Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 7-8
It’s hard to grow up female today without being concerned about fat. Girls today feel fat, fear fat and have to deal with the psychological distress of being fat, in a world that worships thinness and has a tremendous distaste of fat.
Adolescence can be a difficult time for girls. As girls go through puberty, their bodies begin to accumulate the fat necessary for reproduction, all the while living in a society that defines the ‘ideal’ girl as a pencil with boobs and muscle tone. Instead of celebrating their changing bodies, girls are socialized to see them as abnormal. Where once they were able to experience or feel their bodies from the inside out, girls begin to judge their bodies from the outside and define themselves in terms of how they look. In the process, they disconnect from their bodies.
Girls also experience major changes in their lives during adolescence. They are taught by society, including people like us, that it’s better for them to hold back their feelings and opinions instead of hurting someone else. Girls are faced with a dilemma: if they are open and honest, they run the risk of losing the relationship, but if they hold back parts of themselves they keep the relationship but lose their selves. Because girls develop their identity in the context of their relationships, changes in these relationships often come at the expense of their sense of self.
Girls are socialized to internalize their distress; thus, many girls learn to deflect feelings that are unacceptable to society and express them in a negative voice. Because fat is considered bad in our society, girls encode their feelings in a language of fat. Every time they feel angry, sad or insecure, for example, girls ‘feel fat.’ Focusing on body size becomes a way of turning concerns about something real on the inside into something artificial on the outside.
As professionals, we need to help girls become aware of when they feel fat, encourage them to express the feelings, and tell the stories that lie underneath. Once they have done this, we need to validate their feelings, help girls see these in a social context, and let them know that they are not alone in how they feel. When girls are not aware of and can’t decode the ‘language of fat,’ they associate the discomfort caused by their feelings with feeling fat. They alleviate this discomfort by dieting.
When girls diet, people compliment them on their weight loss and they feel a sense of accomplishment. Some girls begin to feel power over controlling their hunger and begin to restrict their food even more, starting down the slippery slope of anorexia. Some girls binge and purge when restriction doesn’t work for them, putting themselves at risk of bulimia. Some girls begin a cycle of yo-yo dieting. Every time they lose weight they gain it back and more. Repeated cycles of losing and regaining weight put them at risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. While dieting can make girls sick, no matter which path they follow, there is a fundamental paradox in our beliefs and attitudes about dieting: what is diagnosed as an eating disorder in thin girls is also what is prescribed for girls who are fat.
It’s impossible to turn on the TV or open the newspaper without being bombarded with messages that fat is bad. Yet for every study about the dangers and risks of obesity there is one that shows that fat is not the issue: rather, it is the constant cycle of weight loss and gain — as well as the lack of exercise — that puts people at risk.
Girls may be fat for a multitude of reasons. Weight is a complex mix of biological, social, environmental, psychological, and lifestyle issues. Many girls are genetically fat. Some are fat because of faulty hunger mechanisms which develop when their mothers (and sometimes fathers) restrict their food when they are young. Some girls learn to deal with emotional situations in their lives by using food to anaesthetize their feelings, purging food to get rid of their feelings or controlling their food intake in order to gain a sense of control in their lives. Some girls are fast food junkies in a culture that encourages them to order a bigger serving of fries or a double sugar-laden drink for just pennies more. Some girls are fat because they diet and binge. Some girls are fat because their families are poor and choose less expensive foods laden with carbohydrates, rather than fresh fruit and vegetables. Many girls are fat because they don’t get enough exercise. Today, playing outdoors has been replaced by sitting at the computer or watching TV. Many schools don’t have regular physical education, and when they do, it doesn’t meet the needs of girls.
Society’s prejudice towards fat is internalized by girls at an early age and becomes entrenched as they grow up. Prejudice robs fat girls of their self-esteem and makes it difficult for them to feel loved and accepted in a society that rejects them because it finds their size unacceptable. Their low selfesteem and hatred of their bodies is often caused not by being fat, but by the shame that they are made to experience in a culture that only values people who are thin. We need to help girls be fat with dignity. We need to let fat girls know that they are beautiful and help them find their passion, so that they don’t define themselves only by how they look.
We need to help girls deal with teasing and bullying by giving girls skills to fight back and by lobbying our schools for zero tolerance. We need to teach girls that fat is a body type and not a character type. They need to learn about genetics and metabolism. We need to put an end to teachers who weigh girls, measure their fat with callipers or choose only the thin kids. We need to encourage our girls to be active and ensure that there are activities for everyone, not just the girls who are thin.
Most important of all, we need to examine our own beliefs and attitudes about body size. As professionals we too are products of the culture in which girls mature, and we are influenced by these same prejudices and biases. Despite our best intentions, we pass our attitudes along to the girls. Often we have difficulty getting past the belief that fat relates to bad lifestyle choices; and we also have difficulty not viewing the situation as a failure of will, or with resisting our need to make someone ‘healthy,’ instead of focusing on the real needs of the girl.
We need to be able to acknowledge our own weight prejudice and monitor our language and actions for signs of it. We need to be aware not only of overt fat prejudice but also of the subtle messages that seemingly promote size acceptance, but only as long as that size is not too large. When we find the body size of a particular girl disturbing, our reactions often are more about our own fear of fat than they are about her body.
Girls come in all sizes and shapes. Until we can celebrate this and until fat becomes only a three letter word, eating disorders and obesity will continue to rise despite our efforts to stop them. Our girls deserve better.