“I Feel Fat”: Dealing With a Negative Body Image
Dealing with Negative Body Image
Body image does not refer to what you look like but rather the personal relationship you have with your body. It includes your beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and actions that pertain to your physical appearance.
Body image is impacted by three main factors:
- Socialization by culture (e.g., appearance standards)
- Interpersonal experiences (e.g., teasing of appearance)
- Personality characteristics (e.g., low self-esteem)
These three major components contribute to assumptions, interpretations and thoughts about one’s appearance.
Do Families Influence Body Image?
Family systems are one of the most important social contexts for development and expression of self-esteem. Family is the first primary group in which we experience some of our most important identities taking shape (e.g. male/female, son/daughter, brother/sister). Due to these factors, families can play a vital role in helping to promote body acceptance.
When supporting a loved one with an eating disorder, it is important for family members to explore their own body image and how that may impact their loved one’s treatment and recovery process. Questions for parents to ask themselves include:
- How do family members talk about their bodies?
- Is dieting a focal or frequent topic of conversation?
- How often are derogatory comments about the self or body made?
- Do compliments or acknowledgements center on weight or body?
“I Feel Fat”
The statement, “I feel fat” is seldom a comment about actual body weight or size. We turn our bodies into metaphors for all of our bad feelings. FAT can be broken up into the following concepts: Feelings, Actions, and Thoughts. The word “fat” can serve as a title for an overall sense of uneasiness and dissatisfaction in our lives. “I feel fat” can also be translated into different emotions such as I feel scared, angry, excited, sad, unworthy, etc.
Body distortions are very common and involve experiencing one’s body in an inaccurate way. It is essentially like looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror; what you see looks real but is not actually real. Body distortions can include the following:
- Thinking of appearance in extremes (“either I’m at a perfect weight or I’m fat”)
- Pitting appearance against some unrealistic or extreme standard
- Focusing on one aspect of one’s appearance that is disliked, and then exaggerating it
- Incorrectly concluding that some disliked physical attribute is directly responsible for certain disappointments and difficulties that are experienced.
Body distortions feel very real in the eating disorder. Family members attempting to disprove or counter their loved one’s distortions may find themselves frustrated and at odds with their loved one. The best thing a family member can do is empathize and listen (i.e.: That sounds extremely frustrating. How can I support you?).
Tips for Family Members and Support Persons
- Identify your own concerns about your weight, body, etc.
- Be mindful about how you talk about your body and other people’s bodies. Watch for critical statements, body shaming, etc.
- Change the conversation away from appearance-related topics (e.g.: compliments, changes in body, etc.)
- Bodies often change in eating disorder recovery. Body image concerns are not always unjustified.
- Body distortions feel very real. Telling a loved one their body is fine is not always helpful.
- Body image, including body acceptance, is often the last piece of recovery to fall into place. This can often be a long journey.
- Encourage your loved one to identify underlying emotions when they talk about having negative body image (“I hear you—that sounds really hard. I wonder, what emotion do you think is underneath?”)
- If appropriate, ask your loved one if you can help them remove triggers (e.g.: eating disorder clothing, mirrors, scales, social media, etc.)
- Dr. Sally Dockendorff