After years of believing weight loss was the key to unlocking my best mental health, I’m stoked to report that today I am at my highest weight ever, and my mental health has never been better.
Before I go any further, let me back up and give you a little more context to my story.
I’ve always been fat, and for a long time I saw that as a problem. But not just any old problem. I saw it as the defining challenge of my life. I truly believed—like many—that weight loss was the cure for everything that felt wrong in my life, from the occasional sneezing fit to my chronic inability to date someone I actually liked. Surprisingly, that belief kept me from seeking the mental health support I actually needed, and dieting actually made my mental health worse.
Full transparency: I don’t want you to leave this essay feeling like I’ve somehow arrived at some kind promised land. I’m absolutely at the beginning, in many ways, of a long mental health journey that began with childhood trauma.
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‘I was humiliated, punched, kicked, and shamed for being fat.’
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the suburbs of San Francisco, I experienced neglect, abuse, and a family caught in the legacy of alcoholism. At school, I was brutally bullied for my weight. I was raised by four adults who really loved me but have a lot of unresolved intergenerational trauma. My aunt was sexually abusive. My mother would abandon me for months at a time unannounced. So I was raised primarily by my rageaholic grandfather and my kind grandmother, who turned a blind eye because she didn’t know how to deal with any of it. At the age of 5, I was called “fat” for the first time on the playground at my school. That moment marked the beginning of years of being reminded daily by my classmates that I ate too much, was gross and too big for a girl, and shouldn’t wear clothes that exposed any part of my body (lest the chorus of fake retching sounds begin around me). I was humiliated, punched, kicked, and shamed for being fat. It also began a slog toward dieting and disordered eating that would last two decades.
Everyone and everything around me—doctors, magazines, movies, classmates—seemed to be saying the same thing, that “fixing” my weight was the cure for every single thing that wasn’t going well in my life. To be fat was to never feel comfortable, grounded or well. So the absence of those things in my life didn’t set off any alarms. I watched the culture connect emotional volatility, depression, and listlessness to fatness through movies like Death Becomes Her. So, when these things began to present in me, I believed they were caused by my fatness. By the time I was in my early twenties, I had difficulty focusing and completing tasks. I would blow up at my partner at the drop of a hat. I didn’t trust myself or anyone else. I remember my college boyfriend calling me one day after graduation. “It’s normal to cry everyday,” I told him. “No, it’s not,” he replied gently.
I didn’t understand that these things weren’t caused by being fat. I truly believed that weight loss was going to cure it all. Ironically, this belief only got me deeper into the exact behaviors that eroded my mental health: self-blame, self-hatred, and dieting. I was stuck in a self-defeating feedback loop that sounded sort of like this: “I just yelled at my friend for disagreeing with me over dinner, and now they’re angry at me. When I’m thin, this just won’t happen,” or “I’m crying uncontrollably at the mall for no apparent reason. Just focus on losing that weight and everything will work out.”
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‘Spending a weekend at a fat-positive conference, [I saw] people who look like me.’
So, where did the breakthrough happen? I learned about fat acceptance though total dumb luck while I was in grad school doing research on the ways that body size impacted how women saw their gender. I became an immediate convert to fat activism after spending a weekend at a fat-positive conference and, for the first time in my life, seeing people who look like me living joyfully and unapologetically. I began to learn about the harmful long-term effects of fat-shaming and weight stigma and to unlearn the awful stuff I’d been taught about fat people. Above all, I committed to being anti-diet.
With weight loss off the table, my path to better mental health slowly began to open up. Instead of just doubling down on my diet whenever I felt ashamed of blowing up at loved ones, I went to anger management. Instead of obsessively “burning off” the calories of my last meal, I meditated when I was anxious. Instead of just presuming that thinness would somehow magically make interacting with my family less painful, I started reading about Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, and went to meetings where I felt a sense of community with people who were going through the exact same things I was (and who came in every shape and size). I also found out that dieting itself played a role in my inability to focus and my emotional volatility.
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‘The way fat people get treated by society is the actual problem, not having a fat body.’
For me, better mental health has come through learning fat acceptance, learning that my body is not a problem that needs to be fixed, and learning that weight loss and mental health support aren’t the same thing.
First, I had to learn that there’s a real problem with how our culture pathologizes fat people, leaving no room for the possibility that better mental health is possible without weight loss. When we stop making weight loss a condition for good mental health, we can make room for the fact that everyone has access to things that can improve their mental health (even if they’re small), like meditation, a few deep breaths every day, a cup of tea, and decreasing negative self-talk.
Second, I had to learn that the way fat people get treated by society is the actual problem, not having a fat body. Fatphobia is a form of stigma, which causes poorer mental and physical health outcomes. If fat people have worse mental health outcomes, at least some of that can be explained through the stress caused by how higher-weight people are treated. I know I’m not the only fat person who has found herself shamed in public, unable to find clothing she likes or a comfortable chair in a restaurant, denied dates and dignity, or had her symptoms ignored at the doctor.
Finally, I had to accept that losing weight and having better mental health are two totally separate things. So I had to learn how to reallocate resources toward my actual mental health—not just try to lose weight and expect that everything else would work itself out once I was smaller. Weight loss was never going to solve the fact that I didn’t know how to self-advocate or set limits with myself and other people.
Now at my highest weight, I find that I am capable of the sense of clarity, purpose and equanimity that I once believed was impossible for me as a fat person. I know that the culture expects me to see my fat body as a negative byproduct of my childhood trauma, but I just don’t. I see my fat body as a sign of strength and a positive part of my family’s legacy. Where before I felt hopeless and powerless in the face of my ever-elusive thin dreams, now I feel increasingly confident in my ability to take care of myself and trust myself. Self-acceptance—not weight loss—opened up my path to mental health, and that path is still unfolding.
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