As you may be well-aware, we live in an anti-fat culture that is quick to exalt and applaud weight loss goals, restrictive diets, supplements, and self deprecating comments about our bodies. Comments like, “Ugh, I feel fat,” “I look so fat in this shirt,” and “I can’t wear these; I’m literally busting out of these pants” are comments we (or others) say as a euphemism for negative emotions, feelings, or thoughts about our body. People typically use these comments to express discontent with the way their body looks or with how they feel about their body.

I must admit that I have said, “I feel fat” more times than I can count throughout my lifetime. In fact, I would be curious and sad to know how old I was when I first uttered those words; my best guess is that I first expressed this at some point in elementary school. In all the years I casually threw this comment around and heard it thrown around by others, I didn’t ever stop to think about A) what I actually meant and B) the fact that this statement is actually pretty dang problematic. It wasn’t until I unraveled the many thoughts, emotions, and experiences that contributed to my eating disorder that I learned and realized the issues with saying, “I feel fat” to express my feelings.

So, what’s the big deal?

The word “fat” –  when used in this context – carries a negative connotation that perpetuates anti-fat bias. This is not helpful for anyone.

So, a few things to clarify and emphasize right away:

  • Fat is not a feeling (just like thin is not a feeling)
  • Fat is not a bad word 
  • Being fat is not a bad thing

The problem with someone saying, “I feel fat” does not lie in there being a problem with living in a fat body. The problem lies in the message this expression sends and perpetuates. Often, when people say this, they mean that they feel physically uncomfortable, dysregulated, or stressed. As mentioned above, “fat” in and of itself is not a feeling; fat is a description of the way we show up in the world. But because people often use the phrase “I feel fat” to denote negative feelings or experiences, it equates fat with “bad.”

It’s important to think about how casually stating that we “feel fat” can impact not only ourselves, but many others, as well: those with eating disorders, those is recovery, those who struggle with body image, those who are in fat bodies and hear people who are not in fat bodies say, “I feel fat” as a way to describe negative feelings, and those who are looking to us to help them make sense of the world and its expectations for how we behave, show up, treat ourselves.

Another point of clarification: This does not mean that the feelings leading one to think, “I feel fat” are invalid. In fact, the opposite is true! These feelings you or someone else may be feeling are incredibly important, and they are allowed and encouraged to show up in the space you are in, and because of this, it’s important to identify what you may actually be feeling.

What might you actually mean when you think or say, “I feel fat”?

  • You feel triggered
  • You are struggling with your body image
  • You feel overstimulated
  • You feel physically uncomfortable
  • You feel emotionally uncomfortable
  • You feel dysregulated
  • You feel disconnected from yourself
  • You feel disconnected from other people
  • You feel sick
  • You feel hungry
  • You feel tired

So, how can we reorient the way we think about and express how we are feeling?

  1. Address the internalized fat phobia that has been engrained and perpetuated by an anti-fat society that could underpin a statement like this.
  2. Try to accurately label your feelings, even if you have to take some time to think about what it is that you are feeling. This may not come easily, but it can help your recovery if you have an eating disorder, and even if you don’t, it can help you create or maintain a healthy relationship with your body.
  3. Realize and remember that the way we talk about our bodies and the bodies of others matters. Our words can either help to dismantle OR perpetuate harmful messages and ideology that diet culture touts as helpful.
  4. Remind yourself that restricting will not fix “feeling fat” as it does not address the root issue of your feelings
  5. Remember that your feelings are valid and they deserve to be witnessed and heard.

Shifting Our Language and Our Mindset

Ultimately, this seemingly innocuous phrase is actually incredibly harmful both to the person who says it and potentially to those around that person. The key to dismantling this phrase is changing the narrative around it: instead of using a blanket statement that stigmatizes fatness, we can take the time to identify and articulate our actual feelings. This not only promotes personal understanding but also fosters a more compassionate and inclusive dialogue surrounding body image.

Referencing fatness in a negative light is diet culture’s attempt to scare everyone into thinking and feeling like there will always be something about our bodies that needs to be *fixed.* And that will put us on a never-ending hamster wheel, chasing an elusive ideal, ultimately leaving us feeling exhausted and empty. So, a change in our language can help a shift in mindset, one that reminds us that our feelings and bodies are allowed– and encouraged – to take up space.

By: Erika Muller, Assistant for Wildflower Therapy LLC

All images via Unsplash

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