Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I "Feel" Fat Part 2: When Weight Gain IS Being Healthy, But You Still Hate It

Last time, I talked a little about the idea that fat is not really a feeling. What I meant by that is: Fat is not an emotional state. It's not like being sad or angry or disappointed. This is an important distinction, especially if you have an eating disorder, because in my experience, people with ED's tend to use "fat" as a catch all for every negative feeling we have about ourselves that we either can't or won't articulate. When I say "I feel fat" what I mean is "I feel like a worthless, pointless, disgusting, abhorrent, wreck." It goes a lot deeper than just the body.

Now, can you physically "feel fat"? I don't know. I think you can feel full, heavy, or inactive. I think you can feel unhealthy. But those can be true whether you'd actually be described physically as fat or not. I think it's probably best to remember that fat is just a description of a body type. What you feel, even physically, has more accurate terms that could be used.

When people say "I feel fat", it's pretty much as loaded down with negative associations as you can get. No one says they feel fat to stand in for feeling good, happy, productive, or healthy. It's become a kind of short hand for things that are culturally bad, because we certainly don't view fat as positive as a society. They've done studies. The kinds of words kids associate with a picture of a fat person, for instance, include anything from "mean" to "stupid". Things that have absolutely nothing to do with size and are extremely negative. So I don't think it's particularly far out to suggest, even when used casually, saying "I feel fat" is rife with problems.

I think about this a lot because, in spite of 2 years of therapy, I still say "I feel fat" fairly automatically as a substitute for whatever is really bothering me. This is because when I get upset I start to "feel" like I take up too much space because I don't believe I have a right to want, need, or feel much of anything. It's part of the body dysmorphia that has stayed while my ED has improved. It's a little like a balloon blowing up. I'll be completely normal and then gradually, as stressors mount, anxiety rises, or complicated issues come up (such as making a mistake, I have big problems with me making mistakes)...I will steadily feel like I have become a cartoonishly towering and overflowing giant. Because of a lot of different things said to me when I was young and formulating my sense of self, I have a deeply held belief that I do not have the right to take up any space. I always want to shrink, to become small and unnoticeable. I believe that's where a lot of my need to starve came from. Being empty made me feel smaller and "lighter" and, technically, I was. Of course, it was never small enough.

These days when I catch myself thinking/saying I "feel" fat, I usually stop myself and have an inner conversation about what I'm actually feeling because I know that there's more going on. I know that sounds touchy-feely, but it's a lot better than continuing to starve myself to death. Sometimes I say it because I do feel physically inactive or dissatisfied...but then there's the consideration of why I feel like that, and why I don't just say that instead. It's much easier for me to focus on something physical than it is to acknowledge that, when it comes to myself, I'm a bully. I will and have said every horrible, terrible, hurtful thing you can think of in my head. For years I have believed the worst about myself, believed it with a kind of terrible, almost terminal, determination. I am worthless. I am nothing. I will always be nothing. I am a failure if I am not thin.

That thought: I am a failure if I am not thin...is really tough. Because the truth is, I've gained quite a bit of weight since going into therapy. Some of it is because I had to look at my diet with a nutritionist and realize that what I thought of as a "healthy"diet was nearly devoid of fat (which you need to live and have a healthy brain, by the way), had stopped being particularly diverse, and was making me sick and tired. Which was also because of how much I was limiting my calories. I wasn't fueling myself nutritionally at all and eating had become so miserable I dreaded it. I had to fill out a form and mark whether I thought a food was "safe" or not. If it wasn't lettuce it was something I didn't view as safe even if I ate it. And if I did eat the non safe foods, I felt so guilty it was suffocating. I also couldn't do things like eat out or around other people. I was terrified that they would think I was disgusting for eating.

Nowadays this is much less of a problem. I'm still a little anxious when I eat around people I don't know, or men. I still worry a bit about how I look eating, like they'll think I'm too fat to eat. The reason it's mostly eating around men that bothers me is that men have been the ones who primarily commented on my weight and eating. It's one of those personal issues that I'm working on along with everything else. It's better now, I don't freak out every time I sit down at a restaurant, convinced everyone will be staring. I don't always have to eat the lowest fat thing I can find, or only eat a few mouthfuls and then hide the rest to look like I've eaten more.

Maybe most importantly: I trust myself around food now in a way I hadn't for over a decade. I know my diet is healthy and diverse now. I know I make healthy food choices for the most part. I also know that occasionally making the choice to have something like french fries does not make me a bad person. Balanced eating is not about never having a food for emotional reasons, never eating fried food or sweets. It's basically taking the word "never" out of your food vocabulary, along with not associating what you eat with whether or not you're a good person. It's about not judging what I eat along limited and rigid lines. We do that a lot in the U.S., making foods morally good or bad. Which then means the people who eat or don't eat them are good or bad, and whatever body type gets associated with those "bad" foods likewise become "bad". It's actually pretty vicious when you think about it.

So, I've gained weight. That's a tough thing for me to say. Some of it is from actually eating and some of it is from reducing the amount of exercising I was doing because I had stopped being able to do it for anything even remotely resembling health or enjoyment. It was all obsession, all about judging and punishing myself. I couldn't go for a walk without obsessing about how far it was, and if it was anything less than an hour, it was like I hadn't done it. I would do it while sick, I would hurt myself by pushing too hard, pulling muscles, putting my back out. I almost collapsed doing back to back intense aerobics one afternoon for nearly 2 hours in 90+ degree heat. And it wasn't enough. I didn't "feel" thin or healthy or "good". I felt like a failure.

Mind you, I think I've gone a little far in the other direction. But that's okay. We all go through more or less active times. Now that I've moved to San Francisco I'm more inclined to walk/bike/skate for enjoyment and find that balance between exercising legitimately for health and because I like to...than because I think I have to or else I'm a terrible person who doesn't deserve kindness or love. That's not very healthy, physically or psychologically.

It's difficult for me, still, to think of my weight gain in terms of both my mental and physical health. Both are, in fact, much better. But that "thin = good" thing is really hard to get past, especially when you're a woman. And that's not all of it, either. I feel guilty that I want to lose weight, because I feel like I'm being shallow. And, of course, I worry that if I get too far in that direction I'll be right back at starvation and thousands of jumping jacks in the middle of the night.

When so much of how I used to identify myself was based on starving and attempting to shrink myself away...it's tough to be okay with taking up more physical space in a very real sense. My body fat is not imaginary. My belly is soft and round and when I sit there are noticeable rolls. My upper arms, never particularly slim, are full and round as well. And there is a voice that asks, in my head: Am I fat?

The truth is, I don't know, and it shouldn't matter... but it does...in that dark place inside me that still hangs on and tries to claw its way back to running my life. My perception of myself is still very distorted, which I remind myself of every time that voice starts raising a fuss. And I remind myself that I'm more than my weight, and that I'm so much healthier now it's scary. I have proof from my doctors on that one. But still. That doubt lingers.

Will it ever go away? I don't know. I'll have to be watchful and diligent and keep talking to myself even when it feels silly or selfish. I've done so many things I never thought I would in the last 2 years that I can't ignore the connection between dealing with ED and being overwhelmingly more productive. That's something I could not stand to lose, the things I've accomplished, the work I've done. And in the end, those achievements are real and more worthwhile than starving myself to be thin ever was.

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