I went to Tattered Cover to write last week.
I arrived before the store opened, trying to beat the rush, and I was surprised to find a line forming outside near the front door. While waiting with a cluster of strangers I overheard two early birds exchange greetings. They sounded like dear friends who hadn’t seen each other in a while. Both of them had big personalities which made it easy to eavesdrop. As I overheard their conversation, their words felt like bricks on my chest.
They were engaging in Fat Talk.
The chat started off simple. The female asked, “How are you?”
His response was immediate, “I cut out sugar”.
Since when did “How are you” translate into “What are you doing to diet”.
She replied, “Good for you! I feel so fat right now. I should do that too.”
The next few minutes I heard tales of how nutrition restriction was working for them.
He said “I just had to cut out sugar. I was out of control! I started pouring dishwashing soap on all my baked goods after I threw them away. I couldn’t stop eating sugar. It’s so addictive. I decided I had to cut it all out of my diet for good.”
She said, “Well I tried on bathing suits over the weekend and looked like a total hippo. I need to do something fast”
They continued to giggle. I was sad for them.
I’ve spent years engaging in Fat Talk
I’ve talked to my girlfriends about who’s lost weight (What is she doing?) and who’s put back on lost weight (Wow, what happened to her?). I’ve told my friends, “I feel so fat right now”.
I’ve expressed my old Food Rules to countless friends:
“I can’t buy those because I’ll eat the whole bag!”
“I try not to keep sugar in the house.”
“I can’t bake because I’d eat all of it until it’s gone.”
“I stay away from carbs”
When I used to participate in Fat Talk losing weight was one of my main focuses in life. I judged my days as good or bad depending on what I had eaten or how hard I had exercised. I kept myself on a tight leash by skipping meals if I hadn’t made time to work out or if I was going to use my calories drinking with friends.
I cut out sugar and drinking more times than I care to count. After a week of too many indulgences I might proclaim, “I’m not drinking for a month.” or “I’m not eating anymore sweets. Ever”. I failed to make good on these fleeting pledges because they were derived from fear. I was angry at myself for being out of control and I was scared of failing another diet. My fear of being seen as fat blinded all of my thoughts and decisions.
In my twenties I remember eating in advance so I could make better food choices in front of my friends at parties. Sometimes I would cut my meal in half at restaurants, proud of my discipline until I got home and pigged out on my doggy bag leftovers. I knew how to rehearse my food rules and come across like I had my sh!t together but on the inside I was dying from all the broken promises.
In my bulimia recovery I’ve had to stop engaging in Fat Talk. This is easier said than done because some of my friends have only known me as their Fat Talk companion. We’ve talked about our diet tricks and we’ve confided our guilt for not sticking to our food and exercise routines. We’ve made one another feel safe because we’ve openly shared our weight stories. Over the years we’ve lost together and we’ve gained together.
Fat Talk conversations have to disappear in order for us to heal ourselves.
It’s a slow process. It took time for me to recognize how often I was actually engaging in Fat Talk. I first had to become aware of what I was really saying to people. This was no easy feat because when I’m comfortable with a friends, I tend to say things without putting a lot of thought into my words. It’s easy for me to be agreeable and to chime in with friends who are speaking a familiar dialogue.
I had to recognize that I didn’t feel good after these kind of talks. I felt inadequate and determined to try harder. I lived in a space of comparison after we discussed how awful our bodies felt from being lazy, too busy and overfed. I felt judgmental of myself when I learned about what friends were doing “right” and what I felt like I must be doing “wrong”.
In therapy I learned the importance of disassociating weight loss with eating disorder recovery. I originally thought ED recovery meant finally being skinny. In truth, recovery meant feeling my feelings and honoring my body’s needs. I started listening to my belly and asking myself what I really felt like eating. I began to exercise for the sake of taking care of my mental health instead of dropping pounds. When I went for a walk or drove to the gym, I would borrow my therapist’s words and tell my husband, “I’m off for a mental health break”.
Little by little, my compassionate choices shifted my perspective. I began to see my body as something to be loved instead of something to be fixed, changed and scorned.
I wouldn’t say I immediately stopped engaging in Fat Talk. The experience felt like I was weaning myself off the bottle of Kool-Aid that a lot of us tend to drink. I didn’t have serious talks to my friends about what my new boundaries were going to be and I didn’t invent a new set of conversational rules for myself to follow. I simply disengaged with those parts of our discussions.
It had been a graceful and silent exit to the world I had only ever known.
I started to shed decades of built up fear and began to open up about my eating disorder. I explained how I practiced looking at my body with love instead of disappointment. I talked to them about working out according to the parts of my body that felt tight, sore or weak. I told them my old behaviors, beliefs and expectations towards myself had made me miserable. I wanted something different for myself.
Now it’s easy for me to recognize Fat Talk and Body Shaming when I’m in conversations. These words no longer trigger me with icky feelings. Now I just privately acknowledge that we all have our own food rules and body woes. I’ve been practicing self-love and acceptance long enough that most of my days feel incredible around food and exercise.
When I hear someone talk to me about how much they hate sugar, how they’re into a new low-fat, low-carb daily shake or how discouraged they are by their body, I know they are suffering the way I suffered for over two decades. I understand them on a deep level but I won’t be the one to bring it up. I’m not a referee who needs to point out faults.
I’m doing the best I can for me right now and that’s where I want to expend my energy.
All I can do is love them through it because we each have a journey to make and I’m delighted to finally being able to enjoy mine.