Have you ever spent time with a friend or a loved one (or even an acquaintance) and heard them say, “I feel fat”?
If you are woman living in the 21st century, you’ve probably found yourself in this situation. I know I have. And the typical, well-meaning response is something like, “oh my god, you’re totally not fat!”
Here’s the thing, though: despite its good intentions, I don’t think “you’re totally not fat!” is the best response.
First of all, it perpetuates the idea that fat is something that you definitely don’t want to be, and what if they are fat? There’s no official definition of fatness anyway, so somebody could be fat by their own or someone else’s standards, regardless of your interpretation. Or what if they become fat later?
But more deeply, I don’t think “you’re totally not fat!” is the best response because it shuts down the conversation. And in the process, you miss the opportunity to figure out what triggered this sudden fear of fatness.
Here’s my suggestion
Here’s my suggestion instead: when a friend says, “I feel fat,” act like your friend just told you that they are having some other big emotion. Like they just said, “I feel sad,” or “I feel depressed.”
When we feel some big emotion, it’s nice when other people ask us to hear more. You might say something to your friend like: It seems like you’re feeling upset. Tell me more about that.
There are many things that could be causing her (or him!) to feel upset, and you’ll have to ask questions and listen carefully to know more. But here are some common things that might be coming up for her. I’ve also included some “ways you might be helpful” — though please hold these lightly. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is just listen and empathize.
Some things that might be bothering her, and some ways you might be helpful:
She might not feel beautiful or attractive.
How you might be helpful: You might remind her that there are many ways to feel beautiful that have nothing to do with weight. Our clothing, our hygiene, our hair, our make-up, our posture, or even whether we’ve moved our bodies recently can all significantly impact our feelings of attractiveness.
You also might gently inquire how she feels toward beauty — does she want to feel more beautiful because it pleases her, or does she feel like she has to be beautiful in order to get what she wants in life?
She might not feel good in her body.
How you might be helpful: Remind her that are many ways to feel better in our bodies without changing our body mass — for example, gentle or vigorous exercise, taking a nap, or eating a meal that makes us feel good. Stretching or drinking some cold water often helps me.
She might be feeling anxious, insecure, or depressed.
How you might be helpful: You could see if there is anything in particular causing her to feel that way. Is there a relationship or opportunity that she thinks would be improved if she lost weight (e.g., “I’ll finally get a boyfriend if I lose 15 pounds”)? If so, is that actually true? Weight stuff is often a sign of much deeper concerns.
She might be or feel unhealthy.
How you might be helpful: You might remind her that that there are many ways to significantly improve your health without ever losing a pound. Things like eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, drinking or smoking less, for example, radically improve health outcomes even if they are not accompanied by weight loss (read the research here). And many of us are more likely to be consistent with new healthful behaviors if we don’t put the added pressure on ourselves to lose weight.
Of course, the person you need to have this conversation with might not be a friend or loved one at all — it might be yourself.
Either way, I hope you can have the discussion with kindness and gentleness. When we are feeling upset with our bodies, that is what we need most.
Join the conversation: What do you like to say when someone else says that they’re “feeling fat”? I’m sure we can all benefit from this group’s collective wisdom! Leave a comment below!