There is a woman, who I’ll call “Emily”. Every day, Emily gets up, prepares for work and goes to her car. As she approaches her car, her neighbor calls out to her and says, “good morning, Emily… how are you?” Emily says, “I’m fine.” The neighbor says, “you look tired, take care.” When Emily gets to work, her coworkers say, “hello Emily, you look tired.” Every day, Emily finds that this experience repeats itself. This happens not for a week or a month or a year, but for years. Every day, she is “Emily” and she is tired. Eventually, Emily no longer responds to “how are you?” queries with “fine,” but with “I’m tired.”
After several years of this type of exchange, people suddenly stop greeting Emily at all. When she approaches her car, her neighbor doesn’t say, “hello Emily,” but doesn’t seem to recognize her at all. Her coworkers don’t greet her either. Emily feels uncomfortable because of this because she is so accustomed to people acknowledging her and even saying that she looks tired. No one speaks her name anymore. She sometimes finds herself walking up to coworkers and saying, "do I look tired today?" She has grown so used to this definition that she now seeks affirmation of this reality.
I think we can all relate to the idea that someone who is greeted everyday would feel disconcerted if suddenly people stopped acknowledging them. This is easy to understand. Imagine that instead of being greeted as “Emily” and being told she looks tired, we consider someone who is greeted as “worthless fat person” and is told, “you’re too fat”. Day-in and day-out, you are treated as “worthless fat person” and told overtly or covertly that your weight is too much for society to tolerate without censure. It may seem that this is the sort of attention that one would not want, but years and years of being acknowledged in this fashion by multitudes of people isn’t mere abuse, it is externally imposed “definition”.
I have been pondering the feelings I have been having as I have been losing weight, and how it is not easier despite my weight loss success. When I say that, I am not referring to the mechanics of the process because that actually has gotten easier (but not easy). I’m talking about the mental aspects. The reason that it is harder is that the more weight I lose, the more of myself that I lose.
While it may seem logical or rational that I would be happy to abandon a negative definition of self that has been imposed upon me by others for most of my life, it doesn’t really work that way. Just as “Emily” has always been defined as “Emily”, suddenly having no definition or recognition of who you are is going to be uncomfortable. When you start to lose weight to an appreciable extent, you don’t find that you have simply lost a painful and hurtful definition of who and what you are, but you have lost a profound and deep definition of self. The emptiness created by this loss is beyond disconcerting. It is gutting.
I have come to realize that, as a lifelong fat person, I have developed a powerful sense that I am defined by others. I have a very weak internal definition of self and tend to determine my self-worth and identity through my husband, my friends, my family, and random strangers who react to me. This is really the inevitable outcome of being the center of unwanted attention and judgment. It is rather similar to being famous, or should I say “infamous.” Strangers feel they know something about you and have the right to invade your privacy by speaking with you or interacting with you about something intimate to your life (your weight, your eating habits, your lifestyle).
We all know about the self-destructive behavior of people who were once child stars who outgrow their fame. They are also suffering from the same sort of external definition of self that a lifelong fat person is. Most of them never had the chance to build an internal definition of who and what they are just as I did not. They were defined by fame and some character they portrayed. I have been defined by my fat.
I think one of the reasons that people regain weight is that this emptiness is terrifying. You go from being the center of negative attention to being essentially a nobody. People used to pay attention to you all of the time, and now they don’t even notice you. Going outside of your home and being fat enough to draw attention defined you, and whether it was a happy definition or not isn’t the issue. Many people may think that they have other strong components to their identity, but most of them are internally imposed and not as strong. I may tell myself that I am a creative being, a writer, a wife, a counselor, etc., but I am so accustomed to the idea that others control my definition of self that I have not strongly internalized these at as deep a level as I have the idea that I am “worthless fat person.” No amount of effort to convince myself otherwise is going to change that fact. Asserting that I am a strong, capable person who is worthwhile and intelligent comes as a mere effort to fill my emptiness with platitudes. The psyche cannot be fooled with mere affirmations.
A lot of us expect that the end of the weight loss path will bring about a new and better definition of self, but I think that it creates a hole in our identity. We don’t fill that hole with food, but we may decide to refill ourselves with food in order to regain that old sense of self that was externally affirmed and recognized. Just as child stars may commit crimes to get the attention they once had as famous actors, bad attention is better than none at all when you’re so accustomed to having attention and being externally defined.
Many of the people who experience long-term weight loss success tend to be people who focus excessively on being “good” or who become relative fitness freaks. These are people who have taken on a new identity through their weight loss efforts. They are, ironically, still as defined by their bodies and food as ever before. They simply have a different definition that is dependent on new habits which don't contribute to being overweight.
This sort of redefining of self as being rigidly good in my life habits or exercising like a fiend is simply not for me. It is too high energy and too strict, and I'm too old and fragile to become a female Jack Lalanne. I want to slowly build better internal definition based on my unique qualities as a person. I won’t pretend that I know exactly how to go about this process, but I know how to start, and that’s by recognizing everything that I have just said as part of my life and being aware of the potential to fall back into old habits or to seek overzealous new ones.