What Are We Feeling When We’re Feeling “Fat”?

Remember the “fat is not a feeling” hashtag? The phrase has been around for a long time, but it trended as a hashtag last October, when Facebook added “fat” to their “feeling” statuses, complete with a smiling face with implied double-chin and rosy, cherubic cheeks. I mean, it’s a cute little emoticon, but it made me uneasy, just like it made the organization Shape Your Culture uneasy, which is why they campaigned the hashtag.

But I don’t know — sometimes I do feel fat. It’s a really unique emotional experience, somewhere between inadequacy, disappointment, self-loathing, antsiness, and anxiety. In those moments, I feel like I’ve been living with my head in a cloud for weeks, and then all of a sudden I see myself in an unflattering shirt and the clouds evaporate. My god, how could I have lied to myself? My body is the same body that, maybe the day before, I was perfectly happy with. It didn’t change much in 24 hours, but all of a sudden it becomes the symbol of my laziness, my unworthiness, my failure. And it fans out across not just my body image, but my whole life: I don’t work hard enough, or I don’t work enough, period. I have no idea why my partner loves me; he’s too good for me, and too handsome by far. I’m nearing thirty and I haven’t accomplished x, y, or z.

This new video from Buzzfeed, featuring writer and performer Caroline Rothstein, puts the idea behind “Fat Is Not A Feeling” succinctly:

“There are moments when I feel fat. And when I think I feel fat, I remember that fat is not a feeling. There’s no such thing as feeling fat. So when I feel ‘fat,’ I know that means I’m feeling something else and it’s worth figuring out what that is.”

I know that our culture conditions us to believe that we should, ideally, be slender; that “slender” is the goal to work toward, that a lot of us imagine ourselves as skinny people trapped in not-skinny bodies, the same way we believe that we’re millionaires who just haven’t made it rich yet. And I know that that has to have some really fucked-up detrimental effects on a person’s psychology. David Foster Wallace put it like this, in regards to the saturation of images of extremely pretty people on TV, in his essay “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (which I suggest reading in its entirety, when you happen to have two free hours and a lot of focus):

“One of the things that makes the people on television fit to stand the Megagaze is that they are, by ordinary human standards, extremely pretty[…] Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing. We try to see ourselves in them[…] When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty[…] This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences. The whole U.S.A. gets different about things it values and fears.”

That’s about the closest thing I can find to a scientific or philosophical explanation for why we blame our fat for our unhappiness. On the one hand, we’re presented with cultural images and rhetoric that says to us that the best human beings, the happiest human beings, are extremely attractive. We start to think that those two things go hand-in-hand, and then, on the other hand, we start to invert that assumption and believe that we can achieve happiness by being physically like those happy people. When we are not physically like those people (and, as Wallace points out, those people are presented to huge audiences specifically because they are unusually attractive, not because they’re extremely happy), we become unhappy with ourselves and start to associate all sorts of other anxieties about the quality of our lives with our physical bodies.

Or, in other words, we have all these anxieties about our lives, and we’re working backward to associate them with our physical bodies. Maybe it’s also that our physical bodies seem like a solvable problem: Calories in, calories out, bro. If you believe that your body is the source of your distress, then all you have to do to no longer be distressed is eat less and move more. That’s a hell of a lot simpler and easier than what Rothstein describes doing to recover from her eating disorder:

“I learned to sit with what it felt like not to purge. Then, not to binge. Then, not to eat emotionally. Then, not to fear food. Then, not to fear my body. […] I’ve learned to sit with my feelings. To feel everything, and wait.”

These are techniques that are at the heart of dialectical behavioral therapy, which I’m always happy to see propagated, because it’s effective. And it’s hard. DBT is used for people with personality disorders, who have emotions that are so intense that they interfere with the patient’s life. There is no good medication for that, but DBT works if the patient is dogged about it, because it teaches the patient not to avoid those hard feelings; to, instead, embrace them and learn how to live through them without too much fear or distress. This is especially helpful when those emotions are attached to a physical sensation — like muscle tension or shortened breath for anxiety, or teeth-clenching or rapid heart rate or feeling like you want to scream, for anger. Figuring out how to anticipate an emotional change by your physical sensations, and then figuring out how to tolerate those physical sensations without giving in to the intensity of the emotion, can change your life.

If we’re thinking about emotions that have a physical sensation attached, there might be no more appropriate sensation than this feeling that we don’t have a good name for — the feeling of inadequacy, disappointment, self-loathing, antsiness, and anxiety that comes along with suddenly feeling very embodied, and very caged in by our body fat, suddenly feeling disturbed by our stomach “rolls” and the way the fat on the back of the arm moves. I guess it’s “dysmorphia,” which doesn’t mean “seeing your body incorrectly,” but rather attributing feelings and emotions and ideas to the things you see as flaws about your body.

We’re not feeling “fat.” We’re feeling dysmorphic, and the only way to understand it and cope with it is to dissociate those feelings of anxiety and inadequacy and everything else from our ideas about our intrinsic worth.


[You can read “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in David Foster Wallace’s 1997 essay anthology, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.]

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