Why some women fat-shame themselves in front of other, often larger, women (and how to respond).
It’s a scene as old as time 1:
People – usually women – are together somewhere when one suddenly breaks out with “Ugh, I’m so fat.”
Often, the woman talking isn’t. 2
Often, the woman/women she’s talking to are.
For those of us who are or who have been overweight/obese/fat/large-and-in-charge, this can make us see red. “She’s not FAT!” we think. We assume the other woman is nuts, or fishing for compliments, or maybe, just maybe, that she’s trying to make us more conscious of our own weight by bringing attention to hers.
If we are or have been fat – and especially if we don’t feel so great about that – hearing someone else fat-shame themselves – especially when that person is smaller than us – can send us into a dark, painful, isolated place.
I’ve been on both ends of the weight spectrum, and now that I’m thin, I hear “Ugh, I’m so fat” from women who are thinner than me all the time.
My weight loss story (size 26 to size 6) has attracted women with body-image issues to my personal training studio. When they fat-shame themselves – especially if they’re thinner than me – I press them to unpack why.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Women who fat-shame themselves in the company of larger women are rarely, if ever, nuts.
With few exceptions, they’re not fishing for compliments. 3
With few exceptions, they’re not trying to be insulting, hurtful, or to make us self-conscious.
Most women who fat-shame themselves in our company aren’t burning a single calorie thinking about us. Mostly, their brains are working overtime thinking nasty thoughts about themselves and their own bodies.
It can be hard to believe, but most of those “Ugh, I’m SO FAT!” gals mean the rest of us no harm.
They just think they’re “bigger than they’re supposed to be,” and they hate it.
And of course they think that. A thousand years of social pressure and a hundred years of media influence have wrecked and warped almost everyone’s self-image. Average-sized and larger women are more likely to get struck by lightning than end up in movies and magazines. 4 Compared to the female bodies that most of us are used to seeing, we’re all drooling, lop-sided behemoths.
Scratch the surface of most women and you’ll find some amount of weight-centered body criticism. For many, it’s always there, and sometimes they give it a voice.
Maybe to feel connected.
Maybe to feel seen.
Maybe because female weight and body obsession have been so normalized that criticizing oneself for being “too big” feels like the thing to do when another woman is listening.
Whatever her motives, a woman who trash talks herself and her body deserves our compassion. 5 Yes, even if she’s thin. Yes, even if we outweigh her by 100, 200, or 300 pounds. Yes, even if her words remind us of all the trauma and abuse we’ve faced that she – in her relatively thin body – has never had to endure.
We’re together on the body-image battlefield, and comparing wounds is useless. Even if her pain doesn’t objectively compare to our own, that doesn’t make her pain any less real. She still deserves our compassion because all women are hurt by the unrealistic expectations placed on the female body.
Meanwhile, and here I’m addressing the woman – fat, thin, or otherwise – who’s fat-shaming herself within earshot of other women: I understand where you’re coming from. I understand how you feel. I understand why you believe what you believe about your body. Now please – please – stop giving that shit a voice. Stop with the insults. Stop with the nit-picking. Stop. Not only are you hurting yourself when you do this, you’re also hurting the rest of us.
Every time you verbally assault parts of your body you’re fueling the objectification of the female body in all its forms.
Every time you insult yourself in our company, you remind us of all the abuse, all the cruelty, and all the pain we’ve been subjected to because of our weight.
Every time you give your body-hate a voice, you breathe new life into the body-hate we’re working so diligently to eradicate.
Everything you say affects everyone that’s listening – including you.
I know you don’t mean us harm when you call yourself fat. 6 I know you’re hurting. I know you think a lot about how you look and the size of your body (relative to the size you think it “should” be). I know you’re often unhappy. I know you want to stop thinking about your body so you can finally feel like you’re living your life and not just going through the motions. I know you feel worse about yourself and your body every time you fall prey to another bullshit diet or Get-Thin-Quick! scheme. I’ve been there. I know.
That said, we 7 need you to stop.
Choose your words with care. Be mindful that the things you say have power. Be kind. Instead of tearing yourself down, try building yourself up. Or, if that feels too hard, when you catch yourself about to say something negative about your body, try doing something else. Take a breath. Tell a joke. Ask a question. Offer someone a genuine compliment. If you can, go for a walk, lift a weight, cook a meal, donate to a charity, get yourself off, say a prayer, kiss a lover, or just change into something more comfortable.
Imagine how awesome you’d feel if you took one simple, caring action each time you had a negative thought about yourself or your body.
Let’s do this. Who’s with me?
- “Time,” also known as “the patriarchal objectification of women,” ↩
- Body Dysmorphic Disorder, or BDD, is defined by Wikipedia as “a mental disorder characterized by an obsessive preoccupation that some aspect of one’s own appearance is severely flawed and warrants exceptional measures to hide or fix it.” Though admittedly there can be a fine line between the “Ugh, I’m so fat!” phenomena and BDD, this piece is NOT about BDD nor those suffering from BDD. For more information on BDD, visit bdd.iocdf.org ↩
- When we respond with “Oh, no, you’re perfect!” it can make them feel even more self-conscious. ↩
- This is slowly changing, thankfully. ↩
- OK, OK – except the rare snowflake who’s legit evil and trying to get us to “see how fat we are” by spotlighting “how fat she is”. ↩
- Except you, Snowflake. I’m watching you. Even if you think you’re doing larger women a favor by making them aware of and reminding them to be ashamed of their size, all you’re doing is making everyone around you uncomfortable and calling attention to your own shame-based BS. Pro-tip: If you’re fat-shaming yourself “for someone else’s benefit,” try minding your own business. ↩
- And when I say “we” I’m including you. ↩