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roadmap for when you feel fatIt can come out of nowhere, and it seems like The Universal Truth: you feel fat.

Unlike its very distant cousin, Bad Hair Day (which has some basis in reality), feeling fat is typically a subjective experience. It rarely has anything to do with your actual size (or change in size). Is it possible that you gained a noticeable amount of weight overnight? Highly unlikely. However, there’s that experience, over and over: I feel fat.

You may have already heard the saying fat is not a feeling. So if fat is not a feeling, what are you feeling? And why does it disguise itself this way?

The Why

In short, it’s external culture. Our culture regularly conflates internal states like self-esteem and self-worth with our external packaging (i.e. our bodies). Therefore, it’s no wonder that just about everything gets blamed on our bodies. It’s no wonder that the thought “I feel fat” goes way deeper than our actual size.

It’s also because Fat = Everything Bad in our culture. In fact, a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that almost half of people would rather give up a year of their life than be obese. Five percent said they’d rather lose a limb than be obese. In other words, “I feel fat because everything in my life is going great!” said nobody, ever.

The What

If fat is not a feeling, how the heck do you know what to do when it happens to you? Deflecting negativity to your “fat” body often serves the purpose of numbing yourself or avoiding the real issues. Here is a quick roadmap of how to figure out what’s really going on.

Check in with Your Physical Self

You can’t gain a significant amount of [real] weight overnight, but you could be bloated. Or you could be feeling “heavier” in your abdomen. Has your diet been out of the ordinary lately? Have you been traveling? Are you experiencing water retention from your menstrual cycle? Any of those could result in physical “heaviness” – which is not the same as fat or weight gain. It’s also possible that you feel hungry – but interpret that as a bad thing that will lead to weight gain.

Are Your Physical Sensations Based in Your Body, or from Your Emotions?

Pause a moment. What do you feel in your body? Tightness in your neck? Is your heart racing? If there’s no direct link to what you’ve been doing (for example, your chest feels tight because you just ran up some stairs), you could be feeling your feelings — literally. Although we may think of emotions as residing in our minds, there are many physical manifestations. Start pinpointing how you feel different emotions in your body. Butterflies in your stomach is a classic physical manifestation of anxiety/nervousness. What do you notice for yourself?

Identify Those Emotions

Whether your emotions are manifesting themselves in physical symptoms or not, put a name to them. Are you feeling sad, lonely, bored, or angry? Are there words that describe it in a more nuanced way? For example, angry could also be more finely identified: livid, rage, hostility, fury, hatred, or resentment. Feelings are not magical in and of themselves. Rather, they give you signals about what is going on in your life.

Link the Emotions to Your Life

Can you identify the origin of your feelings? Maybe your friend said something negative about you earlier in the day. Maybe your honey didn’t remember your anniversary. Or maybe you are feeling overwhelmed by new work challenges.

Address It Directly

Sometimes the remedy for the underlying issue isn’t immediately apparent. Put one hand on your heart and one on your abdomen. Take a few breaths, then ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” When you obtain some clarity, then address it directly.

Accept It If You Can’t Change It

Honestly, not everything can be fixed – or at least it may not be fixed right away. If you are in a situation where your sense of agency is limited, it’s okay to acknowledge that. It’s okay to be pissed about it, cry about it, vent about it. You can’t take away a loved one’s terminal illness; but you can at least sort it out in your mind and heart instead of turning those feelings on yourself. Feelings come and go, so even the ones that feel the worst will subside if you let them run their course.

Stop Blaming Your Body

What can you do to be kinder to your body – essentially, to yourself? Here are some suggestions:

  • Move your body with respect: take a walk, stretch, or engage in other physical activity you enjoy.
  • Name at least one thing you appreciate or respect about your body.
  • Think of what you’d say to comfort a friend. Now say it to yourself.

Barbara Spanjers

Barbara Spanjers

Barb builds on her experience as a therapist to help women stop freaking out about food and weight so they can focus on what’s really important. She is a huge fan of water slides, popcorn, and cats – not necessarily in that order.

Barbara Spanjers

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