Fat Is Not a Feeling

03/20/2015 02:23 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015


by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition

Recently, Facebook came under fire for offering the emoticon "fat" as an option under "feeling ___" when posting on the site. Since I rarely use emoticons when posting on my Dr. Pam Peeke page, I was shocked when I scrolled down over the countless choices to find a bloated, double-chinned yellow face next to "fat." Curiously, "fat" followed "hopeless" on the list.

Those from the eating disorders communities voiced their outrage at what they considered to be a form of digital fat shaming. This was quickly followed by a groundswell of support, with more than 16,000 people signing off on an online petition to have the emoticon removed.

After initially balking, within three days of the initiation of the firestorm, Facebook leadership decided to remove it. But in the wake of this controversy, the buzz continues as experts and consumers express their own feelings about this important topic.

In a recent study, scientists found that 90 percent of college women engaged in conversational fat shaming of their bodies, despite the fact that only 9 percent were actually overweight. Other studies have found that women of all sizes and ages practice this kind of negative self-speak.

Let's be clear: It's not OK to say "I'm so fat!" because science also says that this kind of attitude is highly associated with overall body shame, dissatisfaction, and disordered eating behaviors. And for those people who mistakenly believe that shaming will suddenly create some kind of an awakening, resulting in better self-care, that's also not true. Instead, shame is followed by blame and guilt, and then down the slippery slope of repeated self-destructive vicious cycles you go! Finally, fat shaming is highly contagious. Have you ever noticed that once someone of any size starts in with it, women around her tend to chime in, as well?

In conjunction with the online petitaceion, a young woman playwright, Caroline Rothstein, posted a video "Fat Is Not a Feeling," which at last count has garnered 1,166,589 views.

After viewing it, Deb, one of my regular commenters, said:

Her video is fantastic! She's absolutely correct in saying that "FAT is not a Feeling"... As she says, sitting with underlying feelings is definitely key to recovery when you have an eating disorder--and it can be highly uncomfortable to do so. It's so much easier to stuff feelings down and eat to avoid those feelings. I'm making slow progress... Although abuse is not a factor for me, traumas throughout my life have definitely been a big trigger.

Leslie followed with: People are not fat. They have fat. They have fingernails too, but they are not fingernails.

I'm glad this issue became a major trending topic on social media because it's time we monitor our own beliefs about ourselves. Men as well as women engage in negative self-speak, but it's women who are more likely take it so deeply to heart and, as a result, develop destructive ways to self-soothe (food, alcohol, drugs) their pain and angst.

Progress has been made in eliminating the emoticon. It's a small but important step in helping everyone become aware of his or her body-related thoughts and words.

And to continue with this progress, here are four new rules of the road to help you practice daily self-compassion and awareness:

  1. Do the 24-hour check. As an exercise, grab a little notebook and make note of every time you feel like saying or actually say something negative about yourself. Try to connect that incident with what else was happening in your life. You saw yourself in the mirror, someone made a remark, or perhaps you felt anxious or stressed? Knowing yourself and your cycles is the critical first step in creating a loving and compassionate self-dialogue.
  1. Positive repls negative. Before you ever let loose with a barrage of negative, shaming self-speak, take a deep breath and stop yourself. Think of two things you love about yourself and say them instead. Turn "I'm so fat" into, "I just ran/walked that 5K for charity, and I feel terrific."
  1. Guide friends. When a friend starts in with the self-shaming, gently and lovingly divert her by replacing "I'm fat, and I'll never be thin," with "I've always admired your poise in the face of stress. You're so resilient!"
  1. Prevent further spread. Yes, the language of fat shaming is very contagious, especially among young women who are vulnerable to this type of messaging. Sit down and patiently explain that there is no such thing as "feeling fat" and that it means there are other underlying feelings of insecurity that need to be addressed. Awareness and knowledge are powerful ways to nip this kind of self-destructive speak in the bud.
PamPeekesm-199x300 copyPamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as "the doc who walks the talk," living what she's learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her newest book is the New York Times bestseller The Hunger Fix.

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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.