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Hold That Bad Body Thought*

by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter

*NOTE: We have decided to use the term "bad body thought" instead of "fat thought." We have used the term "fat thought" to refer to all the negative thoughts we direct at our bodies when, in fact, something about ourselves or our feelings is making us uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the term, apt as it may seem, perpetuates the use of the word "fat" as a synonym for "bad." So, from now on, as the new saying goes—a bad body thought is never about your body!

We have talked extensively about the fact that a bad body thought is never about your body. We hope we have convinced many of you that each time you comment on the size of your body—no matter what you weigh—you are actually commenting on something else that is disturbing you at the moment. Bad body thoughts are a way of speaking in code. And just as you have learned to speak in code, other people have also learned to translate their concerns into "fat talk."

When others make comments about your body, they are actually having bad body thoughts of their own; they are disguising some private, personal, painful feeling. Let's take some examples, starting with the most common one: the disgruntled lover or mate who cites your weight as the reason s/he no longer feels as attracted to you sexually.

Let's not mince words here. Having the person you love tell you that s/he does not want to sleep with you because you have put on weight is devastating. You feel that your world is collapsing and that you are to blame. Your old tapes start to play. "Of course I am much less desirable and attractive at this size—in fact, I'm disgusting."

No matter how hard you have been trying to question these assumptions, or how diligently you have tried to break your body-bashing habit, these tapes trigger an old response that makes it extremely difficult to hold your ground and to recognize that what you are dealing with is simply another bad body thought situation.

What you must come to understand is that, this time, it is your partner who is having the bad body thought. S/he is using your body to communicate his or her own issue. This issue may have nothing whatsoever to do with you or it may involve you in some tangential way, but rest assured, it is not about the shape of your body. Perhaps your lover has difficulty with intimacy or is having a hard time at work and feels powerless. Somehow, your body has become the target. If, however, you do not allow yourself to succumb to the slings and arrows, and if—instead of caving in—you hold your ground, you may be able to find out what is really going on.

Harriet told us, "My husband said he couldn't stand how fat I've gotten. Fat, to him, is a sign of weakness and he can't stand weak people. I was so hurt and so angry. At first I told him that the size of my body was none of his business and that I didn't want him making any comments about it. I reminded him that I don't comment on his baldness. But then I realized we were just getting into name calling, so I took a deep breath and remembered that other peoples' bad body thoughts had little if anything to do with my body even if the comment was directed to me. I told him what I had learned about all the yelling I do at myself and how I use my body as a target for all of my unspoken thoughts and feelings. I then asked if he would think about what was going on in him at the moment he told me that my fat represented a weakness that he found repulsive. Was there something going on inside of him that he was repulsed by?

"At first he insisted that his concern was my weight. But I pointed out to him that I had been the same size for months before he raised the issue. I kept pushing and finally he was able to say that during a staff meeting that day, he felt he had not come across with his point of view strongly enough and, in fact, he was voted down on a very important issue. So it was his weakness that was bothering him and that provoked the bad body thought he directed at me."

At the moment your partner, friend, colleague or acquaintance brings up your size, there is something on his or her mind, and we can assure you that the "something" is not the size of your thighs. The person making the comment may think s/he is upset about your thighs and you may think so, too, but it's much more complicated than that. Two days ago you weighed the same as you do now, but did the person feel compelled to say anything then? No.

This other person in your life operates the same way you do. You have the same body every day. On certain days, however, you feel fat, and on certain days, s/he feels like drawing attention to your weight. S/he chooses to say something at a given moment because something is bothering her/him, something which cannot be named directly or perhaps even acknowledged. Let's say a colleague of yours just got off the phone, having lost an account to a competitor in another firm. You stop by to talk; she looks at you; she says that she is worried about you because you have gotten so much bigger. Who's too big? You? Or the competitor?

When people make these kind of remarks, we are quick to take them personally and at face value. It's hard not to. Remember, however, that a bad body thought is never about your body even when it's someone else's thought. If you keep that in mind, you will be able to figure out how to respond. Don't forget that you have options and that these options should be tailor-made for the situation. Sometimes you may want to address the other person's bad body thought very simply and say, "I know you're concerned about my size, but I'm actually quite pleased with how I'm handling my eating and my weight. I've stopped dieting and I'm feeling great."

No matter how you choose to respond to another person's bad body thought directed at you, remember to keep in mind the basic principle: A bad body thought is never, ever about your body!

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