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As an eating disorder clinician as well as a young woman residing in North America, I am very familiar with the phrase “I feel fat.” It is a unique experience as a therapist when one of the strongest cognitions driving eating disorder behavior is so familiar, relatable, and culturally well known to me personally. Furthermore, not only does this phenomenon apply to people with and without eating disorders, it can occur regardless of his or her interest in body, shape, and size or actual physical appearance, body weight, body fat percentage, body shape and size, and feedback from others. Because ‘feeling fat’ is so ubiquitous in our society and it is very under-researched and discussed, I wanted to use our blog to provide a better understanding about such a common and influential phrase using empirical information.
When looking at what feeling fat (FF) is, it is important to understand the difference between thinking you are fat and feeling that you are fat. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the adjective form of fat as “having a lot of extra flesh on your body; having a lot of body fat, corpulent, obese.” Many people often feel fat but understand factually that they are not and do not actually think they are fat. Similarly, regardless if someone does meet medical criteria for obesity, feeling fat is not necessarily correlated to body size and experiencing feeling fat may further cause distress or barriers to achieving a healthy weight. Commonly reported components of FF relate to body image dissatisfaction, negative mood states, and physical sensations (i.e. bloating, experiencing fullness, feeling jeans touch waist).
So if FF is more appropriately described as a negative emotional state rather than a factual or cognitive state, why do we experience feeling fat so often? Considering the abovementioned information that feeling fat is quite separate from thinking fat, it has been suggested that this phrase often functions as an all-encompassing descriptive replacement for several different types of negative emotions. Whether you think you’re not attractive enough, you believe your friends look prettier than you, or if you believe that your appearance is how people define you and you see imperfections, you will likely express that by saying “I feel fat.” Often a negative experience like a bad grade, being laid off, or a break-up for example may also trigger feelings of inadequacy which can sometimes translate into feeling fat. This risk is higher for those who subscribe to the erroneous belief that weight loss can equate to overall happiness. This belief can increase the desire to lose weight during a difficult period and therefore trigger feeling fat which becomes a motivator to engage in disordered behaviors in the attempts to feel better or thinner. Additionally, FF also occurs as a result of mislabeled somatic sensations including pants fitting tight, abdominal bloating, feelings thighs touch, etc. When these sensations are then experienced as feeling fat, the desire to engage in disordered behaviors may increase.
Another explanation of why we often feel fat comes from the Self-Discrepancy Theory (SDT) which is very similar to cognitive dissonance. SDT explains that people compare themselves to internal standards, or self-guides which include: actual self, ideal self, and ought to be self. When any of these self-guides are not in alignment, it results in emotional discomfort or dissatisfaction of self which people are motivated to reduce. If societal norms and western media set the standard for what you ought to strive for or what is ideal and this is incongruent with what you actually look like, you are going to experience dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction around not achieving what is ideal or what you believe you ought to be has the potential to affect how you feel about yourself in the mirror. This drives the motivation to realign yourself and behave in ways like dieting, exercising to lose weight leading to an over emphases of what you see in the mirror. Because in most cases it is almost impossible to override genetics and very impossible to achieve an airbrushed-digitally enhanced version of yourself, you are going to be let down or never attain satisfaction in the efforts to achieve certain standards… and therefore perpetuates the cycle of body dissatisfaction and feeling fat.