuits, and even avoid showing up literally, at weddings and reunions and the beach. They take drugs and throw up and exercise for hours, they spend hundreds of dollars on special food, trainers, gyms, equipment.

Is it any wonder that fat people often resist identifying as fat?

I will often ask a fat patient who is expressing body angst whether she is aware of resources for larger people – and often she will say, “I don’t want to have to buy clothes from a plus size store,” or “I don’t want to go to a plus size exercise class,” or even, “I don’t want to be in public with other fat people.” I am sure this is one of the problems NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) has in attracting members. And it may be true that participating in activities with other fat people makes it more likely that you will be seen primarily in terms of being fat by the outside world. For people whose daily life is riddled with moments when their real, individual selves are ignored by others, eclipsed by the visible fact of belonging to the stigmatized fat group, it takes a lot of courage to publicly come out as a fat person.

But distancing ourselves from our fat identities has consequences, even more for people others see as fat. One of these consequences is not getting goods and services geared to larger bodies, so that people suffer with clothing, seats, exercise classes, etc., that don’t fit. Another is the way that people can remain isolated from one another, forever blaming themselves for the broader forces at work that have nothing to do with them, and missing out on meeting all those other people, some of whom they would find to be really cool. And finally, it is ironic that getting together with other fat people is often the first place that you can be seen as your individual self – because everyone is fat and that can recede into the background.

The Outlier Phenomenon

Fat people often find themselves in situations where the activities or accommodations are designed for a generic average. Since one size has never fit all, the fat person has the dilemma of suffering in silence with pinched hips, anxiety about furniture sturdiness, a postage-stamp sized medical gown, a too-tight “largest” uniform, etc. Or perhaps it is an activity designed for average-sized (and able-bodied) people, like a fitness class or a corporate off-site kayaking trip. Do you suffer in silence trying to keep up with people doing half the physical work so you don’t evoke the “loser” stereotype? Or do you risk being seen as lazy or unfit and speak up about needing to go at a different pace?

This is of course an example of a more general problem of truly celebrating diversity. All too often, a difference translates as a problem for the dominant group. And when the difference is stigmatized, the person is all too aware of the dilemma of calling attention to it – which could be shaming and evoke the irritation of other people needing to make a compromise – or just trying to put up with the discomfort and sense isolation.

The outlier phenomenon can lead a person with a difference to blame that difference for their mistreatment. We blame our bodies for being bullied about being fat. We reproduce the hostility within ourselves between the “acceptable” self and the “different” self. If we could just get rid of that fat, everything would be fine.

Strategies in the Battle of the Selves

I am only temporarily fat
The dominant compromise is to buy social acceptance by trying to lose weight. “At least I am trying to do something about it” says the dieter, who accepts that the stigma against fat is justified. The goal is to eliminate the fat self, at which time all will be peaceful in the kingdom forever and ever.

I exercise and eat right and am healthy and happy
This subtler compromise can lead to fat people feeling like the only way they can be acceptable is when they are triathletes or fitness instructors or have perfect lab results or never eat when they are not hungry. The goal is to belie the negative stereotypes about fat people by showing up having the qualities of the “thin self” in a fat body. These are the people who are often front and center in the Health at Every Size and size acceptance movements. To members of the general public, they are the least controversial members of the size acceptance community, but they are still often met with skepticism – either, “I just don’t believe a fat person can be happy” (and here again is that equation between the fat on your body and the “loser” self), or “you can’t be eating normally and still be fat,” or (from medical quarters) “you just wait, it’ll catch up with you in ten years.”

When people who have become “poster children” for Health at Every Size get an illness, it can be devastating. Does this mean the “productive” self was a fraud all along? It can feel the way regaining weight used to feel – that the loser fat self is taking you back to square one. Clearly there is some authority in belying the stereotype (and honor!), but it is not liberation until you are free to be real. Having only the qualities of the “thin” self doesn’t solve the dilemma of what to do with the fat self.

They are right about me and I suck
Sometimes the solution seems to be giving up the struggle entirely, which denies the existence of the productive self. It can feel so exhausting trying to live in opposition to the stereotype, that resignation is easier. Many depressed people believe that the depression protects them from dashed hopes because it prevents hope at all. But this is the same problem in a different costume, because it denies the competent, effective self. Bad relationships can go on forever. The pattern of animosity between the productive and loser selves – the productive declaring war on the loser with increasingly draconian action plans – and the loser acting out the misery, resentment, defiance, and protest about the war against it – is an impasse with no end in sight, and no relief.

We make two mistakes in this battle. The first is to equate “fat” with “loser.” The second is to try to do violence to the loser self.

Wisdom is distributed among the parts

If the fat self and the thin self were real people, you could imagine them talking to each other – and having a relationship. The nature of this relationship is an important determinant of one’s quality of life. Is it combative, neglectful, abusive? Is the productive side contemptuous of the vulnerable side? Is the loser side surly and ready to sabotage the efforts of the productive side in protest for being hated? Or can there be an acknowledgement between the two sides that each has a certain wisdom – and that more effective and compassionate decisions and actions are possible with input from each?

We are all convinced of the wisdom in the “productive” side, but consider the difference between a person who has experienced hardship, struggle, failures, rejection, and things which are beyond her control – and one who has not. Who might be more likely to understand the emotions of a child? Who might be able to stand the uncertainty of going into labor? Who might be more likely to leave work early to lie on the grass in the park and look up at the leaves shimmering in the breeze?

Our real world and our real world problems are the familiar territory of the loser self. Things which are uncontrollable, unknown, disliked, feared, awed – the big existential questions live here. Our productive selves chatter along with earnestness and a necessary grandiosity, but we will always be defeated in some way or another, and need to figure out what to do about this. Our loser selves offer us the chance to develop compassion.

Is it possible to learn to love and accept the parts of yourself that feel unacceptable? This is one of the most important spiritual questions we face. In developing compassion for ourselves, we also are more likely to understand that the way other people treat the vulnerable parts of us is emblematic of how they treat their own vulnerable parts. Perhaps there is just that little bit more of a possibility of seeing the common ground, of regarding the fix we are all in, of seeing the mirrors between the relationships within ourselves and the relationships among ourselves.

People who find a way to hold the tension between their productive and loser selves feel better than people who stay divided. Fat people who find a way to claim their fat selves and thin selves feel better as well, especially when they are able to understand them as the universal loser and successful sides that happened to get associated with fat and thin at this time in history in this culture. The “fat-thin” alliance is also of key interest to those of us who are using a Health at Every Size model. As long as people – fat or thin – are trying to battle the fat self, it will be harder for them to truly nurture their bodies. But claiming the fat self allows it a place at the table, informing our decisions and actions with its wisdom.

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Deb Burgard, Ph.D., a San Francisco Bay Area psychologist, runs www.BodyPositive.com and is one of the founders of the Health at Every Size approach to eating/weight concerns, drdebawo@spamex.com

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