You know, I think it’s time to address another topic in my series on fat stigma. Today’s topic is going to be on something that is repeatedly placed on the shoulders of fat people, and that is greed and gluttony.
There is this perception, and usually we place it on ourselves as much as others place it on us, that fat people are greedy. The haters are always going to use greed and gluttony to criticise fat people, so I think it’s best to ignore them and instead, focus on our self perception of being greedy.
It has become such a common trope in our culture that being hungry is equal to being greedy, that so many of us internalise that message until we are at a point that we feel ashamed and guilty for feeding our bodies. However, all living creatures need to eat to survive. We need sufficient nourishment to fuel our bodies, both immediately in the day to day functioning of our bodies, and long term, to keep our bodies running efficiently and effectively. We don’t have to look far to find examples of what malnourishment does to the human body long term.
In my own experience, I spent over 20 years denying my hunger and starving my body to try to be thin, because I believed that because I am fat, I must be greedy. All that did to me was make my body fight harder to hang on to what it did have, and screw up my body long term. Thanks to all those years of restriction, starvation and purging, my metabolism is shot, I have damaged teeth (not enough calcium going in and purging makes them brittle and discoloured) and I’ve constantly got anaemia (my body struggles to absorb iron because of how little it got for so much of my life). If I had been left to feed my body as it needed, I wouldn’t have to worry about these issues now.
We are taught that hunger and feeding ourselves is greedy. But the human body has hunger for a reason. It tells us when we need fuel to keep us alive. It tells us when our bodies are lacking certain vitamins and minerals that it needs to heal, grow, strengthen and function. Feeding ourselves is vital for us to survive. Over and over we are told to “Just stop eating.” but no living creature can do that and survive. We feed ourselves to provide the fuel and nutrients we need, and we also feed ourselves for pleasure.
There is much shame loaded on finding pleasure in food, however we are both hard wired and culturally conditioned to do so. Eating releases pleasure chemicals in our brains, which rewards us for fueling our bodies. It is the body’s way of getting us to eat to survive. And we find pleasure in the ceremony of food, the sharing of food and the exploration of food. We are culturally conditioned to do this to both bond with each other as a species, to provide sustenance to our families and other loved ones, and to try a wide variety of food so that we can get all of the nutrients we need.
The amount of food we need varies widely from person to person, depending on many factors. Not only the size of our bodies and the activity we do, but also our genetics, environment, culture, and emotions influence what we eat and how much of it. But one cannot judge by looking at someone’s body just how much they eat. In fact, a recent study showed that in general fat people actually consume less calories than their leaner counterparts. Besides, hands up who has a thin friend who eats constantly and never gains any weight! I’ve got several, from a tall, lanky relative who seems to eat nothing but KFC and pizza and play video games, to a colleague who will eat anything in his path and spends all day crunching and munching away at his desk, but only needs to get a cold or other minor illness and drops weight until he’s gaunt.
Human bodies are complex and individually unique – we simply cannot judge anyone for their size or what they eat.
Sometimes human beings do overeat and do so for several reasons. Sometimes it is disordered behaviour, such as binge eating. Sometimes it is eating to feed emotions rather than the body. Sometimes it’s overeating after a period of restriction or starvation. Whatever reason it is, it doesn’t make the person greedy or gluttonous. Instead of passing judgement towards those who overeat (and as I said above, it’s not always fat people who overeat, though it’s only fat people who are considered greedy if they do), we need to realise that it’s none of our business what someone else eats or does with their own bodies.
If you’re an overeater yourself, the only person’s business it is, is yours. Yes, overeating can make you sick, but moralising and shaming about health and food is not going to make you well. What is going to make you well is to learn why you are overeating and to deal with that problem at it’s root source. To learn what habits and foods make your body sick and what make them well. You are entitled to feel well, worthy of feeling well, and if you feel you need help to do so, then you have every right to have that help without judgement. A decent doctor, therapist or any other health professional worth their salt will help you compassionately and empathetically.
It’s really daunting to give yourself permission to eat. As a very fat person myself, when I started to get help for my crippling lack of self esteem and eating disorder, I was terrified to eat. I still have trouble sometimes when I’m stressed or very tired, not falling into that pattern of restriction. My doctor and I are constantly working on getting me to eat enough, particularly to keep my blood sugar levels in check.
But when I first started changing my thinking around food and weight and body image, there was this perception that because I’m fat, if I didn’t restrict myself, that I would EAT THE WHOLE WORLD!! That lurking beneath my long term dieter’s facade was a horrible, greedy person, because after all, I was fat. I must be horrible and greedy right?
Wrong. Firstly, one cannot eat the whole world. In fact one would be unable to eat the whole town, let alone the whole state or country or world. One cannot even eat ALL THE FOOD. Because even if one was to just eat and eat heaps of food, before one got very far, one would feel sick. You’re not taking food out of anyone’s mouth, it’s not your fault that there are starving children in the third world and you’re not going to explode like Mr Creosote.
Secondly, when you let go of judging yourself (and others) for what you eat, and listen to your body, you start to know when you are full. Your hunger cues stop, and you start to feel the sensations of being full, before you get uncomfortable or ill.
When I was first taking steps to get into normal eating, or intuitive eating (I’ve seen it called both around the HaES resources), I did have trouble getting the swing right. Because I was trying not to restrict or diet, I would make these meals and then think I had to eat all of it. Or I’d go out to dinner with people and think that I had to finish everything on my plate. Which resulted in several occasions that I felt sick from eating more than I really wanted. But the more I stopped thinking and stressing about it, the better I got at listening to a) what I wanted to eat and b) how much I needed to eat. Slowly but surely I started to see changes in how I felt about food, and slowly but surely I started to be able to feed myself without emotional issues… and most importantly, to really enjoy food again. Without beating myself up about eating something or making myself sick with guilt later. Best of all, I have SO much more energy now than I have probably ever had. I’m not thin, but I’m never going to be. Instead I’m strong, energetic, robust and happy.
The thing is, when you truly let go of all of that baggage, and remove that idea from your mind that you are greedy or gluttonous, your body is able to regulate itself. You might have a period where you swing wildly a bit, but instead of beating yourself up about it, you listen to how your body feels, take note of what makes you feel good and what makes you feel ick, and learn from it for next time. Eventually you start to settle and gradually you notice that you’re feeling better, more energetic. You might get less colds, or if you do, you recover quicker than you used to. You have fewer digestive issues. You go to the bathroom more comfortably and/or don’t get reflux as often. You start to crave different things, and you don’t feel the need to medicate your emotions with food.
But most of all, you let go of that feeling of being a greedy/gluttonous person because you’re hungry. No matter what your shape or size, you have the right to eat, and you have the right to feel hunger. Anyone else can just mind their own damn business.