The FAT Fake-Out

I’ve been fat. I’ve been thin. I’ve been everything in between.

How many millions of women could say the same?

Woman Munching on an AppleIn my own head, I was always fat – and felt that way for decades despite being a normal weight for both my age and stature. Yet I was certain I was fat. No one could convince me otherwise. 

Again I ask: How many millions of women might say the same?

And diets? I won’t say I tried everything on the market, but a sampling of this and that, and mostly, the typical yo-yo associated with eating too little, then regaining every last pound and more than a few extras.

Still, when I inch up even a single dress size, the feeling of fat surprises me. I look in the mirror and dislike what I see. The reflection is accompanied by distress, disappointment, and at times, despair.

Reading a recent Jezebel article, it seems that we who lodge our fat selves in our mind’s eye aren’t alone. Others who know us “fat” will continue to see us and judge us (critically) as well.

Pointing a (Fat) Finger

 The Jezebel article makes it clear that blame and shame are still the stuff of the fatter than average person. Assumptions are formed when it comes to fat people, apparently, even after they lose weight. According to Jezebel:

… a new study finds that people continue to be negatively affected by fat stigmas even after they have lost weight….

[Participants were asked to rate] a series of women—some who had lost 70 lbs and some who had remained weight-stable… The results? People hate fat people so much that they can’t stop hating fat people even after the fat people become thin people.

The myth of the Fat Personality persists: fat versus thin is perceived as a matter of self-control, and those who are fat must be lazy, lack discipline, or not care about their appearance.

But the worst fake-out of all?

That would be us. Women who fear fat, face fat, fight fat – and in so doing, erode our own self-esteem.

Growing Up Fat

I wasn’t a fat child – only the usual “pudgy” at stages when most children are round rather than scrawny. But I was the daughter of an obese mother, which caused a tizzy over my Inevitable Fat Future – unless something was done early.

I remember being bribed into my first diet (of hundreds) when I was six. I remember participating in my mother’s crazy food obsessions, worsened by her popping pills to drop the pounds. I remember her pain, the cruel comments, the clucking tongues, the shaking heads.

I remember starving myself, hoping it would help.

The result?

I spent the next three decades on a roller coaster, sometimes overweight, at other times “normal” – a highly subjective determination. But no matter what, I was never the much coveted “thin enough.”

I compared myself to every skinnier woman I saw, and never realized I had a perfectly acceptable figure until I looked back at age forty and after two pregnancies, understanding my long distorted vision. By that time – I was fat. And it was a long, difficult road to a comfortable “me” – kick-started by Weight Watchers, and finished off by the Divorce Diet.

But the reflection of a Fat (and unworthy) Self has never let up entirely, though it’s lessened to the level of periodic preoccupation. Fortunately, as I grow older, my sense of self strengthens, and body image is loosening its grip.

The Fat Woman’s Joke

Does anyone recall Fay Weldon’s book, “The Fat Woman’s Joke?”

It’s the story of a woman who is fat and unattractive; her husband leaves her for a flighty, pretty, and yes, thin woman. But the fat woman exacts her revenge, and it’s mighty indeed.

When I read the book, I felt strangely ambivalent. I recognized myself in the Fat Woman’s pain; I knew her rage (I saw it in my mother), I understood the satisfaction of her vengeance, yet more than anything, I was saddened by the waste – wasted energy, wasted blame, wasted years, and the sorrow of self-loathing.

Like I said, I recognized myself.

The Fat Fake-Out

Put me on a diet of apples? Cabbage soup? Grapefruit? Put me on the same diet as a friend with a different metabolism, of a different stature, and different genetics?

Our bodies will not respond in the same way. Period. And do I really have to add that my body at the half-century mark doesn’t respond to the sensible and healthy ways I once mastered to lose a few pounds?

It’s not that those methods no longer work, but they take more time, more patience, more resolve.

Eating organic? For me, it’s made a difference. I won’t say that I lose weight, but I can eat more and enjoy it, and I don’t gain. 

As for the prejudice that exists toward those who can’t live by the Perpetually Thin Ideal, it continues to run rampant, along with assumptions that a heavy woman must be snacking on chocolate, while the thin woman would never consider such a thing.

My Own Fat Head

I won’t say that I don’t worry about my appearance. That would be a lie.

I won’t say that I don’t get upset when I “feel” fat. That would also be a lie.

But I don’t get on the scale daily, or even weekly, whereas I once did so each morning and night. My sense of comfort in my own skin is dependent on eating in a healthy manner, exercising in moderation, and fitting my clothes – at a size that is appropriate for my age and stature.

In my head? I continue to struggle at times, and I may always do so – arguing with the self-image drawn in childhood, and focusing on the woman I am

The Measure of a Woman

While I wouldn’t vouch for the statistical validity of the study Jezebel cites, we have only to look around us to see Fat Hatred and Skinny Worship – though now, tits-on-a-stick is the Brave New Dream.

And the ever-moving body bar is targeted at women. And women, in my experience, are the first to judge others – ironic considering we may find ourselves equally judged a few years later, after pregnancy or when metabolism, medications, or other factors may kick in.

Beauty? Of course it matters. Yet our definitions of beauty are many, as well they should be. But more of us have bodies like Katya Zharkova rather than Kate Moss – now or in days gone by.

I might suggest that we attempt to accept our bodies in a reasonable fashion. We know when we’re truly in trouble; our doctors tell us so (and likewise, our families).

I also suggest getting naked – daily – as a means to come to acceptance.

The measure of a woman?

I’d say it’s her heart, her contributions, her relationships. It is not dependent on a scale or a dress size. And if our own heads tell us otherwise, it’s time to say no to the fake-out.


Click image of Katya Zharkova to access photos provided by Plus Model Magazine.
 

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© D. A. Wolf

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Comments

  1. My first diet was high protein drinks only provided my mother! I was fairly normal weight,but I lived obsessed by it since about the age of 8. I now realize it was her obsession…still is.
    http://farmhouseinfrance.blogspot.fr/2012/03/background-to-authentic-self.html#comment-form

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      This seems to be an issue of mothers passing behaviors down to daughters, or at least, planting the seeds. I wonder if this is always the case…

  2. I grew up in a family where I had pretty terrible body-image models. It’s taken years of reevaluating what I was taught by my mother and my extended family to come to a point of acceptance with my body (illness also gave me new perspective).

    I think the point when I knew I’d reached a new place with myself was when, after gaining and losing and gaining and losing through high school and college and finally making lifestyle changes in my 20s I could live with, I realized that I weighed what I did just before starting high school (my height has been constant since then), which is a healthy, normal weight for my build. The difference was that I no longer found the number or my appearance to be unacceptable as I’d been led to believe so many years ago. I could look in the mirror and feel neutral. Not swung around emotionally by what I saw there, just neutral.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Illness and other unforeseen events play a role, don’t they, CT. It’s so easy for people to “judge” (about everything), knowing little or nothing about the particulars of a situation.

      Looking in the mirror and feeling neutral. Imagine.

      Actually, I find it difficult to imagine.

  3. I’ll definitely share this great post. It’s one to which I so closely relate, it’s almost scary! I too had success with a Weight Watchers plan, although mine was the “Adult Orphan Diet” as opposed to the Divorce Diet, ;) as you referred to your experience, LOL. I too spent DECADES feeling fat, first as a size-5 dancer surrounded by size zeros, later as a size 8-10 college student, (my depressed, overweight mother would constantly remind me of my weight gain) and then as a size 10-12 young professional. After letting myself grow to a size 16-18+ throughout my 30s, I’m finally feeling fabulous at 40, at size 4-6, after shedding 65 lbs. I’m okay knowing that my thighs will always touch and there are many many people who will always be much thinner than me, such as my sister who is 4 inches taller than me and weighs 15-20 lbs less than I do. That used to depress me but I no longer beat myself up about it! I also wrote about my journey to fat and back again.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      So glad you stopped in, Andrea. Your story is a great reminder of beating the odds against the decades of head games. (And again, I see the mother theme playing a “heavy” hand.)

      I think it’s important to share these experiences, particularly as we seem to pass along our preoccupations. And we really need to stop the cycle that goes far beyond adolescence or young adulthood.

      And I love your post that tells your story!

  4. Ahhh – mothers and daughters and the crazy dynamics we share. At 50 – I realize too that it takes a lot more work and a lot less eating to maintain a healthy weight. I’ve found, like you have, that eating as close to what comes from the farm, ie local, and meats that come from organic, no hormones or other chemicals, sources – have made me feel better. that and limiting sugar. Have you heard about Mayor Bloomberg’s effort’s to limit the amount of soft drinks available – in an effort, albeit a big off skew – to cut down on obesity in this country? I keep moving and exercising for the same reasons – because it’s too tough to get going again when I stop. And I enjoy it if I’m outside – like walking, on a bike, swimming, etc. I want to move into my later years feeling good – and at middle age we realize it’s a matter of eating right and moving. Well that and a positive attitude. And like you – I like being comfortable in my clothes. Uh-oh – I’ve rambled – and on my first visit here. I enjoyed your post – insightful and helpful and TOTALLY relate-able.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      So glad you stopped by, Barb. Not a ramble! Delighted to have you here. And yes, we hit those years when we begin to know we need to eat right and keep moving.

  5. Gosh, this is a big topic, BLW! Don’t you think you could write on it for a week, or a month? I have so much to say that I don’t know what to say! I come from a family of seven Jewish sisters – does that say it in a nutshell? :) my mom, a Holocaust Survivor, starved during the war so she had thing yin/yang thing with her daughters’ bodies – should we be fat so when the Nazis come again we won’t starve or should we be skinny like the Americans so we can catch husbands?

    All humor aside, it’s something I struggled with from age 15 to 40, finally reaching 211 pounds. At 40 I joined a 12-step weight program and it’s never been an issue again. I’ve been maintaining my 80-85 pound weight loss all these years (nearly twelve). When my program is really, really good I think about my weight about as much as I think about my height, which means not at all.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Linda, you said a (ahem)… mouthful. It is a big topic, and yes, I could write about this for a week or a month or a book! And sadly, with too many female voices nodding and likely able to chime in. As for your family of seven sisters, and Holocaust survivors at that – I can only begin to imagine the mixed messages you must have grown up with around food, not to mention, the “eat, eat, eat” necessity.

      I remember you speaking of your struggle. And it’s wonderful to hear that you’ve maintained that loss for 12 years – wow. And that it’s really not an issue.

      Inspirational, truly.

  6. My mother struggled with her weight, and my entire family was very fat-phobic. It was tied to perceptions about social class, and used as a moral barometer. That’s why pictures like the one with the apple and the chocolate just *infuriate* me. My sister and I grew up eating the same meals, bought and prepared by my mother. Yet she was thin and I was chubby, and it was presumed it was due to some sort of character weakness/lack of discipline/whatever on my part. I had (and still have) such a complex about my weight because though I’m now at a “healthy weight” (according to charts, my doctor, The Dukan Diet) I still do not look “thin” and have to watch every bite just to maintain a slightly ronde shape. I know that had I never started dieting when I was 12, I would be thinner today. And yet, and yet…I keep trying to lose more weight.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      You nailed it, deja pseu. It’s the “moral barometer.” The assumptions captured in that image. If you’re thin? It’s yours to enjoy. Fat? You must have done it to yourself.

      And I understand your statement that if you hadn’t been dieting since 12, you’d be thinner. I often think of that. My father was thin. Ate normally. Had crazy eating behavior and constant dieting not been part of the domestic female funny farm, I think life would have been quite different.

  7. I am fortunate in that my weight swings have not been as wide as most. I was a skinny girl, and then a curvy skinny girl in high school, and for some reason I never thought about my weight the way other girls did – when asked “How much do you weigh?” by a doctor I remember responding “I don’t know.”

    When I had my first college roommates, I was shocked at their dieting patterns – they were thin, but obsessively so; they were thinner than I was, yet somehow much unhappier with themselves (which lead me to wonder, SHOULD I be unhappy with my weight?). The only diet I really ever did was after chemo/steroids caused a large and sudden weight gain (I chose Weight Watchers, and it worked).

    My mother, on the other hand, is a very large person, and I can not have a conversation with her without listening to her constantly berate herself for her weight, or tell me about some new diet she wants to try, or lecture me about food. My response to this has been to ignore it: I see how my mother’s obsession with her weight has only fueled self-loathing and she has a mentality that she is “stuck” in her weight which I think is somehow self-perpetuating. Now, with a skinny but healthy young daughter (she’s naturally thinner than most – always low on the weight charts since birth), I’m really trying to avoid “fat talk” at all, ever, in this house. We talk about eating healthy food (importance of fruits and vegetables, importance of avoiding chemical foods, the difference between a treat and a snack) but I try to avoid all mentions of weight and appearance in the context of food, except to say that healthy bodies are beautiful, and since hers lets her run and jump and swim, it’s beautiful.

    I do not know if this is enough. I have heard her talking with her friends, and they talk about their fat parts and their weight….and they are NINE! We don’t have TV, I don’t read (or bring home) typical women’s magazines, I don’t talk about my weight or hers….and I have a nine year old who discusses weight regularly. YIKES. This problem isn’t going away, but it’s awfully hard to keep healthy messages going in the sea of negative messages that we all receive.

    I think my body image is pretty darn healthy, and I almost feel GUILTY for not berating myself, as if my healthy image is conceited or arrogant or plain deluded: I have some cellulite, and in the wrong outfit the muffin top is a serious problem, so maybe I should be dieting and obsessing? But I refuse to play that game. A lifetime of watching thin girls hate themselves for being fat makes me choose to err in the other direction if possible. And I only pray that somehow my daughter comes out of it intact, and that when her body goes through the necessary changes of adolescence and adulthood and she’s no longer skinny (as happened to me), she accepts these as a wonderful, natural phenomenon, instead of fighting for a skinny ideal that isn’t ideal at all.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Such inspiring words, PollyAnna! Don’t berate yourself for not feeling weight-obsessed. And kudos – seriously – for the fine job you’re doing in teaching your daughter about healthy foods and behaviors, not to mention body image.

      The peer pressures (and media) will continue to have their influence, but with a solid foundation (like you’re providing), perhaps she’ll beat the odds, and possibly influence some of her friends to see things – and themselves – differently.

  8. Oy. I hear you sister. For me too it’s exercise. For years I was addicted to exercise as a means to emotionally eat and still be thin and then that stopped working. Finally I lost weight when I stopped being such a maniac about exercise. Balance is so beautiful and yet elusive!!

  9. About six months ago I had quit smoking for the thousandth time. I drove by a store and stopped for snacks, but then had this horrible sinking fear of how fat I was going to get and I bought a pack of smokes! I was more afraid of fat than all the awful things that smoking would do to me.

    I haven’t smoked in 2 months, but I keep having to talk myself down from the fear of fat ledge. I would rather be fat than have cancer. I also haven’t gained as much weight as I feared. It was truly a smack in the face and a wake up to think how ingrained my fear of fat was.

  10. BigLittleWolf says:

    Your story is striking, Sassy Queenpin. I wonder how many women choose the cigarettes (and thinner) over just a little more flesh on their bodies?

  11. batticus says:

    I don’t know what to make of this nor whether it is appropriate for this thread but I stumbled across a series of articles on men’s body image and how we as men are also impacted by media standards. Honestly, I’m not sure if it is a onion-caliber spoof or if it is sincere since I don’t share the sentiment. I can’t imagine the average man worrying about having six-pack abs and chiseled muscles, we know it is a laughable ideal that is totally impractical for normal men.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Will have to check this out, batticus… (Isn’t what is expected of a woman “laughable” as well?)

  12. I strive for a balanced perspective on my weight. I was a thin girl in high school and in college. After graduate school and an undiagnosed thyroid problem, I’ve struggled with fluctuations in weight. I’ve never been overweight, but at times, I’ve been uncomfortable with my appearance. For the last few years, I’ve dedicated myself to enjoying exercise and adopting a more natural diet. It isn’t easy, but I know for me it is important to embrace lifestyle change.

  13. When I was around 11, I gained about 10 pounds. My mother panicked and took me to a doctor who put me on diet pills that were nothing more than speed pills, only they were recommended by the MD, so it was somehow OK. I was in 6th grade. I remember the weight coming off almost magically. I had no appetite whatsoever, and had to force myself to eat. Apples, celery, things like that. I drank diet colas too–quite a lot of the time. I was up until 3 am nightly, frenetically doing mindless things in my little bedroom. I cut out pictures of flowers from magazines and glued them onto a cigar box, for example. I cleaned relentless. At school, I could not stop talking, and was reprimanded by the teacher. I had no idea what was happening to me, only that my mother was very pleased that I lost weight.

    At some point, the pills stopped working. I gained all of the weight back and then some. My mother was furious. From that time on, I followed a crazy up and down pattern of starving and gorging myself, losing and regaining the same 30 lbs.

    Many years later, my weight is perhaps 10 pounds over what I would like it to be. I eat a very healthy diet, mostly vegetarian, and exercise about 3 times a week. I am 62 and people tell me I look more than 10 years younger. My long struggle with weight ended when I discovered exercise, good nutrition, stopped drinking any kind of pop, diet or otherwise, and limiting sweets. That’s it, folks. Just good nutrition and exercise, as they always say. There is no quick way to lose weight, and diets don’t work. Most of all, stay away from diet pills.

    • BigLittleWolf says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Linda. Diet pills for a child. Dreadful.

      Good nutrition, exercise, moderation. They really do work for most of us.

  14. Good post, good discussion. My mom and two sisters have both been thin to the point of anorexia and I ended up feeling bad that I couldn’t starve myself the way they did! I’ve gained and lost the same 20 – 50 lbs repeatedly, wrecking my metabolism in the process.

    What’s working best for me is the Primal Blueprint approach (no grains, lots of healthy fats, non-starchy veggies and limited fruits). It keeps my blood sugar stable and I’m not hungry all the time.

    In my 50′s I don’t know that I’ll ever be thin – I had an hourglass figure I didn’t appreciate at the age of 13, when Charlie’s Angels were the epitome of female beauty. But it took me til now to learn to eat and move for benefits in terms of nutrition and energy, not for image alone.

    Thanks for holding this good discussion.

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