The Merriam-Webster definition of stigma is:
a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have a bout something
The archaic definition is “a scar left by a hot iron” and “a mark of shame or discredit” is listed next. Don’t you love it when you can see how the archaic term morphed into its current use? Maybe that’s just me. Anyway, enough of the nerderie. It’s just, these thoughts and feelings are SO HARD to put into words…
“Negative, unfair beliefs”:
I don’t remember anything else I learned at age 5 (Diet Part 1), but somehow I learned all the way down to my bones that it’s never about how you feel or what you think, it’s about how others perceive you. I started to believe the negative, unfair lies: that I was not good enough, that there was something wrong with me and that I had to be fixed.
The harder I tried lose weight, the more I seemed to gain it, but I still BELIEVED! I believed in the diets. I believed diets WORK, if you just tried hard enough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that creating a calorie deficit, or burning fat (or muscle, really) by starving your system of easier-to-burn carbohydrates, doesn’t lead to weightloss. It does. If that’s your requirement for determining that diets work, then yes. What doesn’t work is DIETING.
See, I believed it was ME and I was so ashamed, not only that I was fat to begin with, but that I was unable to muster the self discipline to succeed at dieting. I still feel like this sometimes. Like a fraud. I want people to believe I’m smart, dedicated, passionate and capable, but (due to the stigma) my appearance is such a contradiction to that, how could I ever expect someone to believe it?
I have always been so afraid that admitting I have a problem with food would confirm all of the negative, unfair things I believe about myself, and worse, would expose those flaws to the world. It sounds so silly, but I was afraid my wonderful husband would eventually realize how deeply flawed I am and would leave me, if this “secret” got out. So, I buried it deep, deep down and kept it “stuffed” away behind plenty of food. I almost never told anyone when I was undertaking yet another diet attempt, because I was already anticipating failure and certainly didn’t want to be accountable to others for how unsuccessful I would end up being. But every. single. time. I believed it was me. I just wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t trying hard enough. I didn’t want it badly enough.
The truth is, there is plenty of research to support the fact that dieting, in the long run, may actually lead to weight GAIN. The linked article suggests two thirds of dieters gain back all the weight and more in four to five years. I’ve actually seen estimates as high as 95%. But despite all of this research, weight stigma is rampant.
Consider this research article, for example, that states even after weightloss “Women […] view former overweight girls in a negative light – continuing to see them as undisciplined, emotionally unstable and even unhygienic.” Or this fascinating read that talks about the horrifying perception some doctors and nurses have of obese patients. Or my own recent experience that I should be losing 10 pounds by the next appointment, which led me to reschedule follow up blood-work more than once.
Why does it matter?
With all of this stigma, failure really just becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. When you receive this message hundreds of times a day, it is easy to lose sight of the real issue. After 25 years of clinging to the next, better diet, it’s SO HARD to trust your body, to love and take care of yourself, to trust in the recovery process.
I’ve been struggling with putting the pieces together. Particularly, the food piece just didn’t want to fit into the puzzle. I travel a lot for my job and frequently find myself on flights during breakfast and/or dinner time and in meetings all the time in between and I’ve been so worried about the stigma of the fat chick bringing snacks for herself, or worrying about what the other people think about what I am putting on my plate during lunch, that I end up going without food all day, working hard to drown out the hunger signals.
When I talked about this in group, one of my favorite counselors was questioning my decision not to carry snacks and said “Why do you care more about what they think, than doing what’s best for you and your recovery?” It’s an interesting juxtaposition for me, because I’m stuck somewhere between “what will they think” and “screw them, they don’t know my situation, who cares what they think?” But the stigma has been running my life for 25+ years and even though I am starting to see the flaws in this line of thinking, it’s going to take a lot of work and practice to unravel the last two dozen years.
So today, I remind myself that I am not alone in this struggle and that I don’t have to believe everything I hear or think and I certainly don’t have to care about what others think more than I care about what *I* think!