At age 5, I was fat-shamed. But, I have learned that my body does not need to be a problem.
After years of believing that weight loss was the key to my best mental health, today is the highest weight in my life, and my mental health is better than ever.
Let me give you some context before I continue.
I have always been overweight, and I considered that a problem for a long while. But it wasn’t just any problem. It was the most important challenge in my life. Like many others, I believed that weight loss was the solution to everything in my life. This included the occasional sneezing fits and my inability to find someone I like. Surprisingly, this belief prevented me from seeking the mental healthcare support I needed. Dieting made my mental health worse.
Transparency: I don’t want you to feel like I have somehow reached some promised land. I am at the beginning of a long journey in mental health that started with childhood trauma in many ways.
“I was punched, kicked, and humiliated for being fat.”
I grew up in San Francisco’s suburbs in the 1980s and 90s, where I was subject to neglect and abuse. My family also suffered from the effects of alcoholism. At school, my weight was a major issue. Four adults raised me, who loved me deeply but still have unresolved intergenerational trauma. My aunt was a sexually abusive woman. My mother would leave me unannounced for many months. My rageaholic grandfather and grandmother were my primary caregivers. She didn’t know how she could handle it all, so they raised me. At 5 years old, I was first called “fat” on my school’s playground. This moment was the start of many years of daily reminders by my classmates that my weight, size, and body were too high for me. I was ashamed for being overweight and had my stomach punched, kicked, and kicked. This started a two-decade-long journey toward disordered eating and dieting.
EveryoneEverything around me, doctors, magazines, and classmates, seemed to agree that “fixing” weight was the solution to everything that wasn’t working in my life. Being fat meant to feel unbalanced, grounded, and well. My life was full of these things, so it didn’t alarm me. Through movies like “The Hunger Games,” I saw how culture connected emotional volatility, depression, listlessness, and fatness. Death is Her. When these symptoms started to appear in me, I thought they were due to my weight. In my twenties, I began to have difficulty focusing on tasks and finishing them. At the drop of a hat, I would lash out at my partner. I distrusted myself and others. One day after I graduated, my college boyfriend called me. He said, “It’s common to cry every day.” He replied softly, “No, it is not.”
These things were not caused by being overweight. I believed that weight loss would cure everything. Ironically, my belief led me to the same behaviors that were destroying my mental health: self-blame and self-hatred as well as dieting. My self-destructive feedback loop sounded something like this: “I just yelled to my friend for disagreeing over dinner, and now they are angry at me. This just won’t happen if I’m thin.” Or “I’m crying uncontrollably at a mall for no apparent reason.” All will be well if you focus on losing weight.
“I spent a weekend at a fat-positive conference, and [I] saw people who look just like me.”
Then, how did this breakthrough occur? While I was a graduate student researching the effects of body size on women’s perceptions of their gender, I discovered fat acceptance through total dumb luck. After spending a weekend at a fat-positive conference, I was converted to fat activism immediately. It was the first time I had ever seen people like me live happily and unapologetically. I learned about the long-term negative effects of fat-shaming, weight stigma, and how to get rid of the horrible things I had been told about fat people. I was also determined to be anti-diet.
My path to better mental well-being began to open slowly after I had lost weight. I stopped doubling down on my diet when I felt embarrassed about causing pain to loved ones. Instead, I started anger management. Instead of obsessively “burning” calories from my last meal, meditation was a better option. I stopped assuming that being thin would make it easier to interact with my family. I began reading about Adult Children of Alcoholics (and Dysfunctional Families) and attended meetings where I felt a sense of community among people going through the same thing I did. My inability to concentrate and emotional volatility were also due to my dieting habits.
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“The problem is not in having a fat body, but how fat people are treated by society.”
My journey to better mental health began with fat acceptance. I learned that my body isn’t a problem and that weight loss and mental support are different.
First, I realized that the way our culture treats fat people is a problem. This leaves no room for better mental health without weight loss. We can stop making weight loss a prerequisite for good mental health. Instead, we can accept that everyone can access things that can help improve their mental health even if they are small, such as meditation, deep breathing, a cup of tea, and less negative self-talk.
Second, I learned that fat people are not the problem. It is how they are treated by society. Fatphobia is a form of stigma that leads to poor mental and physical health outcomes. Fat people often have poorer mental health. This can at least partially be explained by the stress that is caused by higher-weight people being treated. I know that I am not the only one shamed by the media; I found it difficult to find clothes she likes or a comfortable seat in a restaurant. Or had her symptoms ignored by the doctor.
I finally realized that having better mental and physical health was not the same thing as losing weight. It was important to understand how to redirect resources towards my mental health, not just lose weight and hope that everything will work out. It was not going to fix the fact that I couldn’t be self-advocate and set boundaries with myself and others.
At my highest weight, it is clear that I can now feel the clarity, purpose, and stability I used to believe was impossible because I was a fat person. Although I am aware that my culture has conditioned me to view my fat body due to my childhood traumas, I don’t believe so. My fat body is a source of strength and a part of my family’s history. I used to feel helpless and hopeless when I faced my ever-elusive thin goals. Now I am confident in my abilities to take care of myself and trust myself. My path to mental well-being was opened up by self-acceptance, not weight loss.