Combating Weight Stigma: Tammy Griffith, CPC, CRC, CFPC

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

tammy-griffith-bodyimageblogger

Tammy Griffith, CPC, CRC, CFPC is a certified life coach with credentials in recovery and food psychology.  Years of personal experience with weight stigma, body shame, food obsession, diets, and binge eating led her to investigate eating disorders and embrace the path of recovery — a path she’s been personally walking for over five years, and one that she sincerely looks forward to sharing with others.

Tammy is especially passionate about songwriting, spirituality, and self-care.

Follow her Tweets about body image, recovery, and more @bodyimagebloggr and visit her website at http://edrecoverycoach.com/.

 

“Love More, Shame Less”

I was born in May 1979. By all accounts, I was a healthy and perfect baby girl — 19″ long, 7 lbs, 8 oz. I spent nine months in my mother’s womb and did not emerge hating my body, bemoaning the measurements of my thighs, or berating myself for the size of my onesies. I was a happy baby, soon to grow into a painfully shy child. It wasn’t long before I knew myself as “the fat one.”

By the time I was four years old, I’d experienced body shame on numerous occasions. My loving mother, herself a compulsive overeater and chronic dieter, voiced her concerns about weight issues at every turn — I was just a little bit too fatso! — and my mother’s parents never missed an opportunity to trumpet their own judgments about my chunky little body (and hers). I was a “big eater,” too heavy, and chocolate milk was a no-no; I’ll have the powdered skim milk, please. My grandmother shamed me during every visit, telling me she was going to put me on a diet, then offering me cookies or candy.

The name we give to something shapes our attitude toward it.

— Katherine Paterson 

As I entered kindergarten, I knew that I was different. I sensed that I was a bad girl because my body was somehow wrong, and I had no idea how to make it right. In addition, I’d overheard the adults in my life discussing how difficult it was to be a fat kid; they hoped that I wouldn’t be bullied over my “weight problem,” because kids can be so cruel. I learned that being hassled for being fat was to be expected. An overachiever, I thrived in school, but as the years progressed, numerous experiences confirmed my suspicions that my academic achievements weren’t nearly as important as thinness (or lack thereof):

  • In the third grade, a boy enthusiastically noted that I’d better lose some pounds! while sitting across from me at the lunch table. (His father was a doctor, and therefore an authority figure, so this boy must have known what he was talking about, right?)
  • On the playground in the fourth grade, another boy, accompanied by one of his corny cronies, raced over to tell me that the reason my BFF bounced so high on the see-saw was that I was so much heavier than she was. (I was shocked, but what could I say? I’d been confronted with more proof that my body made me bad.)
  • Asking, “how much do you weigh?” was one way – the only way – for a girl in my fifth grade class to prove that she was better than me. (I asked her why she wanted to know; she smirked and insisted that she was just curious. I never did comply with her request for information, but I believed that she had the upper hand.)
  • On one particularly memorable morning in the seventh grade, I dared bump into a boy with my backpack while stumbling down the ridiculously steep bleachers in the gym as the morning bell rang. “Fat bitch!” he yelled. I walked on as if I hadn’t heard him, but to say that I was shaken is a major understatement.

 My first thought after each of these experiences:

I am a bad person; I just have to find a way to lose this weight so I can become good and they will finally like me.

 There was seemingly no one in my life that was not up in arms over fat – mine, not theirs. Feeling panicked, I wished upon stars and said prayers through tears. I exercised with Mousercise and Get In Shape Girl! at home and went to a Huff-N-Puff kids’ aerobics class as a very young child. I joined a gym in high school, and worked out to Tony Little videos and ESPN’s BodyShaping Step Aerobics with a friend, but I could never change my body enough to suit my critics’ tastes. 

The running commentary never ceased:

I’d been told that I had such a pretty face, and that I should try to lose the weight while I was young, because it’s so much harder to lose it later on. I also gathered that nobody likes fat chicks, and that I might never have a boyfriend. 

I internalized the messages that no one was refuting — that the entire world was surely watching and waiting for Tammy to be a good girl and finally get skinny! — and because I didn’t (or, more accurately, couldn’t) conform, I had let everyone down.

I continued eating compulsively to kill the pain of nonacceptance while simultaneously engaging in countless diets and exercise programs through college and the early years of my marriage. Inevitably, upon losing a few pounds, I found myself receiving praise instead of criticism, but instead of feeling good about myself and delighting in the compliments, I was terrified of the attention and binged to keep my anxiety at bay. I believed that positive comments only drew more negative attention to my disgusting fatness and the numerous pounds I still needed to lose to be fully acceptable.

I did not feel safe in my own skin. I was mentally and physically exhausted from dieting and exercising to no avail. I realized that I was on the brink of personal disaster; as I awakened, I threw away numerous diet books, explored yoga, and sought counseling. I soon learned that I had a mental illness – binge eating disorder – and found that the intense shame I’d experienced was the driving force behind my behavior. I discovered that my extra weight was not a character flaw but a side effect of the way I’d learned to treat myself. I learned that Health At Every Size is possible. Finally, I understood that diets and exercise programs could not heal broken hearts, and I embarked upon my personal path to recovery.

We live in a world where the word “fat” is increasingly hurled as an insult, and “have you lost weight?” is a sought-after compliment. Weight stigma has been referred to as the “last acceptable prejudice.” Those of us in larger bodies are thought to be lazy, undisciplined, less than – but I call bullsh*t. I am none of those things, and neither are you.  Society may tell us that the plus-sized among us deserve to be mistreated and must be shamed into losing those extra pounds, but a lifetime of experience tells me that shame is at the root of the problem, and extra weight the symptom.

Public discourse on bullying was not nearly as common in my younger years as it is today, and certainly did not highlight maltreatment based on weight or body size, but let’s face it: calling something as personal as one’s weight into question and subjecting that person to public scrutiny was (still is) socially acceptable bullying. This behavior must change if we are truly concerned about our health. Shame increases stress, and healing only happens during the physiologic relaxation response.

Finally, our experiences with weight stigma begin at home and shape our relationships with food, body image, and ultimately, ourselves. Children mimic what they hear from parents, friends, and even the media.  What examples are you setting, and what messages are you sending your loved ones?

  • Do you verbalize judgments on others’ bodies in public, on television, or in print?
  • Do you call yourself “fat,” “ugly,” or any other negative name? (Stop!)
  • Do you feel that fat shaming is acceptable behavior? (Hint: it’s not.) 

As Linda Bacon, Ph.D, has stated: “Fat isn’t the problem. Dieting is the problem. A society that rejects anyone whose body shape or size doesn’t match an impossible ideal is the problem. A medical establishment that equates ‘thin’ with ‘healthy’ is the problem.”

Kids – and adults – can be so cruel, but do they really have to be? Body hatred is learned, not innate.  Let’s work together to love more, shame less, focus on what really matters in life, and create a world free of weight stigma.