Parkview Health Logo

Fat is not a feeling: The impact of negative body talk

Last Modified: October 30, 2023

Diseases & Disorders, Healthy Mind

body image

This post was written by Jess Gabbard, LMHCA, Intensive Outpatient Services, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute.

The phrase I feel fat is normalized in our culture. While the use of this phrase may not be consciously malicious, the prevalence of the expression represents an underlying fat phobia and an overall lack of awareness and sensitivity regarding how our words affect others, let alone ourselves. Research shows that feeling fat has nothing to do with having fat (something that’s normal and natural). So, if it’s not about body size/shape, what do we really mean when we say, I feel fat?

Understanding negative body talk

Take a moment to consider the assumptions you might make after hearing someone say they’re feeling fat. What comes to mind? You may notice that you interpret this to mean they’re feeling uncomfortable in their body, feeling out of control, feeling lazy/unmotivated/fatigued, feeling defeated, feeling less than or unattractive, or feeling physically full or bloated. None of these things are synonymous with having fat in our bodies and can occur regardless of our body size.

The reality is that we’re using the phrase I feel fat as a stand-in for negative self-critique, self-deprecation and/or emotional discomfort. We’re playing into unfair, untrue and damaging stereotypes about what it means to live in a larger body size. Additionally, we’re distracting and deflecting from our actual issues.

Why is this a problem?

If you tell yourself the issue is your body, you might try to lose weight or manipulate the shape of your body to solve your problem. However, what if the core of your issue isn’t actually body size related? What if the issue is depression, trauma, lacking a sense of purpose, shame, fear, grief, gender dysphoria, feeling unsafe or feeling lonely? If that’s the case, no amount of body size manipulation is going to solve your problem, and it might actually make it worse.

So what can you do?

Increase your emotional vocabulary
There’s a cheesy but research-backed phrase in the therapy world: you’ve got to name it to tame it. This means that accurately naming and labeling our emotional state impacts our ability to process, heal and tend to our needs. If you want to change your experience, you must first acknowledge and understand the experience you’re having. Accurately naming your emotion can help you feel more in control and less chaotic/directionless.

This may be an issue if you lack the words to accurately name your experience. It’s difficult for you to understand something when you don’t have words to describe it (the power of language to impact our thinking is a whole separate topic, you can find more information here). There are a variety of tools you can use to increase your emotional vocabulary. Linked, you’ll find an example of an emotion wheel by the Gottman Institute. This tool starts with simple emotion terms in the center, with options for more nuanced and specific emotion words as you progress through the layers. This allows you to start simple but work your way up to finding that perfect emotion word match. Notice that fat is nowhere to be found on the emotion wheel!

Increase your emotional awareness
We all have unique ways of feeling and expressing emotions. For example, sadness in one person may not look the same as sadness in another. Emotional awareness involves learning yourself and learning about your relationship with your emotions. Try asking yourself:

  • Where in my body am I feeling this emotion?
  • When have I felt this way before? What was going on in my life at that time?
  • How am I feeling about this feeling? Am I uncomfortable? Avoidant? Am I judging myself for feeling this way?
  • If I had to choose an image to represent this feeling, what would it be and why (feel free to get creative)?
  • Why am I feeling this way? What happened leading up to this feeling?

Practice mindful acceptance
This means noticing your present-moment experiences without judgment. It’s a practice that involves pausing your inner critic and allowing yourself to feel whatever it is you’re feeling in the moment without pressure to try to change it. When you give yourself permission to feel with curiosity, not judgment, you increase your capacity for insight and growth.

This practice takes practice. It’s not easy or intuitive to allow yourself to sit in the discomfort of an emotion without reacting. Give yourself grace as you’re learning and experimenting with this process. You don’t have to practice mindful acceptance 24/7, and it’s okay to suppress emotions until it’s safe to feel them; however, if you never allow the teapot to vent, eventually it boils over.  

Speak with respect
This applies to both yourself and others. Think about the power of your words and how the words you choose matter. In a video on the topic of self-compassion, researcher Kristin Neff discusses how our negative self-talk actually triggers a threat response in our bodies, releasing cortisol and increasing stress.

Self-deprecating language, while possibly intended to motivate yourself towards change, actually causes you to feel more trapped and defeated. Therefore, if you’re desiring change, speak with kindness and be intentional with your words. Picture the way you’d motivate, comfort or uplift a close friend, then apply that same care towards yourself.

Assistance when you need it

Our relationship with our bodies can be complicated, and sometimes, lead to harmful patterns. If you have a sense that you or someone you know might be struggling with an eating disorder or disordered eating, the team at Parkview Behavioral Health Institute can help. Our specialized eating disorder program is designed to support individuals in their healing journey. Recovery really is possible. For an assessment, call 260-481-2700.


Related Blog Posts

View all posts