Fat is Not a Feeling
The first time I thought I was fat was on the bus in fifth grade.
My little thighs were spreading out and sticking to the brown vinyl seat that had, in places, been duct taped together.
It was a hot late spring afternoon and this was North Carolina. The windows were down to cool us off but I was more concerned about the size of my legs than anything else.
Just imagining my child self thinking, “I feel fat” makes me incredibly sad now.
After years of reading Geneen Roth books and going to eating disorder therapy sessions and learning to love my body the way others have, I know that “fat is not a feeling,” to quote generations of recovery experts.
But feeling fat defined my life for nearly two decades.
Until recently, I can’t remember being in a photograph and not thinking as I heard the click, “I feel fat.”
When I come across old photos of myself I can recognize how not fat I look in each and every one.
I know that the me in the picture didn’t realize how good she looked then. What a waste of time. What a lost opportunity to occupy my mind with something else- like whatever event or experience was important enough to warrant a photo! Life was happening and all I could think of was how bad I looked. Truly, what a shame.
And it was shameful.
In fourth grade a classmate was hospitalized for a month for anorexia nervosa. My mom hauled out her PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference) and we looked up the diagnosis. I read and re-read it. It was a mental disorder, not really a physical one, even though it ravaged the body. My classmate was incredibly young to be so sick. The definition implicated the family unit.
In 10th grade I received the first B of my academic career on an English paper. I was upset, indignant, perhaps outraged as only an arrogant teenager can be. One of my suite mates (this was boarding school) taunted me about the grade by placing construction paper Bs all over my room and wrote a little poem. She included a line about how I could exercise forever but I would never get rid of my thighs.
To be fair, I was maybe a size 6 then. And 5’10” tall. Hardly fodder for fat jokes.
But she knew exactly how to get to me with her prank. She knew that every morning at 6 am I woke up early, donned my blue leotard and favorite pink bike shorts to work out with Janet Jones-Gretzky and The Firm VHS tape. Even though I’d be swimming 3000 meters or practicing volleyball or running around a soccer field every afternoon.
“I feel fat” was my mantra and near perfect grades and constant motion kept me from digging underneath it.
I didn’t know how to feel anything else.
Not angry or sad or lonely or wanting to be loved or scared or ashamed. Just fat.
Feeling fat became my blanket emotion, my body’s set point and my default scapegoat.
Feeling fat drove me to over perform academically (until I couldn’t any longer) and drive myself mad with extra workouts and athletic drills in high school and college (until I couldn’t any longer).
Feeling fat told me to eat more food of the soft and sweet variety than I ever really wanted and then vomit it up violently in isolated toilets or plastic trash bags for nearly a decade.
Feeling fat asked me to stay home and binge when a truly lovely invitation came my way.
Feeling fat cautioned me not to get too close to a man because I wasn’t capable or worthy of love due to my secret, shameful habits.
Feeling fat warned me that weight loss could make me unsafe- a target for those who might abuse my body like I had already experienced.
Feeling fat blocked my creative expression as long as I would let it.
Feeling fat was my friend and my lover, my confidante and my warden.
Feeling fat lied to my face and said that my sacred, powerful body was not good enough.
During my fourth of year of college, I lived in a very special place at the University of Virginia. Our rooms were small and part of the original architecture of the University as designed by Thomas Jefferson. They retained their fire places and their old fashioned doors but never were fitted with indoor plumbing because really there is no space.
Suddenly I was a bulimic without a bathroom.
But the beast of addiction must be fed- quite literally. Not having a toilet drove me to desperate measures and eventually a reckoning. I grew tired of being tired (bingeing and purging is hard work) and I grew tired of the secrecy. I wanted to feel something other than fat. I badly wanted to spend my days and nights thinking about something other than my food, my appearance, my next binge. More than that, I was facing graduation and desperately wanted to leave behind the burden of bulimia. Functioning as an adult with this secret terrified me more than I could articulate.
I called my parents in the middle of the night to tell them about my struggles (they really didn’t know the extent of my problem) and formulated a plan.
What followed was an incredibly unorthodox approach to recovery that had immediate positive impact over the next few months. I took out a student loan, dropped most of my classes, and went to some sort of therapy or counseling every day. It was a strange way to exist in an academic community, but my new studies were vital to my pending graduation. I felt like I had to recover in order to be able to move on. And recover I did. The bulimic behavior subsided, but feeling fat persisted.
I felt like LadyMacBeth as i tried to exorcise myself of that pesky and persistent guilt trip. I had summoned it. I had embraced it and now that I was ready to let it go, it wouldn’t budge.
Some eight years after that initial recovery I worked with a coach who taught me, like a child, to name my feelings. At first, I couldn’t even come up with words for emotions on my own. I didn’t know them. So I downloaded and printed out a chart of feelings. I learned that I’d probably feel a variation of the four basic ones: happy, sad, afraid/surprised and angry/disgusted.
I learned what it meant to feel an emotion and not to look for a way to ignore, cover up or discharge it in an unhealthy manner.
Feeling fat, for me, had been a more palatable conclusion than facing true emotion. My fifth grade self wasn’t actually obsessed with the size of her thighs. It was just an easier internal conversation to have than to admit what she really felt. And what a wonderful distraction it provided!
For years feeling fat kept me numb to my emotions, cut off from truly experiencing life and from being the person I longed to be.
After all, learning to name emotions, and then to feel them, can only happen when you feel secure. It took me years to feel that safety. When I finally was able to sit with the discomfort of my own emotional states, it was terrifying. The rage and grief and sadness overwhelmed me. I wanted to go back to feeling fat! I wanted to return to the comfort of bingeing, purging, obsessing. Anything but my childish chart of emotions and the depth and profundity of feeling the present moment.
This, I think, is the work of our lives. This allowing of emotions, naming them and metabolizing them instead of rushing to a screen or food or activity or even another human for distraction. This IS life.
But in 5th grade, I didn’t have the chart. I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling underneath “I feel fat.”
When I think, “I feel fat” now, I know it’s my psyche's message that something is off. It's a cue to go to my chart and point to the emotion I’m really experiencing. Am I angry, scared, happy, or sad?
I have to do this more frequently than you might guess. I have a three year old! Parenting an emotionally tuned in pre-schooler has challenged me far more than recovery ever did. So I have to use the tools or else the spectre of numbing comes back.
What emotion am I experiencing right now? I choose the feeling and whisper it to myself. Feeling fat is not an option on my chart.