Our Eating-Disordered Culture
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Cartoon: Woman Shooting Scale

Our modern society views enjoyment of eating in much the same way as Victorians viewed enjoyment of sex - dangerous and sinful, something to feel guilty about. It's considered almost obscene not to be on a diet that restricts what you eat. If you tell someone you've decided not to diet anymore, you risk an earful about what a dangerous mistake you're making, how natural appetites have no natural limits, and the only way to have control is through dieting.

But this makes no sense! Natural limits are part of our natural instincts.

Going on your first diet is practically a rite of passage into adulthood for young women. It's considered an obvious truth that, left to our own devices, we would never stop eating. We need a diet.

This message is profoundly destructive. When we ignore our inner cues about what, when, and how much to eat, we eventually lose the ability to read these cues. When we become dependent on externally defined diets, the result is obsession with food and body image - and excess fat.

In fact, this may be a reason for the explosion of obesity in the western world. The problem may not be that we all need to go on a diet, but that we are constantly being told that we need to go on a diet, told that we can't trust our own body wisdom.

A Politically Correct Prejudice

Not only are we taught to feel guilty about enjoying food, we're taught that how much we weigh is directly related to our value as human beings. This again parallels Victorian attitudes towards sexuality. It promotes the idea that denying one's natural instincts is somehow virtuous. It also creates an intense and culturally sanctioned prejudice against fat people (or even marginally overweight people) that is extremely destructive.

Overweight people are viewed as stupid, lazy, weak-willed, and incompetent. They are discriminated against in the job market, in the "love market", and are marginalized, disrespected, insulted, and ignored. This prejudice is so widespread and accepted as reasonable that it appears in earliest childhood. Studies have shown that children as young as 5 years old describe fat children as lazy and stupid, and are less likely to choose them as friends.

Disparaging fat people is the only overt prejudice that is still fully acceptable in polite company. Today, people know that characterizing an entire race or gender as stupid and lazy is ugly and wrong, but (bizarrely) characterizing fat people as stupid and lazy is still perfectly acceptable.

But the larger problem is that overweight people internalize these messages, and start to see themselves as disgusting pigs, not worthy of the basic gifts of life. That's why people look at their fat with horror and shame. They're told day in and day out, from earliest childhood, that extra fat is a sign of inadequacy and failure as a human being.

The reason you can't stand the sight of yourself is not because of your fat, per se. It's because of the meaning you give to your fat.

What Being Fat Really Means

The solution is to reframe this - stop telling yourself that your fat is shameful and disgusting. It isn't true! Your weight is not a measure of your value as a human being. Character has infinitely more to do with your value as a human being than the shape of your body. The amount of extra fat you carry is vastly overemphasized in this culture, and the meaning the culture gives it is seriously warped.

Carrying extra fat simply means that you have been using food for comfort as well as fuel, because you didn't know how else to deal with the stress and problems in your life. Carrying extra fat is no more shameful than crying. Your fat is like tears; a physical manifestation of distress. If you saw someone crying, you'd view her tears with compassion, not contempt. Your fat is no less a sign of distress, and also deserves to be viewed with compassion rather than contempt.

So when you look in the mirror and see your extra fat, stop your negative self-talk, and instead say to yourself, "This extra fat I'm carrying is not shameful or disgusting, and has no relationship to my value as a human being. It's just a sign that I ate for comfort when I didn't know how to cope with the stress in my life. I'm learning new ways now."

This is an excerpt from the book Normal Eating for Normal Weight: The Path to Freedom from Weight Obsession and Food Cravings by Sheryl Canter