We’ve all joked about our appearance, asking if our outfit makes us look big. But for some people, feeling fat goes beyond light-hearted banter. Approximately 3% of individuals experience a profound impact on their lives, homes, work, and relationships due to how they perceive their looks, body, and image[^1^].
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Over-Evaluation of Shape and Weight in Eating Disorders
People diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or body dysmorphic disorder tend to experience the feeling of being fat more intensely[^1^]. This feeling is associated with higher levels of distress, leading to harmful behaviors such as calorie restriction, excessive exercise, purging, and self-harm[^1^].
Understanding why we feel fat is crucial for addressing disordered eating and body image concerns among teenagers and young adults.
Physical or Biological Change
Feeling fat is a powerful sensation, but our bodies don’t actually change shape or size on a daily or hourly basis[^2^]. So what exactly is happening when we feel fat?
Research suggests that when individuals with food and body issues say they feel fat, they are actually describing a state or sensation that holds specific meaning for them[^2^]. Feeling fat is often associated with feeling bad, perpetuating the mistaken belief that being thinner equates to better health and happiness.
In reality, feeling fat is a shorthand way of expressing a complex mix of emotions and changes in our bodies[^2^]. It can be caused by increased bodily awareness, uncomfortable physical states, or even other negative emotions.
1. We Have Increased Bodily Awareness
Certain triggers may heighten our awareness of our bodies, especially for those with eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder[^2^]. These triggers include comments about our appearance, feeling sweaty, noticing movements during exercise, tight clothing, body checking, bloating, or general feelings of unwellness.
2. We Experience an Uncomfortable or Adverse Physical State
We may incorrectly label other physical sensations as feeling fat, leading us to be critical of ourselves[^2^]. Examples of such sensations include bloating, premenstrual syndrome, feeling excessively full, or being tired.
3. We May be Experiencing Other Emotions
Sometimes, we mislabel uncomfortable emotions as feeling fat[^2^]. Feeling low, bored, lonely, or unloved can create negative associations with our bodies.
Body Dysmorphic Disorder
Feeling fat can also be a symptom of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a complex condition characterized by obsessive thoughts and behaviors related to one’s appearance[^2^]. People with BDD often become fixated on perceived flaws and go to extreme lengths to change them, which can lead to isolation, self-harm, and other distressing experiences[^2^].
This disorder can affect both men and women, usually starting in adolescence or early adulthood[^2^]. It can coexist with substance use disorders, eating disorders, or other mental health issues.
Health at Every Size (HAES)
Promoting nurturing acceptance and body positivity is crucial for parents, caregivers, educators, and mental health professionals[^2^]. Our bodies are unique, just like our shoe sizes and foot shapes. Trying to conform to an unrealistic ideal can be painful and harmful.
Each person’s genetic makeup influences their bone structure, shape, and weight[^2^]. Celebrating our differences and loving our bodies while acknowledging their incredible functions is empowering. There is no “ideal weight” dictated by a number on a scale or a BMI chart. Well-being and self-acceptance come in many forms, shapes, and sizes.
Finding emotional fulfillment, connecting with others, and nourishing our bodies in a balanced way can help dismantle negative associations with food and body image[^2^]. Learning to honor hunger, fullness, and appetite is an essential part of this journey.
Seeking professional help is crucial for those struggling with body dysmorphia. Treatment often involves inpatient or residential care, therapy, and guided interventions to challenge distorted thinking patterns[^2^]. With the support of experienced therapists, remission and long-term recovery are possible.
Remember, feeling fat is not a pejorative term. It’s a complex experience that deserves understanding and compassion.
Fiona Yassin is an International Clinical Director specializing in eating disorders and borderline personality disorder treatment[^2^]. For inquiries, contact Fiona via email at [email protected].
[^1^]: Original content by Fiona Yassin.
[^2^]: Adapted content by OpenAI.