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Feeling Fat: Understanding the Complexities of Body Image and Emotions

Updated: Mar 19





How many times have you heard this from people?


I feel fat.

You may feel “fat”, “out of shape”, or “stressed”.


And when you say you are “feeling” those things, I believe you. Most probably, you are feeling it throughout your whole body, whether you are aware of it or not.


So to you, “feeling fat” (or whatever) is a feeling.

It normally comes with a set of physical sensations, such as:

  • being overly aware of the tightness of clothing;

  • feeling heavy and sluggish;

  • feeling bloated, or a sense of outward pressure in the stomach;

  • feeling physically awkward in one’s movements;

  • feeling “too large” or expansive.

And, not coincidentally, many of the sensations of “feeling fat” are the same sensations as feeling, say, depressed.


Or sad.


Or anxious.


Or self-conscious.


Or embarrassed and ashamed.


Or frustrated.

It all gets blended up, and comes out as “feeling fat.”


We “feel” what we pay attention to.


So a person who “feels fat” or “feels fit” isn’t necessarily expressing an objective reality. They’re communicating a whole world of inner sensations, emotions and unconscious thoughts without realising it, most of the time.


Unfortunately, It is difficult to negotiate, persuade or think your way out of a feeling problem, especially when those feelings involve physical sensations.


Our perception of our bodies is subjective. But more importantly, our body perception - interoception - also shapes our experiences of the world and ourselves.



What is interoception?



Interoception is the sensation of the internal body states (such as hunger, fullness and physical discomfort), which plays a crucial role in the experience of our body image, emotions and feelings of fatness. Research suggests that interoceptive awareness is directly linked to body dissatisfaction and emotional regulation (Khalsa et al., 2018).


Interoceptive awareness training is a technique that focuses on increasing interoceptive awareness and reducing the fear and avoidance of bodily sensations (Khalsa et al., 2018) where people learn to develop a more accurate perception of their internal states.


The concept of feeling fat is complex and goes beyond a simple perception of being overweight. It involves a cognitive attribution error, where people mislabel emotional experiences and bodily sensations that fluctuate throughout the day (Fairburn, 2008).

According to recent research, there is a connection between feeling fat and binge-eating symptoms (Mehak & Racine, 2021).



The Connection between Emotions and Binge-Eating



Emotions such as guilt, shame and disgust often accompany the perception of being "fat" or overweight and have a strong connection to binge-eating episodes (Berg et al., 2013; Schaefer et al., 2020) as a way to temporarily alleviate these emotions, associated with body image and weight.


However, this reliefis followed by the same feelings of guilt, shame and disgust, as individuals may regret their lack of control and perceived failure to achieve societal standards of beauty. This negative cycle, where binge eating becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism for dealing with guilt and shame, can further perpetuate the association between feeling fat and binge eating.


Nevertheless, not all individuals who feel fat engage in binge eating, as people's responses to these emotions can be different. Some may resort to restrictive eating or other disordered eating behaviours instead.



The Role of Cognitive-Affective Variables in Interoception



Cognitive-affective variables, such as depression (Linardon et al., 2018), anxiety and shame can influence interoceptive processes and the perception of bodily sensations (Khalsa et al., 2018). Individuals with higher levels of depression or anxiety may have a heightened sensitivity to bodily sensations, leading to a distorted perception of feeling fat independent of their actual body weight or shape.


Shame, as a self-directed negative emotion, can further exacerbate the misinterpretation of bodily cues and contribute to the experience of feeling fat (Khalsa et al., 2018).



Strategies for Addressing Feeling Fat and Promoting a Healthy Body Image





What can you do to feel better in your own skin and minimise all those "fat" feelings?


  • Concentrate on positive self-talk. Start developing a positive inner dialogue by promoting self-acceptance and self-love. Focus on your accomplishments, strengths, and unique qualities rather than just on your appearance or weight. For example, instead of saying, "I feel fat," reframe it as "Even If I do not feel my best today, I'm still strong and capable."

  • Challenge unrealistic beauty standards. Beauty comes in different shapes, sizes, and forms. Unfortunately, some of them are not promoted by the media and society.

  • Focus on nourishing your body. Eat foods you love and which love you back, whatever they might be. Move your body more. Engage in physical activities that you enjoy rather than striving for a specific body shape or size. Health is not determined by appearance but by physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being.

  • Create a supportive environment. Search for support groups, online community or therapy where you can have open conversations about your feelings, body image, and have access to relevant resources for further support.

  • Emphasise self-care and self-compassion. Engage in activities that bring joy and fulfilment, whether practising mindfulness, engaging in your favourite hobbies or getting enough rest.

  • Use social media mindfully. Learn about the potential negative impact of social media on body image and self-esteem. Critically evaluate your scrolling and start to follow accounts that lift you up and not make you feel worse about yourself.

  • Address underlying emotional issues. Recognise that body image concerns often stem from deeper emotional issues such as low self-esteem, anxiety, or past trauma. Asking for help is powerful, so consider reaching out for support through therapy or counselling.



Curious to learn more? Book a a free 30-min non-obligatory discovery call to help you get started on your journey to better health!


 

References:


Anderson, L. M., Hall, L. M. J., Crosby, R. D., Crow, S. J., Berg, K. C., Durkin, N. E., Engel, S. G., & Peterson, C. B. (2022). “Feeling fat,” disgust, guilt, and shame: Preliminary evaluation of a mediation model of binge-eating in adults with higher-weight bodies. Body Image, 42, 32–42. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2022.05.008


Levinson, C. A., Williams, B. M., & Christian, C. (2020). What are the Emotions Underlying Feeling Fat and Fear of Weight Gain? Journal of Affective Disorders, 277. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.012


Linardon, J., Susanto, L., Tepper, H., & Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M. (2020). Self-compassion as a moderator of the relationships between shape and weight overvaluation and eating disorder psychopathology, psychosocial impairment, and psychological distress. Body Image, 33, 183–189. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2020.03.001


Mehak, A., & Racine, S. E. (2020). Understanding “feeling fat” and its underlying mechanisms: The importance of multimethod measurement. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 53(9), 1400–1404. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23336




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