In order to understand our society’s belief about what a body “should” look like, all you need to do is flip on the TV, scroll through social media, or turn on a kids’ movie to see the same toxic message over and over: people in thin bodies are healthy and beautiful, while people in larger bodies are unattractive, lazy, and lack self-control. As a result, there’s a lot of shame in our society for not fitting into this “thinner is better” beauty ideal, and, if you’re someone like me who’s lived your entire life in a larger body, you know that fat shaming is painful, demoralizing, and incredibly harmful to your overall health.
Surprisingly, the fat shaming I struggled with the most growing up wasn’t necessarily the fat-phobic messaging from advertisers and media, but instead came as constant pressure to lose weight from family members and doctors. This sneaky fat shaming done under the guise of “concern for your health” is incredibly hurtful as it comes from people you trust, who know you personally, and who are STILL telling you your size and weight aren’t acceptable. This often looks like a well-meaning loved one criticizing your food choices or telling you to lose weight in order to be “healthier,” or a doctor recommending weight loss regardless of your original complaint.
For example, my weight and activity level have been brought up as a point of concern at almost every doctor’s appointment, despite having been active my entire life and having near-perfect numbers on all lab tests. Being plus-sized and pregnant is especially tough, as you’re basically treated as high risk the second you walk in the door!
As a result of this relentless pressure to be thinner, I started my first enthusiastic attempt at dieting like many young girls around the age of 12. I remember obsessively reading books about girls with eating disorders, considering them not the cautionary tales they were meant to be, but instead using them as guides for how to starve myself. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t magically drop weight as intended. Instead, the emotional struggles and unhealthy attitudes towards food I’d had since I was a young girl caused me to swing from extreme food restriction to no-holds-barred binge eating. This is a pattern of behavior that has had negative effects on my physical and emotional well-being over the years, and one that I’m still struggling to break today.
Fortunately, there are two specific life events I can point to during which my thoughts about my body began to shift away from the shame that has plagued me since childhood. The first was in college, where I spent four years competing on my school’s NCAA tennis team, and the second was becoming a mother for the first time. Though clearly two very different experiences, both were periods in my life in which I pushed myself more than I thought possible and was astounded to see how beautifully my body performed when I needed it the most. These events also stood out as instances in my life where the focus wasn’t on how my body looked, but instead how powerful it made me FEEL.
Giving birth to my first baby, a little girl, also stirred up strong feelings about my own body image as a child. For my daughter’s sake, I became fiercely determined to break the cycle of body shame that has run rampant in my family for generations. Over the past five years, I’ve focused my energy on understanding the toxicity of our diet culture and learning to resist the effects of the pervasive fat-shaming messaging around us. As a result, I’ve finally begun unpacking the ridiculous, unnecessary shame about my body that I’ve carried my entire life. I still have days where I feel self-conscious or overthink my food choices, but I know that every time I confidently wear a bikini to the pool, conquer a difficult hike, or unapologetically take my kids out for ice cream, I’m proving to myself that my large body is more beautiful and more worthy than I ever could have imagined.
Note from the author: If you ever feel negatively impacted by fat shaming, I recommend checking out the book Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls: A Handbook for Unapologetic Living by Jes Baker; the social media accounts of @themilitantbaker, @bodyposipanda, and @nolatress; and the podcast “Food Psych” by Christy Harrington. Happy healing!
Lauren Swan is a freelance writer