by Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS
When I was about 10 years old, my step-grandmother was married to a lout of a man. I mean he was a real schmuck. He didn’t like people and didn’t want to be bothered by his wife’s new extended family (that’s where I came in). When I came into his den to say hello on a visit he looked at my pudgy little boy belly and said to me, “Andy, you’re getting fat!” He then farted in my direction.
This disgusting, vile man managed in that one quick encounter to engage my already shaky sense of self and help fuel my self-loathing. And I let him. Experiences like this were cumulative, every little moment of fat shaming building and coalescing into an eating disorder voice that drove me to countless diets, exercise binges, food binges, starvations, and bulimic behaviors. It took years of therapy and nutrition counseling, social and family support and learning to value myself beyond my body size and shape to silence that eating disorder voice.
On the first day of this new year my father’s friend popped in while I was visiting my dad. He looked at me and said, “Andy, you’ve really grown! I mean you’ve really put on some pounds!” Are you kidding me? I’m a happy, healthy, powerful man and still some old fart thinks it’s okay to fat shame me? Hell no!
I did not disrespect my father by yelling at his friend and I did not lose my cool. I’ve taught my family over the years that I will not tolerate fat shaming, weight prejudice, or diet talk at all. I can’t help it if they’re still surrounded by folks in their 70s and 80s who, like them, never learned to see this as truly destructive as it is. But I also learned how to thicken my skin and not let insensitive comments like this get to me anymore. I don’t let it shake my foundation of recovery and instead see it for what it is – ignorance. I’m fully aware of my gifts, my attributes, my sources of confidence and pride. I’m not thin, haven’t been since age 5. I live in a bigger body and that’s just my body, it’s not who I am as a father, husband, therapist, friend, son or any other identity I have.
What can you do when you’re faced with a similar situation? I recommend following an anger roadmap. First off, recognize you’re upset and breathe for a second. When you’re able to think clearly, then go ahead and follow these steps. First off, was the comment made maliciously, with intent to harm? If yes, then it deserves further attention. If not done intentionally, then you really want to consider if it deserves your time and attention. If you say yes, then examine if you have a reasonable response. By this I mean can you affect some change by confronting the person, talk to them, teach them, help them see how they hurt you and others by this kind of comment? If you don’t think they’ll hear you, then all you’re doing by engaging this person is escalating the situation. That helps no one, including you. You then can decide to do what I did, which was talk yourself through it and focus on challenging the eating disorder beliefs the comment has started up in your brain. Prove them wrong, and then move on to the next task at hand. It’s okay to be angry, but don’t let it become a replacement for your eating disorder voice. Ultimately, the voice of love and respect is the one that will sustain you.