Samantha blogged recently about “Fat or Big: What’s in a Name?” And in that post she talked about her ambivalent relationship with the word “fat.” She concluded that in lots of ways a more apt description for her is “big.” I want to write about something a bit different that many women I know, including myself, have experienced: “feeling fat.” Feeling fat is not at all the same thing as being in any objective sense overweight, but in my experience it carries with it all of the societal baggage and bias against people who are perceived as fat. We live in a world where it is not acceptable to be big (unless you are obviously muscular and lean in your bigness). And since the standard set in media, particularly for women, is so unattainable — somewhere between a size zero at the low end and 4-6 at the high end — many of the women I know are perpetually either dieting or “watching what they eat” and exercising in order either to lose or maintain their weight. So, with that as our context, one way that self-loathing can present itself (in my psyche anyway) is through “feeling fat.”
It’s a strange and complicated thing, feeling fat is. It can settle in overnight, or even through the course of a day. Clothes that fit just fine when I put them on in the morning might by lunch time start to feel like they’re pinching and snug, especially if I had a bad morning. Even the red silk scarf, not a body-hugging item, might not look right when just yesterday it accessorized perfectly. And a general feeling of unworthiness accompanies feeling fat. It’s astonishing and sad that internalized cultural stigma against weight and body type can feed so powerfully into these negative attitudes about oneself. Remember, feeling fat is amazingly unconnected to actual body size and even percentage of fat. But it is also, for many women I know, the “go-to” feeling when they are unhappy with themselves about something…about anything. This says a lot about the hold that our culture’s attitudes about weight and body size has on us. Even those of us who are explicitly and consciously attentive to the irrational and unfair social stigma, even working to challenge it, latch onto fatness (real or imagined) as a personal deficiency. It then spirals into an energy-sucking, self-defeating stick that might make a person feel motivated to get active (but for all the wrong reasons) or thoroughly hopeless about exercise because it doesn’t “work” (as if its only purpose is to lose or control one’s weight).
We’ve talked a bit on the blog about the disconnect between the usual assumptions about fat and fit–the assumptions that anyone fat is necessarily not healthy and fit, and anyone slender is healthy and fit. Neither is true. We know that BMI is a poor measure of health and fitness–many elite athletes come out as obese when BMI is used as an indicator. So if feeling fat doesn’t have to map on to anything objective, neither does feeling fit. And feeling fit has a lot more going for it.
Feeling fit is a much more empowering, positive way to feel. This feeling too can change from day to day. I feel my fittest when I eat ample, healthy foods that actually fuel my body appropriately for the amount of activity I engage in, and when I get active doing the things I love (yoga, running, weight training, tai chi, as well as the more seasonal things like skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, and swimming). I can go from feeling sluggish and lead-footed one day, to feeling fit, energetic and strong the next. But when I’m not feeling fit, I can do some things to change that, and that helps me feel comfortable in (and with) my body and just generally happy with who I am. It also takes me closer to not just feeling fit, but to actually being fit (on some objective measures). And the more we can divorce fitness from a particular aesthetic, the oppressive aesthetic that makes “feeling fat” such an intense yet completely unwarranted form of self-loathing, the easier it will be for us to experience genuine joy and satisfaction as we engage in our preferred physical activities (instead of wasting our time with “feeling fat”).