Picture this: A teenage girl reaches the point of hunger induced fatigue during her afternoon at high school, she starts to drift off and lightly dissociate in class; trying her best to conceal the loud, gurgling noise coming from her stomach. It’s apparently screaming for nourishment and sustenance at such a volume that other students make comment.
“Sounds like someone’s still hungry”, “Wasn’t it just lunchtime?”
The girl slumps down into her seat, as if to make herself somehow take up less space. As much as the noises are embarrassing, she’s enjoying the way the hunger pains make her feel; she receives a sudden rush of dopamine and endorphins, hunger pains mean her efforts are working. If she had to be sad and scared all the time, at least she had control over whether she ate or not, she thought.
Your immediate thought is likely that this girl I’m describing has restrictive disordered eating, some symptoms of mental illness, and is most likely visibly underweight, right?
What if I told you, that girl was me?
And then what if I told you that I was, and have always been fat?
What if I told you my experience isn’t an anomaly, but that it is a common phenomenon which often goes undiagnosed and untreated in people with higher BMI?
Tess Holliday, possibly the world’s most famous plus sized model (creator of #effyourbeautystandards) recently spoke out about her diagnosis of atypical anorexia nervosa and the surrounding discussion was so controversial and heated that even reading YouTube video titles was triggering for me.
I don’t really talk about my mental illness publicly for reasons like this, certainly not as much as I talk about my other illnesses and disability. To be honest, It feels like I’ve been handed an intersecting, non-consensual triple helping of stigma and oppression which I’m constantly told either doesn’t exist or I should just cope with. Many of my current issues, including fibromyalgia stem from being born with developmental dysplasia of the hip, I was going in and out of hospital for specialist appointments, and major operations from a very young age. The experience with it all was very interesting because I was also born with the predisposition to be fat. The ways in which I was treated at times, you wouldn’t expect a child to be treated. It was as though I was expected to be more like an adult because I was larger.
After my operations, I healed remarkably well. I was the first person in the entire state of South Australia to have this procedure without being put into a cast afterwards. The only feedback my mother ever received (because from memory this orthopaedic specialist never spoke directly to me) was “She’s healing very well, she just needs to lose some weight”. Never once was it explained how my mother was meant to help me achieve that when we already had quite a meger diet due to the poverty we existed in, not to mention her own neglect of us. So that lack of knowledge turned into shame, even thought my mother was a larger woman herself, She began to lash out and body shame myself and my siblings. I had fully fledged disordered eating, binging and purging, habitual compulsion to exercise, self-harming habits, CPTSD/BPD, anxiety and major depressive disorder by age 10. I reiterate that I’ve always been fat.
Due to the blessing of discovering fat acceptance and fat positivity spaces through using Tumblr in my early 20s, I’m happy to say that I’ve escaped that mindset for the most part. I’m the fattest, but also the happiest with myself and my appearance that I’ve possibly ever been. I still suffer from disordered eating, but due to my almost constant dissociation or hyper focus, I forget to eat. I am very glad it’s not due to depriving myself to try and somehow escape fatness. Either way, I still feel a dopamine rush when I get hunger pains and manage to pull energy from places I shouldn’t. Instead of being pleased with myself, now it just makes me feel sad that I managed to rewire my brain through self-hate. This is what fat stigma does, this is how damaging it truly is, and it can last more than a lifetime.
It likely also doesn’t help that I’ve gone to at least 2 psychiatrists who’ve stopped me after I’ve gone into excruciating detail about the complexities of my mental illnesses, trauma, disordered eating and how the worst part is being mistreated by society at large; only to have them ask me “So, have you ever considered losing weight, What about bariatric surgery”?
Psychiatrists, you heard correct. I’ve been mentally ill and disabled for essentially my entire life. Losing weight does not erase disability, physical illness or mental illness, and it doesn’t take away the trauma of being a fat person in a fatphobic society that wants you either dead or compliant. There’s no way any of that will simply disappear. Needless to say, I didn’t see either psychiatrist after these comments were made.
Unless you yourself happen to be fat, overweight, plus sized or “obese’ (which is considered a medicalised slur in many parts of social justice, including fat acceptance and activism) or you have at least begun the process of deprogramming the mindset instilled in every single one of us from the moment of birth; You’re likely filled with a degree of disbelief, and you would feel justified in your belief being backed by science, medicine and society at large. This is mainstream belief accepted as fact, and the so called “war on obesity” has become literal in the extreme to the point of both literal and lateral violence.
Fatness is one of the only forms of oppression which is still socially acceptable, as fatphobic discrimination is not even seen for what it is; universally harmful and dangerous for all humans, but especially and particularly for fat people.
The Truth is that yes, I was raised in an environment of poverty, abuse, neglect and so have complex mental and physical illness surrounding this. I have overarching hereditary factors and family history of mental illness on both sides that has rarely been diagnosed let alone treated. Even with the erasure of these complex and overlapping factors, as a fat person, my likelihood of experiencing mental illness is very high. A recent Australian survey says that 43% of fat people are depressed. In fact, medically ‘obese’ people have a 55% greater risk of depression according to one 2010 study, compared to those who have a lower BMI. Other surveys have found that children who are depressed often have a higher BMI. That’s just to mention depression. The World Health Organisation states that people with a history of ADHD have a greater chance of becoming fat. On top of this it is well known that generalised anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, PTSD, disordered eating and eating disorders all have links to people existing at larger sizes.
Why? One of the best explanations is known as societal and institutionalised fatphobia; although many scoff at observing this term. It’s an oppressive experience, both internalised and externalised fatphobia informs an extremely pervasive and damaging stigma, which leads to discrimination. This stigma which creates an unhappiness, an unfulfillment, a shame which is shared by all, regardless of one’s body size, is not only widespread, but also calculated. All kinds of people from all walks of life feeling like there’s a constant need to “self-improve” (read, be as thin, fit and healthy as possible) is in fact endlessly beneficial to companies and businesses manufacturing the products marketed to us in order to achieve these goals. Many multibillion dollar industries (diet and weight loss industry, health and fitness, the food industry, the fashion industry, the makeup beauty and skincare industry to name only a few) are constantly fed and fuelled by society’s fear and hatred of all forms of bodily difference. When the ideal body and beauty standard is forever shifting, and existing in a fat body is not only seen as a negative, its seen as something which can be controlled and is essentially a choice, that fat people only exist due to their own shortcomings (poor food and exercise choices) therein lies a big, fat catch 22.
Unbiased study is finally showing that genetics are a main contributor towards existing as fat, also that in the small percentage of cases where weight loss is achieved, that person is likely to gain all weight lost back and more in just a 5-year span. Anecdotal evidence of this comes from a woman called Katrina, A contestant on one of the Australian seasons of “The Biggest Loser”. She is vocal about the fact that not a single person out of the 14 contestants in her season maintained any amount of weight loss despite maintaining the diet and exercise programs developed for them. Many blame themselves despite this. To be blunt, the inevitable effect of things like yo-yo dieting is finally being shown to be more dangerous than merely existing as a fat person. Even more insidious is the fact that fatphobia, fat stigma and fat shame are creating more problems than they’re solving. Fat people are dying, being medically neglected and it’s being blamed purely on fatness.
So how do we spread this awareness and be heard? That’s a hard one, for sure.
Steps in the right direction have been taking place over the past decade to end the sheer level of silencing, to find language which is relatable enough for straight sized people to even understand what is being said. Even if for the most part, larger people are even ignored in the spaces created for and by them (such as body positivity as compared to fat acceptance) The conversation has at least been started outside of fat acceptance spheres, and steps are finally being taken to amplify the fat-positive voices having this conversation.
For this reason, I am honoured to have been invited on a podcast called “This Australian Life”, to speak on being fat and mentally ill in Australia (Thanks again to Susan Sisko and Cat Pause’ for this amazing opportunity)
There are even TV shows around that explore these topics in an entertaining way. Such as “My Mad Fat Diary” about a mentally ill teen from the 90s struggling to fit in after spending time in a mental hospital, “Dumpling”is a Netflix movie about a plus size teen who enters a beauty pageant to spite her fatphobic mother and “Dietland” explores a dark and macabre narrative through the lens of a fat woman writing an “advice” section of a magazine for straight sized women.
A recent documentary program called “What do Australian’s really think of Obesity” aired on SBS, and it was truly refreshing, even though it was clearly made to be palatable to the masses it was not triggering for me to watch, it was affirming.
Hopefully with more representation will come more education in both the medical sense, and on what its truly like living as a fat person, that existing as a fat person in a society that is inherently fatphobic is a truly oppressive experience that’s largely invisible, swept under the rug and does cause ill mental illness, poverty and trauma.
That’s when we can begin the necessary changes to liberate ourselves, and all humans from fat stigma, body shame and the pervasive mental Illness it informs and amplifies.