Monday, May 28, 2012


For many years, I would tell my husband that I did not feel I was worthy of him. In fact, I told him repeatedly that I was "garbage". The truth was that I honestly felt I was completely worthless and that he deserved a "better" wife than me. I didn't just tell him that once when I was depressed, but many, many times over the course of years.

I can't remember the last time that I told him I was garbage, but it wasn't that long ago. It was, as little as a year ago, perhaps as "far" back as two years ago, but lately I've been thinking about the concepts and talk about self-esteem. The aspects of it I've been considering are how we form it, how it affects our behavior, and why we lose it or gain it. Obviously, I'm hardly the self-esteem queen, though I've certainly got more of it than I used to.

One of the things about the way I saw myself in the past was that, when my husband told me I was valuable, it was an utterly abstract concept to me. I could not relate to that label at all and couldn't see how it fit into the psychological puzzle of me. Sure, he loved me a lot and wanted to be with me despite my body size. He would tell me about all of the things he admired or found attractive in me, but I didn't see those things as adding value to me as an individual. I rationalized away all of the good points, and filtered them through my daily experiences.

The impact of the daily poor treatment a fat person receives cannot be overestimated. When you are ridiculed, pointed at, laughed at, and spoken about as if you had no more comprehension of how people are regarding you than a fish does of a fisherman, you begin to accept that you are somehow less than others. Being objectified makes you feel like an object. Being treated like a worthless object makes you feel worthless. Being treated like an object that deserves to be scorned and ridiculed makes you feel like garbage.

My self-esteem didn't start to find a way out of its deep, dark hole because I lost weight and found myself a new image. It managed to slowly climb out because the abuse that kept knocking it back down slowed and eventually stopped as a result of losing weight. A lot of people who do fat advocacy writing talk about loving yourself and confidence and how the world will treat you with respect if you project respect for yourself, but that's a load of bull cookies. There really are only two roads out of the garbage pail. One is to lose weight so the emotional battering stops and the other is to build up an attitude or defensive wall such that you don't allow yourself to be dragged back down by the abuse heaped on you. Confidence will not stop the abuse.

One of the things that happened as my self-esteem revived was that I started to have problems in my relationship with my husband. When I viewed myself as garbage and unworthy of him, I constantly repressed my own wishes and desires. I felt I didn't deserve any better and I placed my needs last. Whatever he wanted, he got, but not because he insisted. I just gave way. As I lost weight, a two-pronged problem emerged. I lost food as a support mechanism and I started to assert my needs more strongly.

I would say that I was "needier" than before because of the stresses of the psychological changes I was going through, but I don't think that is actually true. I think that my overall level of "neediness" was the same, but just handled differently. Before, I repressed my pains with food and hated myself or I fulfilled the gaping hole of my "need" with food. Now, I felt my pain and demanded that I be cared for. My husband's needs competed with mine and we had a horrible few years as a result. He wasn't used to having to balance his needs against mine because I felt so unworthy of him that I never questioned that he should always come first and I wasn't used to having him not meet my needs completely. Of course, he had to now do heavier duty. Food no longer shared the burden with him.

My  husband and I worked through these issues. It was a long and complex process of reaching some understanding about how we were both going to change which would require a book to write so I can't go into it in this blog post. Suffice it to say, I need a bit less and he's much better at meeting the needs I have now. I can see, however, how women losing weight often crushes their relationships. My husband and I are at least two standard deviations from normal in terms of our devotion to each other and our level of communication, and this put a strain on us. People in more average relationships would be hard-pressed to survive the transition.

Now that I have some self-esteem, I've reached some realizations about how I interacted with people before. I'm not only talking about my husband, but everyone. Just as I suppressed my needs in favor of those of his, I also did it for others. Since I saw myself as fundamentally flawed and unworthy, I felt others always should come first and that I was "lucky" if they overlooked my body and were friends with me at all. This theme is not new to this blog nor to me. However, recently, my fledgling self-esteem has made me realize how vulnerable I was before.

Part of feeling like garbage is that you feel you deserve to be treated in whatever manner people choose to treat you. You deserve no better, after all. I gave people access to the best part of me and asked that they do nothing in return. In fact, in some cases, I allowed them to treat me poorly as I helped them. It never occurred to me that knowing me was a privilege, not a right, and that anyone who treated me badly deserved to lose that privilege. I wasn't special. I was lucky they associated with me at all.

I have realized after difficulties with my in-laws that I am special and that they are lucky that I associate with them. I was a good person before and I'm that same person now. I'm kind, warm, engaging, and an excellent conversationalist. I help people who need help without expectation of return, but in the past I've allowed them to treat me poorly and I would still help them. I convinced myself that I did this because I was the better person, but it was actually because I thought that I deserved no better. If I was garbage, then I was lucky anyone kept me around rather than throwing me out.

Part of my coping with my in-laws situation as described in the previous post is that I've decided to limit their access to me. What is more, I've decided that when I am with them to share less of the best me with them. I will be socially appropriate and kind. I will still act in accord with my values, but the part that gives and shares warmly and generously is being put carefully in a box so that I can protect myself from their issues and the pain they can inflict on me. I'm not doing this because they are awful people and I want to punish them by taking away my glorious self. Frankly, I think they are not bad people, but just lacking in awareness of how their actions affect others due to their insular lifestyle and lack of social experience. I even feel sorry for them in some ways, but now that I have some sense of my own worth, I am going to treat myself as something too valuable to be damaged.


Cija Black said...

This is so well written. I totally get what you are saying about having someone refer to you in positive ways that are so far from the way you identify yourself it's impossible to understand. I had a conversation with my boyfriend and we were talking about weight and he asked what weight would I like to be and started throwing out numbers and he hit 150 it totally freaked me out. I had never seen myself that way ever and it was uncomfortable to even here. It's amazing the labels we put on ourself and what put in the "Yes" this is me and "no" this isn't me buckets. Thanks again for writing this, it's very brave and very honest.

Human In Progress said...

I can really relate to this post, both as a married woman and as someone who has faced similar problems with various in-laws (not just my husband's family, but some of the individuals my siblings have married). I've only recently broken out of an unhealthy dynamic with my brother-in-law, who thought I should be a second mother to him: indulging him with large homemade meals and treats, doing unreasonable amounts of errands and favors for him, etc. with no expectation that he needed to reciprocate. This person is my age, and he expected this partly because of his personality and family background, and partly because I completely cooperated with keeping this dynamic going for reasons similar to the ones you've written about. Now that I've decided to protect and respect myself more by not being his second mommy, he wants nothing to do with me. I hope we can develop a normal adult friendship someday, but if he's incapable of that, it's not my problem.

You are doing a great thing for yourself by limiting access and so forth and from what little I can glean from a blog, YES, they ARE lucky to be associated with you. I do hope you do not have to stay in the cabin for long, and that your next place of residence will be pedestrian-friendly. I also hope your self-esteem only continues to grow due to this challenge with your in-laws; after all, you are handling yet another one of life's difficulties with intelligence and grace and generously sharing your insights with others through writing. There is so much to admire here.

Sunnygirl said...

First I want to Thank you so much for sharing so openly and honestly. I could totally relate to your post. It was as if you were describing me in so many ways. When I lost a lot of weight 10 years ago my husband and I also had to re-define our lives and make changes. It was difficult but we survived because we were both willing to make the necessary adjustments. I love your blog!!!

screaming fatgirl said...

Cija: I continually explore the issue of identity as I've changed. It is an ongoing problem when you are changing in any way. In my opinion, it's one of the biggest reasons that people resist positive change and continue to embrace damaging behaviors. It's not about laziness, reluctance to change, etc., but about the soul-chilling fear of letting go of who you view yourself to be. Though I've gotten a lot more comfortable with who I am, it continues to feel like I'm being broken into pieces and being put back together again.

Human in Progress: The scenario you describe sounds familiar both as something I may have done and something which I witnessed my mother do. She was constantly looking for lost birds that she could put in her nest so that she could look after them and they took and took from her and rarely gave anything back. I think that most people will do as your brother-in-law did though and abandon their relationship with you once you stop catering to their needs so much. Though such people are users, it still hurts when they abandon you when the care machine gets turned off. That's all the better a reason to protect yourself from such people in general.

Thank you so much for your kind and complimentary words. I really do appreciate it.

Sunnygirl: Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience. One of these days, I need to write more about the situation with my husband and I, but I owe him the complexity of a good bit of writing a about it because he's such a wonderful person. I'm glad that you situation worked out as well!

anastasia said...

Another well-written post that provides insight into the complex balance that maintains the status quo in relationships.

I've often heard addicts refer to their drug of choice as "something to take the edge off." For me, food has taken the edge off my personality and left smooth soft corners that offend no one and ask nothing. Like you, I have felt that I was unworthy of my husband. In fact, I've felt unworthy of any kindness, compliment or generosity. Compliments make me feel like I've somehow prepetrated a fraud on the giver of the compliment--deceived them into believing I'm something I'm not. Kindness and generosity make me very uncomfortable. I feel undeserving. My obesity has robbed me of the right to ask for better treatment. I'm sure my lack of self-esteem comes from something deeper than the disdain and disgust I feel from society. Afterall, something made me eat my way into morbidity obesity. I wonder if weight loss is the only route to build that self-esteem because my efforts to lose have met failure too many times.

Thanks again for your insight. I read all your posts but seldom comment. Your perceptive and analytical mind always give me something to think about.

Jan said...

Another well written post SFG. I can relate in some ways to, and I still do feel worthless and maybe more so since I have gotten so big. I think like many others I have allowed some people to treat me in a less than good manner. I too have thought that I am lucky that I have friends, being so fat and helpless. But then I realise that I am being very dismissive of my friends and not giving them credit to choose their friendships. As I value these people I think that I must be a bit okay for them to see me as worthy.Gee I'm not sure that even makes sense, my head is a little confused tonight.

the goddess said...

This raises an interesting question for me about how much we really can derive a sense of our own value by our own regard for ourselves versus the regard of others, and to what extent that value is derived from physical appearance. I have a persistent fantasy that I would like to love me "for myself alone, and not my yellow hair" as Yeats said, but I know it's a fantasy. Part of my value to the world at large is measured by my appearance.

screaming fatgirl said...

anastasia: Thank you for your kind words. I do think there is a "chicken and the egg" situation with whether being obese causes self-esteem issues or self-esteem issues lead to obesity. I think it's probably a snowball rolling from the top of a hill sort of thing. Once it gets started, many things stick to it.

I think it's hard to think you deserve better when you get no better. For years, I told myself that I got what I "deserved", which was to be treated poorly. Deep down, I really did believe I had no intrinsic value. It wasn't one of those things people do where they say, "oh, poor me, I'm so worthless," so that others will convince me I was worthwhile. I really did feel it, and I still do on a certain level. This self-esteem thing is something I have to actively build everyday, and it topples like a house of cards at the smallest things sometimes.

Jan: It is one of the greatest ironies that we may dismiss the friendships we have while valuing those friendships highly. I often felt those who cared about me didn't know me properly or they'd recognize my lack of worth (except for my husband, who I believed pitied me or was so attached to me, like a baby duck, that he couldn't conceive of a finding a more "worthy" wife).

And what you say does make sense. In essence, you are saying, "if good people value me, then I must be good." It is true, but it is hard for us to internalize when strangers treat us as loathsome objects for their ridicule and disgust.

goddess: I think that we can find value within, but not so long as our sense of value is so embattled without. In a neutral environment, I think we can calmly assess our intrinsic value apart from our physical aspects, but the extremely toxic environment for fat people right now makes it hard to find the peaceful conditions under which we can see ourselves for our true value as people.

In the modern world, when every and any message can be shouted loudly from any corner, the amount of hate that people receive reverberates more loudly and often than ever. We have to keep in mind that this is a false sense of how hard the condemnation is. More important than that, we have to act in accord with how we'd like to be valued and regard (and consequently treat) everyone absolutely and totally as we'd like to be treated.

This is really much harder than people realize. I have seen countless fatties and former fatties indulge in judgment based on appearance. Every time a fat woman says something about her thin, buff, hot boyfriend as a way of validating her attractiveness, I cringe. It's fruit of the same rotten tree, one in which value is assigned based on a certain standard of beauty.

Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting. I really do appreciate it.