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As someone who has struggled tremendously with my body image and eating for much of my life, I’ve always been keenly aware of the harm our society does by demonizing fatness and celebrating thinness. I have known for a long time that I, and so many other people, would not struggle with these issues if our culture did not exert constant pressure to be as thin as possible.
When I have attempted to speak up about fatphobia in school, the workplace, and our culture in the past, I have often been dismissed and even mocked.
“What’s the big deal about fatphobia?” one of my supervisors once asked me. “You’re thin, it’s not like it affects you. As long as you eat right and make healthy choices, you won’t get fat.” Little did she know that her words instilled a sense of terror in me; all I could think was that if I did gain weight, I would be judged as having made unhealthy choices. This, of course, is a judgment that people in larger bodies face constantly.
When I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder, I was in some ways grateful to have the words to describe the havoc that my own and others’ fatphobia was wreaking on my life.
My diagnosis helped me realize that unlike what so many people believe, fatphobia is a very big deal, and I had every right to speak up against it.
During one of my therapy sessions, my therapist, herself in eating disorder recovery, said, “People like you and me have to speak out against fatphobia and advocate for the Health At Every Size paradigm. Our lives depend on it.” This was the moment when I realized that not only did I have the right to speak up about fatphobia, but I had the obligation to for the sake of my own well-being.
As I worked to unlearn my own biases about what weight gain might mean for me, I also began setting boundaries with my co-workers, classmates, and loved ones around this issue.
I started to tell people that I was no longer open to hearing conversations in which weight loss was framed as inherently healthy and weight gain inherently unhealthy. I asked those around me not to talk about “good” or “bad” foods and provided some education about the nutritional value of all foods.
Many of my friends, as well as my husband, began their own process of unlearning some fatphobic and diet culture beliefs. I also began to seek out friendships and connections with people in my community who have been actively engaged in fighting fatphobia and sizeism.
The change in my environment–the willingness of the people around me to learn and grow, and my new friendships with other like-minded individuals–have been a major, if not the biggest, reason for the improvement I have experienced in my eating disorder symptoms.
I feel incredibly grateful for having had the opportunity to receive treatment, but I strongly believe that treatment alone would not have worked.
It took treatment combined with a shift in my context for me to feel less terrified of the weight gain that is such a crucial component of healing from an eating disorder.
For this reason, I at times feel uncomfortable with the idea of ever identifying as “recovered.”
While I may one day be free from all disordered eating symptoms and behaviours, I feel this is highly dependent upon context. I am not sure that I could ever exist in an environment filled with fatphobia and a pro-diet culture mentality without experiencing at least some urges to engage in eating disorder behaviours and negative body image thoughts.
In many ways, I feel that urges to engage in eating disorder behaviours and negative body image thoughts are a natural reaction to experiencing pervasive fatphobia from co-workers, friends, and/or loved ones, especially for individuals who already struggle with their self-esteem and relationship with food.
I have written before about the idea of Embodied Cognition or the notion that our cognition, emotions, and personality are inseparable from our physical bodies.
My complex relationship with the idea of “recovery” has led me to explore a similar, related philosophy, that of Extended Mind Theory. Extended Mind Theory posits that our cognitive processes take place in not only our brains and bodies but also within our external environments. For example, many individuals use notepads, phones, laptops, and other technology to store and access needed information. Much of the information that shapes and constitutes our cognition is also drawn from the culture and systems surrounding us, including our workplace, family, and media. According to Extended Mind Theory, we do not function independently of one another; rather, we are deeply interconnected and intertwined with the contexts we live in.
As an Extended Mind Theorist, I struggle with the concept of “recovery” as an individual process.
Eating disorders and disordered eating do not exist in a vacuum; they are shaped by cultural beliefs and values. Recovery, too, is dependent upon our context and external environment.
For me personally, having language to describe my relationship with food and body image as an ongoing struggle–whether that is “in recovery,” “recovering,” or “struggling with an eating disorder”–helps me remember that I will always need to do the work to make sure I have people in my life who will love and accept me no matter what size I am, what I eat, or how much I exercise. It reminds me that the work to make the world a safe and accepting place for people of all sizes is not yet complete.
As long as fatphobia and diet culture continue to pervade schools, workplaces, and families, people like me will continue to struggle with their body image and relationship with food.
My ongoing struggle for my own freedom with food is not over until freedom with food is possible for everyone.
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Emily Cutler is a Jewish, queer, disabled graduate student living in Tampa, Florida. She is passionate about creating a world in which people of all sizes and abilities are valued. In addition to her graduate studies, Emily provides training and consultancy on mental health, suicide prevention, peer support, disability advocacy, and the Health At Every Size paradigm.
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