Is it OK to talk about fat on the personal level? It’s becoming more OK to talk about fat when it’s cultural, when we’re talking about celebrities or society or even psychological abstraction (that is, those people who wrestle with that fat business). But what about when you’re talking to those you love? To friends and family and acquaintances and coworkers, when talking about it break the invisible rules and boundaries we all set and ultimately affect your relationships?
Is it OK to talk about the culture of fat…when you’re the one who’s fat? (Or obese, overweight, heavy, big-boned, plump, husky, big, large, plus-sized, or guilty of “letting yourself go a bit”?)
When we’re young, talking about (being) fat is associated with school bullies in the recess yard. Often, kids are not even aware of their size (and should they be?*) until it’s pointed out to them by others as a way of labeling them as “different” and insufficient. Kids either react or retaliate; they either let it kill their self-esteem or they fight back, often with humor. The tried-and-true defense mechanism is to get in on the joke, to join those you can’t beat. Making fun of your own size, jiggling your stomach like Chunk in The Goonies or talking about how you have “what doctors call a little bit of a weight problem” like Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, becomes a way to be laughed with instead of at, and it becomes a way to justify a weight problem – or to ignore that it’s problematic at all.
When you talk about yourself, though, in a way that isn’t humorous or intended for anything but serious conversation, can you ever really have an honest conversation? If you mention that you want to lose weight – or even that you need to – people’s gut reaction is to disagree. After all, it’s impolite to agree with someone that they’re unattractive or unhealthy. It’s polite to deny it and to pretend like you have never judged them. It’s “right” to abide by social conventions and deny an issue – and thereby deny the overweight person’s right to talk about themselves and how they might be feeling. The taboo of talking about fat with people who cannot empathize makes overcoming fears nigh impossible. On the personal level, talking about fat becomes a touchy, difficult-to-navigate endeavor where, ultimately, no one is sure of the rules. So we avoid it.
As the overweight person, though, I avoid it more than anyone else. I try not to discuss eating (in any capacity) or my appearance, even though these are the issues most affecting me and most hurting me. Even when the topic turns to exercising, I feel the need to stay quiet because I assume people will think “If she works out so much, why does she still look like that?”
And to talk about bingeing?! Forget it. My binge eating habit (lifestyle? disorder?) is my greatest shame and is unbelievably difficult for me to talk about because I already judge myself so harshly; why, then, would I want to subject myself to more judgment from others? In general, eating is difficult to talk about. We’re generally OK with discussing dietary restrictions when they’re health-related (like Celiac) or ethical (like vegetarianism or veganism), but we’re not comfortable discussing EXCESS, especially when it seems to exist purely for the sake of excess.
Some people define disordered eating habits as addictions. No addiction is a source of pride or easy conversation; we often try to keep hidden whether someone is an alcoholic or a heroin addict. But with these, we can talk about them as the product of heredity (“genetically prone to alcoholism and addictive behavior”) or chemical dependency – external forces that, unfortunately, have gotten the better of their victims. With eating disorders like anorexia and even bulimia, we have come to acknowledge the intense social pressure to be thin as enough to make these, somehow, pitiable but sympathetic psychological disorders.
But binge eating is a different beast. It’s not like being an alcoholic, where avoiding liquor is damned hard** to avoid but possible to completely abstain from; binge eaters will always have to eat something. For people who do not struggle with it (and even for those who do), binge eating seems easy enough to give up: just stop eating so much and such poor food choices. Going “cold turkey” might not work since you have to eat to survive, but “everything in moderation,” right? It doesn’t help that “bingeing” is a term casually thrown about, largely due to the fact that it exists in so many degrees. Just because someone binges on a pint of Ben & Jerry’s after a breakup doesn’t mean that he/she is a binge eater. Since most people have done that kind of binge, talking about “bingeing” when it’s a serious case or a truly damaging pattern is insanely difficult. People understand their own experience and, possibly, their ability to quell the practice before it becomes a pattern; they can’t empathize with someone’s inability to do so. Binge eating, in its serious and damaging forms, will thus continue to be greatly misunderstood or belittled – by its victims, too.
And then…the big question. Not, Is it OK to talk about fat and binge eating? But, Is it useful to talk about fat and binge eating? I’ve recently had my doubts. Our pop-psychology obsessed culture has so long claimed that it’s dangerous and harmful to suppress emotions and to keep our feelings inside. Instead, “the first step” is admitting (to others) that you have a problem and that you have emotions surrounding it.
But what happens once you admit it? We often spend so much effort concealing our issue (our shame) and trying to sort it out on our own, analyzing and overanalyzing ad nauseam, that confessing it is an act of bravery (fraught with anxiety). What happens, then, when someone listens…and nothing happens? Even if “the worst” doesn’t happen (that is, even if that person doesn’t judge you and your relationship doesn’t change in any way), will anything change in your circumstances? Or will that person you confided in become a new dumping ground to pile on more pain? Now someone knows…but the problem persists in the same way as before. Now you can think about the issue more since you know that the other person thinks about it. And does that really help anything?
Finally…what happens when nothing changes? When you continue to binge eat and hate yourself for it and perpetuate the cycle, watching your waistline expand and your cheeks round even as tears roll down them? Is it OK to talk about trying to deal with fat when you show no physical signs of actually dealing with it and losing it? Is it OK to talk about these things…when you’re not OK?
*Another question for another day (or blog post).
**I am in no way trying to belittle the struggles of alcoholics or imply that it is a disease that is easily combated – physically or mentally; I’m only trying to state personal opinions about how alcoholism is culturally perceived in relation to binge eating disorders.