About a year ago, I made a realization. Call it an “a-ha” moment, where I tracked when my unhealthy relationship with diet and exercise had begun. Over the summer between third and fourth grade, I had gained around forty to sixty pounds due to an unforeseen thyroid problem. At first, I was unbothered by the weight, and more so bothered by the extreme lethargy and weakness my severe hypothyroidism had caused. After seeing a thyroid specialist who showed my mom and I a chart demonstrating my weight in comparison to my peers, I realized that I was left out. I was a single dot on a diagram, separate from the rest. I began to realize I was an outlier. I was an outlier in the data, and I was an outlier in my own life and social circle. I felt this immense guilt for something that I couldn’t control, and cried for my loss of inclusion. This is when my internal struggle started, at age 10.
Then, when I was in the fourth grade, I remember the exact day something clicked in my brain that told me, “your appearance matters.” It was after school picture day, when my teacher held up our individual photos for the whole class to see (a terrible, shameful, but yearly practice). I felt so embarrassed to have the entire class see just how much I had changed, to view me, judge me, laugh at me. I remember physically closing my eyes when he held up my photo, and quite frankly I think I dissociated. I don’t remember how anyone reacted, and I believe I simply exiled that from my memory. This is when my negative self-perception and shame began.
When fifth grade came around, comments of my appearance spread around. Most prominently, when rumors of me and my best friend at the time were dating. “Did you hear Michael is dating the fattest girl in fifth grade?” I remember teachers telling me that boys would tease me if they liked me (where do I even begin with how wrong this concept is). I remember my gym teacher whispering to the substitute aide, “She can’t climb the ropes because she’s too fat.”
I opted out of school pictures that year.
The information I shared above is not to be mistaken as a pity party. In fact, it’s important to map out exactly where society went wrong in my childhood. The fat-shaming I had received as a child made me sicker, both mentally and physically. I began coping in bouts of over-exercise and under-eating, or the opposite in late night binges that consumed me with guilt. I destroyed my already poor metabolism and my mental health was hanging on by a single notch. The long time debate of body-positivity that allegedly encourages obesity clashes with the anti-fat bias that believes social pressure is justified to promote weight loss. Despite the second notion being proven wrong time and time again, we still end up cycling back into the same disappointing disagreement.
From personal experiences, the social pressures have put an 8-year and counting damper on my mental health, fueled by disordered eating, lowered confidence, anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, this is normal for those who have experienced weight bias or discrimination. In an journal entry written by Lauren Vogel, a medical journalist, she shares, “The more people are exposed to weight bias and discrimination, the more likely they are to gain weight and become obese, even if they were thin to begin with. They’re also more likely to die from any cause, regardless of their body mass index (BMI).” This is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed.
To make changes moving forward, we need to address the lack of empathy present in the anti-fat bias. The concept is flawed, but where does it stem from? Is it fear? Selfishness? Ego? Beyond societal norms, where have we failed in clinical guidelines? Do they solely promote weight loss without consideration of environmental factors? These questions and their answers may be a guide leading to the root of the issue.
At age 18, I’ve had enough. These anti-fat standards are sickening, and with social media, the age of perception awareness and judgement are getting younger and younger. I’d like to see these ideas cease from being instilled into the younger generations, and that begins with us sharing the knowledge we have gained through experiences and studies. The burden of developing an eating disorder outweighs the goals of obtaining a normal BMI. Understanding that eating disorders are considered mental illnesses, and that losing weight doesn’t actually solve the problem. Ask the important questions, and let’s work together to change our priorities when it comes to one another’s health.