It is hard to live life as a fat person in our society. Verbal barbs and abuse abound; so do inhospitable and inaccessible spaces, substandard health care, hiring discrimination, and lower incomes. Numerous aspects of our society convey to fat people that we are unwelcome, that we should be ashamed of ourselves, and that people would really just rather we didn’t exist.
I personally found that the longer I was exposed to the messages this society was sending to me about my size, the more I actually started to internalize and believe those messages.
It’s common to actually start to believe what one is hearing: that you are “less than”, unworthy, lazy, a slob. There’s actually a term for this: internalized weight bias or internalized fatphobia.
I found that there was even a certain point where I started start to anticipate the messages. Whether or not I believed the actual messages, I was so hyper-aware of the fact that people looked down on fat people that my brain started serving up gems like:
“He was probably thinking about how ugly I am.”
“I can’t believe that person was kind enough to open the door for ME.”
“She is probably dreading me sitting next to her.”
It can get to the point where you don’t even need to experience the aggressions anymore; the anticipation of them is enough to sustain your shame.
Combating internalized weight bias
If you are a fat person, building shame resilience is key to living life. It is not easy, but there are ways to counteract shameful thoughts.
Brené Brown is a talented researcher and writer who has extensively studied shame; much of the advice circulating today about shame is based on her research. She has a succinct video that outlines the steps you can start working on to create shame resilience:
The first step is recognizing your triggers. This is where practicing mindfulness can be useful. Try to move through life and take particular notice of moments where you feel ashamed of your size or anticipate others thinking unkind things about you. Start looking for patterns: does it always happen at the gym? On public transit? In the kitchen at work? When interacting with certain individuals?
Once you start noticing these moments, you can start to employ techniques of self-compassion. As Brené explains in the video, try to pause for a moment and think of what you are saying about yourself. How would what you are saying change if you were comforting your best friend who was having these thoughts? Reflect on how different the voice you would use with a friend is from the voice you might use on yourself.
The next time you notice you’re having these thoughts, speak to yourself with the voice you would use with a friend. (If this is challenging, do not fret. I know people for whom this trick works incredibly well, so it is always worth trying, but I myself have struggled with this. There are plenty of other ways to start practicing self-compassion; I’ll cover more in a future article.)
The next step is finding support and speaking your shame. Brené frequently mentions how shame cannot survive being spoken; it needs dark corners to survive. Simply sharing your own experiences and finding like-minded people who can empathize and relate can be incredibly powerful.
There are a number of thriving online communities of fat people who are anti-diet; I am a member of several Facebook groups that are incredibly safe and intimate spaces where people can share their experiences and start to begin to heal. Three examples are Rad Fatties, Boise Rad Fat Collective (you need not be from Boise to participate) and Fit Fatties (specifically about movement and fitness).
Another step not mentioned by Brené, but that is very relevant here, is reducing encounters with those who have harmful attitudes towards your weight and/or promote weight loss and dieting. Obviously it is not always possible to avoid everyone who promotes shame or discomfort about our bodies, but the “block” function on Facebook and other social media tools is your friend. Even if you only mute people from your life for a short length of time while you do some important healing yourself, this approach can be incredibly helpful.
It’s impossible to remove all sources of fatphobia from your life, but it is possible to find a release valve for the shame and to work to protect yourself from exposure from some of the muck raining down.
I’ll cover more techniques in future articles, so stay tuned.