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What Are We Really Afraid of in Becoming Fat?

When clients talk about not wanting to be “fat” or become “fat,” I ask them what exactly that means to them. What images do they conjure up, what do those images say about them and the society we live in, and what is having a “fat” body all about for them, whatever their current weight? Does “fat” mean the same thing to men and women, young and old, all races and ethnicities?

Fat used to mean having accumulated enough money to eat well and was a sign of wealth and status. Just as lawns were a (status) symbol of having excess land beyond what a person needed to farm and grow food or raise livestock, fat was a way of indicating that you had plenty, in fact, more than you needed. In a world of food scarcity, it was a way of flaunting excess and success. In my middle-class childhood, being a chubby baby was touted as positive and equated with health and good fortune.

No matter what connotation we give it now or gave it in earlier times, fat boils down to a state of having a great many body cells. It’s the meaning of having plenty of cells that has changed over the centuries and, more so, over recent decades. Now being fat has taken on a life of its own, becoming synonymous with greed, gluttony, selfishness, lack of restraint, not knowing when to stop, and taking more than your fair share. A fat person is viewed as wanting and needing too much, taking up too much space, and swallowing up too may societal resources like airplane seats and medical care.

What frightens many of my clients is that they believe fat intrinsically equals unpopular, last picked for team sports, different in a bad way, never belonging, not being able to do what other, thinner people can do, being unloved, lacking cool clothing choices, and being gross and freakish. It has so many negative connotations, that lost is any recognition of the facts: that getting or staying fat is due to multiple causes (genetics, chronic dieting, poor nutrition, food insecurity, trauma and abuse, or inadequate parental role modeling, etc.).

From people carrying a scarcity of body cells to those carrying an abundance of them and all along the continuum, some people are driven to not eat or not eat enough because we live in fear of becoming or remaining fat. Isn’t it time we think for ourselves instead of merely reacting? Isn’t it time that we believe what science tells us about our bodies rather than what we learn from popular culture? So many people, not just clients, view lack of fat as the singular determinant of health and happiness. Yes, agreed, there is discrimination and stigma against those of higher weights, but changing that means we all need to view every one of these people as an individual first and as fat second. For an enlightening take on “fat,” listen to Tell Me I'm Fat | This American Life,