Fattism: Self and Others

This blog entry is a modified reiteration of a post I recently made on the forums and I am hoping it might have usefulness beyond the forums.

Hidden Eloise: Flickr.com

Hidden Eloise: Flickr.com

Almost everyone in recovery from an eating disorder either loses their visible status as thin or must relinquish their goal of thinness.

An eating disorder is not the realization of fat phobia. Fat phobia is a post-hoc rationalization that the brain offers up to explain the nonsensical activation of the threat response system towards food. We don’t know all the reasons why the threat response is activated towards food in those with eating disorders, but we do know that the response itself is occurring in areas of the brain to which the conscious mind has little oversight.

As the threat system generates a drive to fight, flee or freeze and the person with an eating disorder is staring at an innocent piece of toast and jam, her conscious mind has to try to make meaning of where the real threat might be because clearly toast and jam is not a threat to survival. And the conscious mind uses sociocultural frameworks to make meaning of the nonsensical internal arousal to fight, flee or freeze when there is no clear threat present. That is why three hundred years ago someone with an eating disorder would say she was avoiding food because she wished to be pleasing to her god, and why predominantly those with eating disorders today will say they wish to avoid unhealthy food choices, becoming fat, becoming sick, etc.

In my observations of those in recovery, even those who do not frame their experience of an eating disorder as being afraid of getting fat or being fat, do find that giving up thinness or the goal of thinness slams them up against the pervasive fattism in our society and it hits much closer to home than they had anticipated would be the case.

Here's what BMI actually reflects about any given individual:

1)   It is a mathematical equation that proves human beings all reside on a bell-shaped curve of incidence for height and weight. Almost 70% of us are naturally between about BMI 22-30 or so.

2)   Weight is actually an equation of our mass in relation to the earth's gravitational pull. Your weight in space is 0 kg (0 lbs.—to reiterate the obvious).

That's it.

It doesn't tell us if you are clever, quirky, funny, serious, kind, generous, inspirational, humane, enlightened, brave, fearless, intelligent, or a host of other attributes.

It doesn't tell us about your health status, your strength, your flexibility, or stamina. And even if it did tell us about those things, you are actually allowed to be weak, brittle and feeble and are not a lesser human being because of it.

Yes, we are steeped in a healthist and fattist society. If I had lived in England at a time where they burned witches it still wouldn't mean that a) witches existed back then for reals, and b) they deserved to be burned at the stake.

It's no different today. A person who is fat is no different than a person with curly hair. It's just a feature that is all. A person who is sick is no different than a person who is well because we are all actually both sick and well all the time throughout our lives. You can't actually delineate between wellness and sickness—we are dynamic systems. I almost assuredly have cancerous cells in my body right now and so do most human beings beyond the age of 40 or so. But it doesn't mean I am sick with cancer; nor does it mean I will likely die of cancer. But if I have cancerous cells, am I well? Hence our overly simplistic binary concept of either wellness or sickness is flawed.

Periodically, on the forums members believe they should be allowed express self-directed fattism* in their forum posts (for the purpose of sharing and airing anxieties and fears in a safe space). And as they deem themselves supportive of others who are fat and see these people as beautiful and acceptable, they believe a recovery forum should encompass such open discussion of personal anxieties around fatness. That's cognitive dissonance, or ego dystonia, at work there. Self-directed fattism is actually toxic to self and others.

If it's okay for others to be fat, why not you? If we believe ourselves to be non-discriminatory and inclusive human beings able to protect and support others who are marginalized in our society, but we don't extend that inclusiveness to ourselves then the message we send out to the world (whether we mean to or not) is:

My status, class and privilege as a (fill in the blank: thin, white, educated, middle-class, wealthy...) woman I will protect and defend even as I superficially state that I will extend my respect and consideration to all others of any class, race, creed, gender etc.

And this level of elitism can be found even in those who are members of an out group and yet have absorbed discrimination to the point that they hold onto the hope of becoming a member of the in group through the changing of self. 1, 2

Those who are marginalized and discriminated against in our society see through these double standards pretty darn quick.

Where does that leave you in recovery as you either release your thin status or release the hope of thinness? Well, you may not even be above average weight throughout recovery, but you are no longer part of the elitist thin crowd too of course.

You can only exist in the now. Worrying about whether your weight will taper back to a socially acceptable point or not is a future state you cannot experience in the now. You are frittering away your now time on future-worry thoughts and feelings. And that worry doesn't manifest a different future for you either.

It's not in your control what you weigh either now or two years from now. So rather than perseverating on things that are not in your control, why not turn your attention to what possibilities exist for you now that you are no longer immobilized in the misery of starvation?

A good way to embark on that exciting journey is to hire a therapist or counselor to begin that work of self-discovery and self-actualization. That comes across as a fistful of jargony first-world navel gazing, but in real terms developing the skill of self-compassion renders you capable of realizing meaning and purpose throughout your life and that benefits everyone you come into contact with.

* By way of explanation, we don't allow self-directed fattism on the forums precisely because it reflects a double standard that reinforces a lot of destructive self-hatred for many community members navigating recovery.

1.  Samuela Nematchoua. “Bleaching Beauty: The Commercialization of Colorism”, Fresh Ink (blog), April 15, 2015, http://www.bcfreshink.com/bleaching-beauty-the-commercilization-of-colorism-by-samuela-nematchoua/.

2. Barbara. “Being Fat & Self-Loathing”, SparkPeople (blog), April 23, 2010, http://www.bcfreshink.com/bleaching-beauty-the-commercilization-of-colorism-by-samuela-nematchoua/. [warning: this blog post is all about reinforcing the false concept that weight is within your control and that it generates illness, and so you can stop hating yourself because you can work towards being part of the in group by losing weight and returning to health. This is no different that no longer hating your dark skin because you can lighten it (ref. above)]