“If you try to lose weight by shaming, depriving, and fearing yourself, you will end up shamed, deprived, and afraid. Kindness comes first. Always.” —Geneen Roth
Adipose. Flesh. Avoirdupois. Chub. Paunch. Flab. Corpulence.
It’s difficult to think of an aspect of the human body more complex and controversial than fat, aside, perhaps, from sexuality. During medieval times, when famines could and did occur, corpulence was valued because fat symbolized wealth, or the possession of resources that conveyed invulnerability to life’s ups and downs. As such, it was seen as if not desirable, then at least neutral (Vigarello, 2013). For peasants and members of agricultural societies, obesity was practically unheard of.
In modern Western culture, however, the tables have (mostly) turned. Today, for the most part, wealthier people tend to have access to healthier, more nutrient-dense foods. The higher nutrient density keeps total calorie intake much lower, since more nutrients and fiber satiate the body quickly with fewer calories (Furman, 2011).
Less economically fortunate people, on the other hand, tend to not have much fresh, healthy food available in their neighborhoods. Even when fresh food is available, they may lack sufficient income to purchase it. Social justice activists have coined a term for when a community lacks access to healthy food: “food desert”. With fast food or junk food being much more economical and widely available to people living near or below the poverty line, it may be easier for people living in poverty to put on pounds.
The issue remains complex, with many different variables. As far as modern social attitudes towards extra fat go, many dislike it, even loathe it. Certainly, many people don’t like it on their own body, but some even become angry when they see abundant adipose tissue on someone else’s body. For some, fat is part of a truly vicious cycle of self-loathing. Geneen Roth writes that when she was in her twenties, she hated her fat so much, she wanted to slice it off with a knife. Then she would have been standing there, trembling and bleeding, but at least she would be thin.
As far as modern social attitudes towards extra fat go, many dislike it, even loathe it. Certainly, many people don’t like it on their own body, but some even become angry when they see abundant adipose tissue on someone else’s body. For some, fat is part of a truly vicious cycle of self-loathing.
Others passionately defend fat and its hosts. The fat acceptance movement has risen to defend people from fatphobia, or the unwarranted ostracism, contempt, and bullying frequently experienced by heavier people. Still others may fetishize fat, forming a subculture around the care and feeding of those too large to get out into the world and fend for themselves.
Medically speaking, fat tissue has been implicated in its associations with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Some people debate the validity of these assertions, pointing to research showing that in some cases, being what’s considered “slightly overweight” may in fact lower mortality rates. Further, movements such as the Health at Every Size movement point out that body shapes and sizes are diverse, describe the harm restrictive dieting can cause, and work to promote health without focusing on weight loss.
The Issue of Fat
As you can see, the issue of fat is very complex. In this article I am emphatically not taking any position as to the goodness or badness, nor as to the beauty or ugliness, of this embattled tissue. Rather, I want to explore: What is fat, and what is it doing for us? There are high levels of vehemence, vitriol, and medical admonishment against fat, yet many people carry what is considered by current medical standards to be excess poundage. There must be some function or functions powerful enough to override the tremendous social forces against it. What is going on here?
First, let’s look at the overall somatic context. The human body consists of multiple types of tissues, which tend to occur in layers.
Muscle tissue comes in two types: smooth (usually involuntary, like intestines or uterus) and striated (voluntary skeletal muscles that move our limbs and support our core).
Bone, though often ignored or underrated, is an amazing part of our bodies. Living bone has a pinkish tinge and is more flexible than the rigid, white bone that comes more readily to mind. It gives structure and support, and provides “spacers” for the muscular system (without it, the muscles that attach to and move the bones would contract into tight little balls). The marrow of bones produces blood and immune cells.
Our skin (which itself comes in several layers) is a vital part of our sensory system. It blocks water loss, UV rays, and germs; regulates temperature; and provides a boundary between our bodies and the greater world.
The fascia is a connective tissue that penetrates all other tissues and binds us together. Muscles slide over its smooth surfaces, and it prevents our organs from sloshing around inside us like a big bag of goo.
Our nervous system (brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves) controls the body via nerve impulses and signals to release hormones.
Our fluid system includes blood, lymph, digestive fluids, and interstitial (between-cell) fluids. It transports oxygen, cellular wastes, hormones, glucose, and other nutrients.
And then there is fat.
Fat does many things for its host organism. As most people know, it can be considered a kind of “energy savings account” in case of famine or illness. Fat provides insulation, particularly against cold, and padding, so our bones don’t grind on the surfaces we sit or lean on. Fat forms part of the breast tissue, allowing mothers to feed their infants, and is also involved in hormone production
Some believe fat stores toxins in a way that makes them inert, or prevents them from damaging the vital organs, though I must point out that I don’t know whether this claim is backed by scientific evidence. I do recall a long-ago evening in which a friend and I took a long walk (of about three hours) to the beach. He had recently quit using marijuana and hadn’t used any at all for several months. The walk was long enough that metabolically, we both switched from running on blood glucose to primarily burning accumulated fat stores. By the time we got back to my house, he was, as they say, high as a kite—without having taken a single hit of marijuana.
And then there is another function of fat, one that’s not so commonly discussed. I don’t know whether or not it has been demonstrated in any medical literature, but eating disorder therapists (and many who overeat, binge eat, or experience a related type of disordered eating) will know this one: Fat is an emotional insulator.
How Fat Can Help Insulate Us from Emotions
Having extra fat on the body can help protect against feeling the intensity of unprocessed emotions. It’s like a thick coat of insulation on an extremely high-voltage wire. In this regard, it helps keep us in some semblance of balance, able to exist and function without becoming completely obliterated by our own emotional charge.
We have to live life on life’s terms, and these terms are not always kind. At any moment, even when we are young and vulnerable children, life can hand us events that are just too big for us to deal with in an efficient or comfortable manner.
We have to live life on life’s terms, and these terms are not always kind. At any moment, even when we are young and vulnerable children, life can hand us events that are just too big for us to deal with in an efficient or comfortable manner. The emotional aspect of our survival energies tends to be unbelievably strong. Repression may cut us off from old, unprocessed emotions, but blocking or repressing emotions may only work up to a certain extent.
What might happen if a person carries such large emotional charges without insulation of some sort, or other cut-off strategies such as substance abuse? I have heard many people making statements similar to these:
- “You know those cables that come out of the big power plants? Well, I felt like I was plugged into one of those. Or riding a lightning bolt. I just couldn’t shut it off.” (Note that the relationship between trauma and bipolar is sometimes murky; experiencing a state such as this does not necessarily mandate a diagnosis of bipolar.)
- “I couldn’t move. I couldn’t get out of bed. I tried. It was like when you push the gas pedal in your car, but nothing happens.”
- “I just felt awful. It was like wave after wave of the worst, cruddiest feeling was washing over me.”
- “When I lost weight, I constantly felt vulnerable. Like everyone was looking at me and could see right to my core. When I’m fat, I’m invisible.”
Still others have talked about the sense that their experience with psychosis or other mental health issues began in part because their systems just couldn’t contain the terrible traumas they had experienced. I believe this sheer intensity is the true meaning of the word overwhelmed and, in my experience, sufficient to explain why some people find themselves overweight.
These days, many people are talking about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. A physician treating obesity at Kaiser noticed that his most successful patients—those who had lost the most weight—were dropping out of his program. Intrigued, he arranged for follow-up with the ex-participants, who shared that their weight loss brought up old traumatic emotions from childhood. It was easier to live life with morbid obesity, despite any pain and inconvenience it might cause, than it was to face those old feelings.
That is testament to the power of old trauma, and of fat as a semi-conscious strategy to help contain it.
Certainly, the issue of excess body fat is very complex, and so are the people who carry it. Genetics undoubtedly play some role in a person’s predisposition to weight gain. Others may live in food deserts or, out of choice or necessity, fall into habits that support weight gain. Athletes who get injured and don’t change their food intake are prone to gaining weight. Some people also tend to overeat as a way of bolstering their overall energy when tired (Dr. Judith Orloff calls this “energy defensive eating”).
In short, if you have a lifestyle where you are constantly running on fatigue and overwhelm and/or neglecting your own needs for the needs of others, it can be easy to gain weight—particularly if you have a “sit-down” job. Researchers and medical experts have begun to point out that sitting for long periods of time can negatively impact health. Some have even called it the “new smoking.”
Society exerts tremendous pressure to conform to a thinner body standard. This social pressure often contributes to internal pressure. But all people, regardless of their size, deserve compassion and kindness—from themselves as well as from others—not judgment or ostracism. If someone is insulating their feelings with a layer of fat, then the more cruelty they experience, the more entrenched their defenses are likely to become. Even if their size causes them distress, they may find it all the more difficult to lose weight.
Our bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and we cannot completely control the way they look. We really never know what life will end up bringing us, and to some extent, we must accept what life has already handed us. As with any aspect of the human condition–there but for the grace of luck, circumstance, and the genetic lottery, go all of us.
Those who struggle with difficult emotions and/or overwhelm and desire to lose weight but haven’t been able to (in other words, if this article speaks to you) might consider working with a compassionate therapist trained in helping people increase affect tolerance and move gently into and out of old feelings.
“Fat-bashing in all its varied forms–criticism, exclusion, shaming, fat talk, self-deprecation, jokes, gossip, bullying–is one of the last socially acceptable forms of prejudice. From a very young age, before they can walk away or defend themselves, women are taught that they are how they look, not what they do or what they know.” —Robyn Silverman, Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It
- Afzal, S., Tybjaerg-Hansen, A., Jensen, G., & Nordestgaard, B. G. (2016). Change in body mass index associated with lowest mortality in Denmark, 1976-2013. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.4666
- Brown, H. (2015, November 17). The obesity paradox: Scientists now think that being overweight can protect your health. Quartz Media. Retrieved from https://qz.com/550527/obesity-paradox-scientists-now-think-that-being-overweight-is-sometimes-good-for-your-health
- Furman, J. (2011). Eat to live: The amazing nutrient-rich program for fast and sustained weight loss. New York, NY: Little Brown and Co.
- Gerstacker, D. (2014, September 5). Sitting is the new smoking—7 ways a sedentary lifestyle is killing you. The Active Times. Retrieved from https://www.theactivetimes.com/sitting-new-smoking-7-ways-sedentary-lifestyle-killing-you?utm_source=huffington%2Bpost&utm_medium=partner&utm_campaign=sitting
- Roth, G. (2011) Women, food, and God. New York, NY: Scribner.
- Scutti, S. (2017, September 22). Yes, sitting too long can kill you, even if you exercise. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/11/health/sitting-increases-risk-of-death-study/index.html
- Vigarello, G. (2013). The metamorphoses of fat: A history of obesity. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
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