I’ve worked with hundreds of men, women and children with eating disorders over the past twenty years, and I can tell you that without a doubt, fat feelings and body image distortion are even more difficult to get rid of than the actual eating disorder symptoms (such as purging, compulsive exercise, dangerous weight loss, and laxative abuse).
Why are fat feelings and fears so hard to conquer?
History of Psychology Lesson
It may seem as if our society has been obsessed with fitness, thinness and body perfection forever, but this is definitely not the case. Eating disorders barely existed over a hundred years ago.
If any of you have studied psychology, you probably know the name Sigmund Freud. He was the father of modern psychology, and where all of those jokes about lying on the couch during therapy come from! Freud had a counseling practice in the 1800’s, and most of his clients were wealthy white women. His notes and books from the time do not mention eating disorders at all! In fact, the most common symptom these women experienced were what Freud called “hysterical” symptoms. These symptoms were characterized by “anesthesias”, or imagined paralysis.
For example, a woman would come in for treatment complaining that her arm was frozen or paralyzed, from the elbow down to the hand. All medical tests would show that there was nothing medically wrong at all, that the arm could function perfectly! Some women felt paralyzed in their hands, their arms, or even frozen in their pelvic regions – and all were deemed to be perfectly healthy physically.
Freud was intrigued by these hysterical symptoms, and was determined to figure out the mental issues that must be causing them. In his ongoing therapy with the women, a common theme began to emerge, and that theme was… SEX! In Victorian times, the time when Freud was alive and practicing psychoanalysis, the greatest taboo of society was to be overtly sexual, and also to have sexual feelings or desires of any kind. Of course, we now know that sexual feelings and desires are a natural and healthy part of being human. But Victorian women felt an extreme shame and guilt over being and feeling sexual in any way.
How did they manage these feelings of guilt and shame? Well, they couldn’t do it consciously, so their unconscious mind created symptoms that basically kept them from being sexual. If your hands, arms or pelvis was paralyzed, it would be pretty difficult to have sex, wouldn’t it? This temporarily solved the problem for Freud’s female patients – if they couldn’t have sex, then they wouldn’t feel the overwhelming and crushing guilt that plagued them day and night.
How This Affects Our Challenges Today
Why do I tell you this story about Freud and Victorian times (aside from the fact that it’s fascinating, don’t you think?). It’s to show you that symptoms of the “mentally ill” are often a reflection of societal beliefs of the time.
Just as there were few eating disorders during Freud’s time, we do not hear about “hysterical” symptoms today (they still occur, but are extremely rare).
What has become the great taboo of our time? Since the turn of the century being fat has become the great fear of the masses, fueled by industrialization, changing roles of women, and an billion dollar diet and cosmetic industry that increasingly shames women and men about the need to be physically thin and perfect.
Getting "Unstuck" From Your Fears
So, how can this short history lesson help you if you are plagued by fat feelings day and night? In order to rid yourself of body hatred and fat fear, you need to know where those fears came from, and know they did not always exist.
Just as our society has healed from many of our fears about being sexual, we can rid ourselves of the fear of not being dangerously thin and physically flawless.
It’s a tall order to fight against societal norms. Freud himself was laughed out of the room when he presented his discoveries to his colleagues. Even they were too repressed to talk about sex! But we know today that Freud was right about the source of hysteria being sexual repression (and sexual abuse, actually, but that’s a topic for another day!).
One day, I hope that a more enlightened society will look back on our time and realize that our obsession with thinness and ideal beauty was a sign of our own limitations and fears. Right now, what you can do is become more vocal about the need for society to embrace more realistic and diverse standards of beauty. The more you speak up and get angry about these unrealistic standards, the less your fat fears and feelings will become.
For more specific ways about how to fight "fat feelings" and negative body image, my book "How to be Free of Weight Obsession and Body Hatred: 21 life changing techniques you can start using today to stop obsessing over your weight and body image forever" can help.
If that's not enough, remember you can always come to see us for private coaching on how to feel better about your weight and body - just fill out a confidential appointment request at www.bodyimagecounseling.com, or reply to this email, and I'll be in touch right away.
To your recovery,