I was wondering if you might have some advice on mental and emotional recovery. The thing that you might find strange though is I’m a 5’6″ 132 pound 30-year-old male. I’m married with two amazing kids and have a great job. I say all this to help you understand my strange internal world. I’m a weight recovered mild anorexic. I got down to 106 pounds at one point which isn’t terrible as far as anorexic goes, but it’s far from normal I suppose. I’ve been very conscious of my weight and appearance since I was in grade school. I was chubby for a few years in grade school, and my dad teased and ridiculed me relentlessly. I thinned out in 6th grade and have been very thin ever since. I don’t think my dad knew how much that teasing would fuck with me and maybe I blame him too much. The thing is, I thinned out and my dad still didn’t seem to care about me, so that wasn’t it. But it instilled in me a fat phobia or something. The thing is though, even though I maintain a medically “healthy” weight because it causes so much grief with family, friends, and society to be anorexic thin, especially as a male, I am still largely anorexic in my mind. I like the point you make in your book about these issues being barriers in the mind, and it’s so true. I don’t know what I’m even looking for, but I just feel I can’t live with this rigidity in my mind anymore. I’m a 30-year-old male who has never had an issue with weight since grade school, but the constant worrying about calories and gaining weight often impacts my will to live. I just don’t want to care so much about this shit anymore, but it’s hard to take the leap and find the way out of this mental prison. I think part of what keeps me locked in this prison is my deep and often unconscious fear of ridicule or teasing. So that on the surface it would look like I fear being fat, but it would be more accurate to say the core fear is fear of ridicule. Do you know of any books or resources that help guide one in overcoming that fear? I think that while comments and criticisms sting especially when they happened while we were young, that maybe we develop a phobia or an irrational fear of being ridiculed or teased. We tend to make it into this huge thing when at the end of the day they are just words of assholes. I mean there will always be mean people and unwanted comments being made. If we live to avoid comments or ridicule, we will be forever trapped. There must be some way to rise strong and say fuck you; I’m not going to let your comments hold me back, and I for sure am not going to fear your small minded bullying. Is there a way to adopt a “bring it on bitch I’m not afraid of you” type attitude? Any advice or resources you could recommend for a male with a fucked up story like mine? Thank you for even reading this and keep doing what you’re doing. It’s a serious issue, and I don’t even think people know how it affects them.
I have so many things to say to you.
I want you first to take a second to acknowledge that your strive for healing and freedom from this internal psychic prison is a very big deal. And this drive to reconcile your childhood fear means you have already begun doing the work of un-learning the shitty education you received in body shame.
I think you bring up a very significant fact – that fatphobia is not a fear of fat or becoming fat as much as it is a fear of experiencing the alienation and social punishments sanctioned by the culture when it comes to fat people.
This is an under-recognized truth about stigma.
We learn shame, fear, and bigotry through a system of social rewards and punishments. So you are right that you learned to fear the rejection and emotional trauma that was associated with being chubby, and now all that awfulness is wrapped up into your weight.
One of my favorite takeaways from the book When Love Meets Fear by David Richo (which I’ve been reading for, like, an entire year because each paragraph yields a new, very intense realization about myself = a lot of fucken work) is that all that we deeply fear is behind us – not in our future, but in our past.
You seem to already understand this intrinsically. You’re afraid of something that’s already happened – your dad rejecting you. When things like this happen to us when we are powerless children, sometimes we forget about or refuse to own our power in adulthood – our power to heal and our power to self-parent.
Since you identify as an anorexic, it might be super helpful for you to get some external support. There are some incredible fat positive/body positive practitioners who focus on eating disorders. If you do end up reaching out to people, PLEASE vet them to make sure they’re committed to a weight-neutral or body-positive practice. One of my favorite people who does extensive, passionate and loving work with people recovering from ED is Deb Burgard. Though ED is not my area of expertise, I want to offer some things that I’ve learned in my process of healing my relationship to my body on hopes that they may be useful for you:
- Thoughts are different from emotions.
Let me explain this just in case it’s unclear.
My therapist had to explain this to me like eight times. In your case, a thought might be “I am terrified of gaining weight.” The emotion that may result from that thought is sadness, anger or anxiety. For people with a deeply instilled fear, the thought and the emotion can sometimes meld seamlessly. But they are not one in the same. The truth is that we have many, many thoughts, and they don’t have to lead to the same emotional outcome over and over and over again. It’s nearly impossible to control thoughts. What we have a better chance of controlling is our emotional response.
I want you to try this. When you have the thought “I’m terrified of weight gain” rather than doing anything just press pause. That thought doesn’t have to go any further because it’s just a thought. It doesn’t mean you are good or bad, right or wrong. The thought just exists, and it doesn’t have to ruin your day. For instance, sometimes I have thoughts about slapping the shit out of the asshole barista dude at the cafe down the street. Just because I thought it doesn’t mean I actually want to act on it. And having this thought doesn’t mean I’m a horrible person; it just means I’m a person.
You and I live in a culture that inundates us with fat-shaming messages every day. It’s 100% natural for your brain to retain them and spit them back at you. But practice taking a moment to pause, step back from these thoughts that are not your own and practice not falling down a well of despair.
- Remember that you are loved
One of my favorite mantras is “those who matter won’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.” This, in my opinion, comes down to authentic love – and being seen. One thing that diet culture takes from us is the notion that every body – every person – has inherent value. We forget that we cannot starve our way into being seen. We cannot starve our way into being loved. It sounds like you’ve got a lot of love in your life. Recognize that love and how much you deserve it.
- Be patient with yourself. Be compassionate with yourself.
Patience and compassion might be the most important parts of my own journey to recovery and healing from diet culture.
Recently I had a little surgery, and it left me with a half-inch wound from a pretty deep incision. Watching that little-yet-deep wound felt like a metaphor for my emotional healing around body shame.
Being cut open (even a little) hurts. It took time for the wound to stop hurting. And then it took more time for my body to generate the new cells to close up that wound. All the while I was diligently caring for it. Our bodies recover waaaaaay faster than our spirits do. That’s just the truth. So remember that it’s ok if it takes what seems like FOREVER. Find the joy in that process in whatever ways you can.
Take time to celebrate the small moments of your recovery (like writing to me!). Be gentle with yourself when you’re having a rough moment or day or week or month. Take a few extra minutes when you do things that might trigger you – slowing things down can be very helpful. When I’m having a hard emotional moment that seems endless, I focus on my breath. Each breath is bringing me closer to a better moment.
Each breath is bringing me closer to my healing.
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.