Fat by Choice: Happy (and Healthy!) At the Intersections of Size and Mental Health

The illustration features a place setting with breakfast foods, and two hands: one clutching a spoon, the other clutching a bottle of pills.

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

Almost two years ago now, I began taking a medication with the hope that I could finally manage the aggressive symptoms that came with mental illness. I was experiencing despondent, suicidal lows; I felt panicked, paranoid, and inexplicably angry.

But by far the worst part of what was happening was the feeling that I wasn’t a “somebody” and, instead, the host for this parasite known as bipolar.

And it was this feeling – the feeling that I was no longer a person but rather, a shell – that compelled me to try a medication that had not been around for very long.

To the surprise of both my doctor and myself, it worked. It worked astonishingly well. As the months progressed, I began to level out. The loud noise in my head began to dial back. The hopelessness gave way to a hesitant, fledgling optimism. The anger dulled and I was able to problem-solve without coming undone. I began to feel human again.

I remember thinking that it was too good to be true. In every fairytale I’d ever read, miracles like these came with a trade-off. You could have effortless beauty, but give up your first born; you could have strength or immortality or riches, but there was always the fine print.

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but when I noticed my body beginning to change, I was convinced that my day of reckoning had come. I could be mentally healthy, sure, but in return, the universe was going to issue me a new challenge.

I know what you might be thinking. No, gaining weight was not the challenge, though at first I thought it was. Gaining weight is not inherently a bad thing. Bodies themselves are not inherently bad.

The challenge was dealing with the internalized fatphobia I didn’t even know I had.

I was a good little feminist. Wait, wasn’t I? I had no problem with fat. In fact, both my parents were classified as “obese” and I had some idea, as someone who considered themselves very committed to body positive activism, of what it might mean to occupy space as a person of size.

And yet, when I went from being a tiny, petite little queer to being a member of the Chub Club, I reacted in such a strong, visceral way, that it became obvious that this body change had come with a lot of baggage – and I’m not just talking about physical weight, I mean, the weight of internalized oppression.

Because, holy cow, the words that flew out of my mouth? I’d look down at my round and protruding belly and say something like, “This is disgusting. I’m disgusting.”

I’d glance at my stretch marks and say something like, “I failed. I should’ve been dieting. I should’ve been exercising. This is my fault.”

As if the fat on my body made me inherently bad, some kind of failure; as if being fat makes me some kind of disgusting and unlovable human being. These are the ideas I swore I’d never think, let alone say about someone, and yet here I was, taking a shit on myself.

Being thin had allowed me to bury the fatphobia and leave it unchecked. But having highly visible fat, rolls, stretch marks – the whole shebang – finally brought to the surface what was there all along. As thin, I had the privilege of not confronting my fatphobia. But sixty pounds later, I had no choice but to examine my attitudes, because there was nowhere to hide.

I not only could see the fatphobia in myself, but I saw it in others around me.

When I was thin, no one had ever questioned whether or not I was healthy. Now that I was “overweight,” people around me started to ask if I was “okay.” As I received my official classification as “overweight,” and doctors began to suggest taking away the medication that had finally stabilized my life, I was disgusted.

Disgusted because it was as if my mental health counted for nothing. At my heaviest, I was undoubtedly at my healthiest – I was mentally sound, happy, eating well, stretching my legs. I had never been this whole, never felt this human. I was able to live my life without the constant, looming threat of bipolar, putting my life in danger and turning me into something I could not recognize.

And yet, the idea was that it was better for me to be thin and suicidal than it was to be fat and mentally healthy.

At times, horrifying as it is, I found myself thinking this same thing.

Many people around me, doctors included, ignored the psychological aspects of health and the risks associated with a relapse of my disorder and, instead, obsessed over my weight. Everyone around me was more concerned for me when I was heavier than they ever were when I was depressed, empty, and thin.

Thankfully, there were good doctors in my life, too, just as there were good people, who assured me that health was more than just a number on the scale. I began seriously investing in my practice of self-love, challenging the fatphobia when I felt it kicking in.

I became an advocate for myself, and discovered what it meant to put body positivism into action – not just as a way to boost my feminist cred, but when I face myself in the mirror and decide if I will smile back or pick myself apart.

To this day, I am still on that same medication that transformed my body. This is my choice. I will proudly remain a member of the Chub Club, and rock this curvy, chunky, fabulous body with pride.

I refuse to return to the days when the thought of ending my life was as mechanical as brushing my teeth in the morning. I refuse to return to the days when depression was a given, and happiness was a stranger. I refuse to return to the days when I had no hope, no desire, and no purpose.

And moreover, I refuse to buy into the idea that health is not possible at every size. I’m healthy in all the ways that count, and I know better than to equate thinness with wellness; I know better than to equate fatness with bad, with ugly, with less than, with harm.

When I look at the stretch marks, pink and fresh and new on my body, I’m reminded of all that I’ve weathered to get to this place of health, wholeness, and happiness.

Why would I ever apologize for that? And why would I choose any differently?

Editor’s Note: We use the word “fat” in the title to be an alternative to “overweight,” as we believe that “overweight” suggests a normative weight and upholds the privileging of some sizes over others (hence placing it in quotations throughout the piece). We in no way seek to undermine the struggles of folks who actively identify as Fat and are perceived as fat in the world, which Sam only experiences to a very limited extent.

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8 thoughts on “Fat by Choice: Happy (and Healthy!) At the Intersections of Size and Mental Health

  1. Mariah Warren says:

    Thank you, Sam, for the much needed reminder to accept ourselves where we are. Sure, I love having a nearly flat belly and fitting into size 8-10, but the cost: crippling depression and anxiety, with suicidal ideation, is too great. Better for me to be rounder and in a good mental place, while taking care of my health- mental and physical.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Laura P. Schulman, MD, MA says:

    Sam, what a great post! And I love your illustration. I haven’t added as much fat to my five foot frame as you have, but twenty pounds for me is a lot, especially since I’m a recovering anorexic, daughter of an active anorexic who is not anywhere near as anorexic as her sister. These are people who are 88 and 91 years old, fer krisake. So I’ve been trying real hard to stay away from scales, but I’ve had a few other health issues lately and of course first thing they always put you on the fucking scale and announce the number as if it were a boy or a girl. But then, like you, I don’t spend day and night dreaming up ways to kill myself, thanks to the “offending” medicine. In fact, it rarely crosses my mind because I’m busy doing life. Listen, I can’t do links on this phone and I’m too effing lazy to get out my laptop, but check out the amaaaaazing blog Big Body Beautiful. I forget the woman’s name who writes it, but she’s wonderful, and rides a Harley, too. She’s offered to take me riding with her to help me get rid of some PTSD issues that include motorcycles. If you visit her blog please tell her hi from me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Diane says:

      I had the same question. Husband is currently on max dose of 3 different meds and barely hanging on.

      Like

      • Sam Dylan Finch says:

        Yeah, absolutely!

        The medication that basically changed everything for me is called “latuda.” It’s an anti-psychotic, and I take it with a mood stabilizer called tegretol.

        Obviously, what works for some folks will not work for everyone, and it also depends on the particular combination of things that you’re working with.

        But I had really resistant depression and psychotic features, and this cleared everything up. I tried a whole slew of medications before this, all with very little success.

        It’s been two years on latuda now and I’ve been very stable.

        If you have any other questions, feel free to run them by me!

        Like

  3. michaelloewy says:

    Thank you Sam. As a trainer of clinical psychologists in San Francisco, I deal with this all the time. Students don’t know how to respond to someone who wants to stop taking meds because they are gaining weight. The trainees and professionals often buy into the fat phobia and feel at a loss. I will send them your piece to read now as way to reframe the struggle.

    Go on with your hot chubby self. You rock!

    Liked by 2 people

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