Why Saying "No" to the "Am I Fat?" Question Can Be More Harmful Than Healing - Exploring Anxiety & Eating Disorders

“Am I fat?”

We hear this question all the time, but it is an especially common question for those who are recovering from an eating disorder. Still, this lesson is applicable to all of us, whether or not we’ve struggled specifically with an eating disorder.

*I should note that this post is filtered through my own experiences and that won’t necessarily fit with everyone’s experiences or what the title of this post might have elicited for a person when they read it. That said, discussion is welcome.*

For myself, when I was younger and first struggling, I used to ask this question frequently and with intensity. I would keep asking, wanting to hear “no,” extracting it from the person I was asking, but not believing it because they never had the power to convince me anyway. That had to come from me as many things in recovery do. At that age, I was also not quite able to understand that what I was actually asking had nothing to do with weight even if it seemed like that on the surface of things. It was actually more along the lines of a question I asked frequently during, but also before, I was ever diagnosed with an eating disorder - “are you mad at me?" I used to ask this question so repetitively that I would create the very outcome (frustration or anger) by asking so insistently and disregarding whatever answer the person I was asking gave (because again, I couldn’t believe it when someone said “no, I’m not.”)

The thing is, at the root of it, I wasn’t actually asking if someone was angry with me, I was saying (in a round about and ineffective way) that I was anxious and unsure what I was picking up on. I was asking for comfort without knowing this was even what I was seeking.

One of the problems of growing up as an anxious child, anxiety makes interpreting others and the world around you very complicated: you perceive emotions and threats that aren’t really there and the outcome, at least for me, was struggling to differentiate what was real and what was not. In the long run, that anxiety can end up teaching you that you can’t trust what you feel or what you perceive about the world and others in it. I know for me, because of that unsureness about the reality of my feelings I began to have a hard time learning to identify, process, and cope with emotions which ended up playing a large role in my eating disorder. I wouldn’t even know I was sad and needing to numb it, or angry that a boundary had been crossed, or anxious about something or nothing for that matter and without knowing it, I separated all of those complex and sometimes simultaneous emotional experiences from myself, They became detached, seemingly unconnected behaviours that became obsessive rituals for me and were eventually diagnosed as an eating disorder. I honestly feel it was obsessive compulsive disorder that were translated into compulsions around food because that was the direction that seemed to be where they were “supposed to” go. I did have rituals as a younger child that served the same purpose because of course as a child, you are too young to know what is going on.

The numbing effects of an eating disorder are two-fold, mentally you channel your distressing emotiond into a tangible “project” or “focus” and physically, you affect the way your body experiences emotion (either through exhaustion which can begin to feel like a state of calmness or altering how and when your body is releasing endorphins, etc.)

When you enter recovery then, you are mentally and physically faced with re-encountering and experiencing emotions. It can be an extremely distressing and intense experience that requires a person to develop new ways of confronting, allowing, and coping. For those who are recovering from trauma or are just more sensitive in nature (maybe they struggle with borderline personality disorder), this is an immense task, to learn to reclaim and occupy your emotions, as well as your body again.

Often times when people are in recovery (especially early recovery) they feel very unsafe and they need a great deal of reassurance to keep them going on their journey towards healing. A lot of people seek this reassurance in that seemingly unrelated question of “am I fat?” and multiple variations of it (e.g. “have I gained too much weight?") In recovery, sometimes people’s bodies are physically changing, but it is always the case that people’s relationship with their body is changing and their way of experiencing, and relating to, the world is changing. It makes sense then that they would seek reassurance because often they’re striving for something on blind faith, trusting others that it does get easier and that they can find a new way of living that is so much more rewarding.

This creates a lot of anxiety, trusting a process you’re not sure will work and because a great deal of our coping mechanisms for dealing with distress were targeted towards our bodies and/or using food or fitness to numb/escape from emotion, we often struggle to disconnect distress from an intense and scrutinous focus on our bodies (because we can change our bodies when we may not be able to change other parts of our present or past.) This is aided and abetted by our culture’s intense and unhealthy focus on thinness as a virtue: as healthy, as happy, as safe, as beautiful and thus what marks our value (which is not true), as successful - the representation of all that we should be. Because that is the way our culture views thinness, on the flip side “fatness” is seen as something that is “bad” or signifies immorality. In fact fat is only a type of tissue (adipose) in our bodies that has various critical functions including hormone regulation, energy storage, temperature maintenance, vitamin storage, protection of vital organs, etc. There are no negative qualities inherent to fat or fatness which simply describes a vague idea of a body shape that is larger than what we as a culture have decided to call “normal” (although it’s important to note that normal is an entirely arbitrary thing, it has no actual meaning other than what we collectively give it.)

This unhealthy and obsessive focus on our relationship with our bodies and how we nourish them can become the way we channel our distress. As people start to re-encounter and face the fact that changing their body is not going to heal them and that their relationship with nourishing their bodies and minds might need to be adjusted in order to truly become healthy (namely that they need to learn to not restrict themselves, no matter what behaviours they struggle with - restriction, bingeing, purging, etc.) they are forced to learn to tolerate distress. Part of that learning often elicits that question of “is my body changing?” ”am I fat” “have I gained too much weight?” But it’s important to remember (whether you’re the one supporting someone or you’re the one recovering), that these questions are often not what we’re really asking or what we really need in a moment.

When I was younger and I did ask “am I fat?” to my parents repeatedly, eventually they just refused to answer. Instead they would ask “are you anxious?” “how can I support you right now?” or they would simply say “I love you” or “you’re okay, you’re going to be okay.” It was frustrating to me and I didn’t understand at the time, but now I am SO appreciative that they simply wouldn’t engage with that disordered and unhealthy thought. Without feedback the question died and eventually I stopped asking it. It obviously didn’t magically make my experience of distress disappear, but it did help me learn to more closely self-reflect on what I was actually experiencing and what I actually needed in an given moment.

It can be quite distressing when someone is desperately asking you this question as if their life depends on it and it’s become so normal for us to say “of course not” or even “no, but if you were it wouldn’t matter” which is an improvement but still puts the “no” piece first when you don’t even need. But you don’t have to say that much, rather, just checking in with the person, getting them to draw awareness to how they feel and what they might need is much more helpful although it may take them awhile to learn that this is indeed helpful.

Over time this builds capacity in a person and they become better able to give themselves the comfort they are seeking in a moment by validating and addressing what it is they are actually experiencing. Beyond that, for me it built the capacity to question the norms in our culture, to develop awareness around weight stigma and body positivity, to re-conceptualize health, and opened up a whole new way of experiencing the world I didn’t know was possible. We don’t have to exist in a culture where we don’t acknowledge our feelings, we don’t ask for help and try to live like islands, use food or exercise to cope in ways that harm us, and/or take out our distress on our bodies, which deserve so much more for all that they are.

We get to decide what world we live in and we have the power to help change the way things are.

-S. Ritchey