Do you think of yourself as 'the fat kid'? As this post examines, weight-based self identity can be dangerous. After all, we are the story we tell ourselves.
If someone asked you to describe yourself, what would you say? Would you list your personality traits, both positive and negative? What about your hobbies or passions? Would you describe yourself by your relationship to others, as a parent or a spouse?
Now, think about your body. How big of a role does your body size play in your identity? Were you once a different size than you are now? If so, do you identify more with the size you're at now, or the size you used to be?
For many people, their body is a significant part of their self identify. To a certain degree, that's okay. There are shared experiences most people of a specific size or shape can relate to. For me, it was being one of the last girls in school to wear a bra. Ever been referred to the "Just Barely A" section in a department? I have. For others who developed earlier, unwanted attention from the opposite sex may have been just as traumatizing as lack of attention. Men who are thin or short may carry the stigma of being considered not being manly enough. Someone with obesity may have experienced biased judgments about their motivation or drive based on their size. These experiences are part of who we are. When you find other 'pipsqueaks,' 'four-eyes,' 'fat kids,' or 'members of the itty bitty titty committee,' it can make you feel less alone, knowing that other people have had similar experiences.
But when your self identity is too entwined with your body size, it can be dangerous.
When I think about weight based self-identity, I often think of a woman in a weight management program I led years ago at an old job. The program consisted of a series of small group classes which aimed to build a support group while teaching nutrition and weight management. Each group was diverse with a wide range of ages, socioeconomic status, ethnic backgrounds, and although to be in the program, you had to have a BMI higher than 25, there was always a wide range of shapes and sizes.
This woman happened to be the heaviest person in class, although not significantly so. She confessed to me early on that she felt uncomfortable, so I tried my best to make her feel part of the group without being obvious. Still, she wasn't really connecting while everyone else was sharing, learning and growing from each other and she was struggling to make changes to her eating habits and lifestyle.
On the last day as we were recapping our week, another participant gave her some encouragement. She must have felt patronized, because she snapped back, "You wouldn't understand. You're not the fat kid in class."
My stomach shriveled to something that bore resemblance to a raisin. I felt horrible. I had tried to hard to create a team, but it was clear to me I failed.
Quickly, another woman remarked, "Honey, you're in a room full of fat kids."
I reflect on that moment often. Now, as I look back, I realize how deeply ingrained her self-identity was, so much so that she made herself 'the fat kid' in a room full of self-described "fat kids."
We are the story we tell ourselves. If you keep telling the same story instead of adding new chapters, history will continuously repeat itself. If your self-identity is rooted in your body size, why would you behave as anything other than a caricature of what society expects? This makes it difficult to change habits, because if you think of yourself as little more than an obese person, why would you go outside for a run, snack on a peach or pass on the office donuts? It's simply not within your character.
A body-size based identity can also lead to isolation. The strongest relationships are based on a commonalities, shared experiences and understanding, aka a similar identity. If your identity is strongly rooted in your body size, you might discount relationships with people of a different body size, assuming they can't possibly understand. Maybe they can't understand what it's like to be overweight or scrawny or large chested. But maybe they can understand what it's like to be teased or overlooked or to have insecurities. To flip it around, they likely have parts of their identity or experiences that you couldn't understand, maybe being a minority or wearing braces in high school. That doesn't mean you can't sympathize or understand the feelings and emotions behind that experience. We are all unique individuals on this planet, yet we share in the human experience and all the emotions that come along with it.
Do you find yourself hindered by a self-identity rooted in body size? When I sense that a client is struggling to change their behaviors because they're struggling to change their self identity, I encourage them to start identifying as a work in progress. I like that identity. It's much more forgiving. Someone who identifies this way aims to make healthy decisions, but doesn't beat their self up or feel guilty when they don't, because hey, they're a work in progress! And when you look down at the core, aren't we all?
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