The Journal of Obesity has published a really helpful new study by a pack of Norwegians who looked at connections between the body assessments of teenagers and their subsequent likelihood of becoming overweight or obese as young adults. What did they find? Six out of 10 of the girls who thought they were fat as teens actually became fat in their twenties, whereas only three out of 10 of those who were happy with their bodies as teens gained weight as adults.
Some 59 per cent of girls and 63 per cent of boys who had incorrectly perceived themselves as fat went on to become overweight as adults (according to their BMI), compared with 31 per cent of girls and 48 per cent of boys who had been happy with their weight.
The scientists wrote: "Girls in particular tend to consider themselves as overweight, even though they are not, which may lead to psychosocial stress and unhealthy weight control practices such as skipping meals.
"This study demonstrates that the adolescents, classified as normal weight though perceiving themselves as overweight, have a larger weight gain into young adulthood than those who do not experience self-perceived overweight."
The connection between psychological stress and weight gain has been well documented by multiple studies over the past several years, providing a fuller explanation for why obesity is often more concentrated among lower-income groups (who have higher stress by virtue of struggling to get by) and even among Black and Latino folks (many of whom must contend with institutionalized racism on a regular basis, which can hypothetically create a continuous baseline of stress ongoing every damn day).
Although it probably seems obvious that stress-related weight gain might result from emotional overeating, and certainly this is sometimes the case, that’s not the whole picture. Biologically, your body responds to stress in the same way it responds to fasting -- among other things, you release a hormone called cortisol.
You’ve probably heard about cortisol before, if only via late-night informercials for diet-pill quackery (my favorite is the one with the guy who yells at you, “CORTISOL CREATES BELLYFAT!”) but it turns out it’s actually a real thing. For the most part, cortisol is a beneficial steroid we all produce and use to regulate energy production and fat storage.
In some cases, due to prolonged exposure to stress (or, for that matter, frequent fasting, which many people worried about weight gain often do in the form of skipped meals or extremely low-calorie diets) cortisol can operate to increase fat stores, thereby also increasing its own tissue production from cortisone stored in fat, thereby increasing fat stores, and so on. (More information about cortisol of use to the casual reader can be found here.)
This is not to suggest that all fat people are fat because of cortisol. There are as many reasons why people are fat as there are fat people themselves -- like an infinite number of beautiful unique snowflakes made of Crisco -- so this is not an acceptable explanation all on its own. But it does demonstrate a possible biological connection between weight gain and psychological stress, which makes sense, as odds are good that in the days when we only ate when we could chase some prey and successfully jam a pointy stick into it, the primary cause of human stress was hunger, and a lack of certainty as to when and where our next meal was coming from.
Out here in the modern world, shit is more complicated. Now we’re as likely to source our stress not from concerns over how we’ll find enough food to survive the winter, but from how our ass looks in a pair of fluorescent yellow jeggings. Times have changed, but in the relatively short time that they have, our biology hasn’t caught up -- our bodies are still responding to stress as they did when feeling anxious was a matter of life or death, and not just whether we’d manage to score good seats for the inevitable Spice Girls reunion tour.
As a result, this recent Journal of Obesity study has the unfortunate task of informing you that it’s no longer enough to worry about being fat; now you must also worry about your worries over being fat making you fat.
It’s like some evil fairy has given you the power to physically manifest anything you imagine, and then immediately tells you, “Don’t think about a sentient 50-foot homicidal green glitter dildo going on a murderous rampage through the city where you live, crushing pedestrians under its massive, pulsating glans with an ominously arrhythmic thud that you can feel trembling in the very soil beneath your feet for miles around.” You will IMMEDIATELY start thinking about that dildo. In your panic, you probably won’t be able to think of anything else.
With this particular case it’s actually worse, because we’re all still being told -- however indirectly -- that we must continue to worry about becoming or being fat, but now we’re also being told not to worry about it, or rather, that we should add to our worries the worry over the worrying. But here’s a radical idea.
I KNOW, this sounds like a bananas notion. Who would have considered a lot of the stress we feel around the size and shape of our bodies could be expunged just by our simply deciding not to freak out about it anymore? But even science says that if only we can stop worrying about being fat so much, we will all probably feel better, and for some of us, possibly even wind up gaining less weight in the long run (not to mention avoid all the other health problems too much stress can lead to, regardless of your weight).
We could replace the fat worry with something else, something constructive, like, say, hmm, feeling good and subjectively healthy and strong in our bodies regardless of what they currently looks like. We could even spend some of that reclaimed worry-energy on positive reinforcement of the things we like about our bodies, and on being kinder, both to ourselves and to each other, and on not using “fat” as a negative or a pejorative, but as a neutral descriptor.
I am aware that saying “Just stop,” and actually stopping are two very distinct processes, especially considering that, for many people -- and women in particular -- this concern over body size is something we learned to incorporate into our self-assessment very early in life, and is a practice we have grown comfortable with, to the extent that in some cases we may not want to give it up.
So instead of suggesting we all stop, right now, forever, I’m going to suggest we stop for one day. Call it a social experiment. Set your alarm for it. I want to know if you can spend one day refusing to worry about being fat, or getting fat, or any other perceived imperfection of your body. When the worry appears, react as a fat-neutral zen monk might: Acknowledge its presence, and let it drift away as a cloud. Don’t focus on it.
Maybe even try to counteract it by turning your attention to something you love about your body -- and if there’s nothing you love about your body, then say no to the worry on the basis of being self-compassionate. Or think about the giant green glitter homicidal dildo, and laugh at how absurd it is to harm our health with our worries over potentially harming our health, or being unhappy with our appearance, which is a necessarily unreliable and changeable thing.
Do you think you can do this for one day, maybe on a weekly basis, just to see how it makes you feel? Declare a particular day as a self-loathing-free day. Put yourself on a once-a-week diet when it comes to body-related shame and anxiety. Report back here if you like. If you guys are really into it, I’ll make a weekly open thread to discuss strategies and experiences.
We all have to start somewhere, right? Why not start here.
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