Warning: contains body size issues and possibly irrational thinking.
I’ve been losing weight for a while now. Intermittently, people compliment me on my shrinkage. It’s not been deliberate – which is odd all by itself, having spent most of life trying, and failing to reduce the amount of fat I’ve carried. At times in my life when I’ve dieted, I’ve gained weight, and in the recent years of just not bothering about it at all, the weight has gently fallen off. If there’s a sensible, mechanical process, it’s that I’m sleeping more and this helps me regulate my weight. There’s science around for this one.
Weight loss is held up in our wider culture as something to celebrate. It’s normal to praise people for it, and dieting is invariably presented in the media as a good thing: Feel great, look great, have more energy. This is not my experience of weight loss at all. I invariably feel worse and have less energy when it’s happening. The reasonable explanation for this is that unpleasant substances stored in my fat cells are releasing into my blood stream. Certainly, increasing water intake helps me get through, which could be a placebo, or could be the washing out process.
I notice, when I’m shrinking and feeling awful, it brings up memories. Usually intense and painful memories of times when I’ve been shamed, humiliated, or hurt. This is especially noticeable last thing at night when keeping my thoughts on a good and peaceful track is hard. During my most recent shrink period, I went through hours of painful recall. It felt (and this is the bit I can make no rational sense of) as if those memories were releasing from my fat cells. During the worst of it, I started wondering if what I had in my body wasn’t fat at all, but shame. Memory is distributed to some degree – muscle memory exists. Does fat memory exist?
I’ve been fat shamed for as long as I can remember, and I know weight is not a new issue or source of discomfort in my family line. There’s ancestry here and am repeating it. My stomach has been a focal point for shame for as long as I can remember. The more able I am to accept myself as I am and let go of other people’s judgements, the less weight I seem to be carrying. The more I can say ‘this body is ok and it will do’ the less shame-fat there is. The less I see the measure of my girth as a measure of myself, the less girth there is to measure. Is that a coincidence? If there is cause and effect, which way round is it going? I don’t know, but the effects are becoming obvious.
Body-mind duality is a core part of western thinking, but it’s a flawed logic. Our brains and central nervous systems run on chemical and electrical processes. These are not separate from the rest of our body chemistry. The mind affects the body – that’s what it’s for. The body, inevitably, affects the mind. Emotions are chemical experiences. Stress is a very toxic chemical experience. Is it irrational to think that the physical processes of shame and distress might have a lasting impact on my body?
Further along this line of thought is all the New Agey ‘we make our own reality’ stuff, and the idea that by getting rid of negative thoughts we can fix everything. I’ve never bought that, I still don’t – it’s too simplistic. Avoiding negative thoughts means we can’t recognise vast swathes of truth. There are times when we need to acknowledge error, lack of care, poor judgement and so forth. We can’t grow if we can’t see where we are going wrong. Shame has important social functions. But how much shame, and how we process it is worth thinking about. How entitled our culture feels to shame us for things we have little control over is well worth considering. How much we pile the shame on ourselves for not meeting expectations is also a factor.
Once again, magic words like ‘enough’ seem relevant here. Good enough, tolerable – that’s all we need to be, any of us. And what if it isn’t that we feel as we do because we look a certain way, but that within the physical issues and limitations of our specific bodies, we’ve come to look a certain way in some part because it reflects elements of how we feel?