I had a “fat” day today.
It hasn’t happened this badly in a long time. I was tired, ornery, felt fat and bloated.
I was absolutely certain that I had gained 1000 pounds overnight and that I gained at least another 200 pounds since breakfast. I tried to remind myself that I was being a lunatic and decided to treat myself to a mani/pedi. I even had a little ice cream to convince myself that I was fine just the way I was and could still enjoy treats.
But this wasn’t just any “fat” day. Suddenly I decided that all of my clothes would probably be way too small, so I tried on every single dress in my closet. Some of the dresses seemed tighter than usual, and I went into panic mode.
I raced to the scale in the closet, fully aware that it was late in the evening and that I was torturing myself unnecessarily. I pulled out the scale furiously, paused, and stepped on it hesitantly. I closed my eyes for a few moments while it registered, slowly opened one and peered downward.
What I saw was sobering.
I had lost one pound.
I was absolutely convinced that had suddenly transformed into a humungous blob, when in reality, I had lost weight. As a personal trainer and a health coach, I’m well-versed in the mechanics of the human body. I have a pretty comprehensive understanding of calories, metabolism, stress and cortisol. I knew that I had a week of low stress and healthy food choices. I knew that any weight gain was highly unlikely.
But it didn’t matter. When the inner monologue of self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-hate begins, logic is suddenly thrown out the window. We press play on the tape of negative self-talk in our minds. We judge ourselves ruthlessly. We feel shame. It doesn’t matter if we’re a size 2 or a size 22. When the shame-tape starts playing on repeat, we brutalize ourselves with our own thoughts.
From a physiological perspective, these feelings of shame don’t just have an effect on our thoughts. They affect our bodies, too. The panic we feel initiates a full-on stress response. Our blood flows from our organs to our muscles to get ready for fight or flight. Our HPA axes are activated, telling our bodies that we need adrenalin and cortisol to combat the danger. Our bodies start to reroute energy to contest the stress we feel, leaving less energy to maintain a healthy body.
What’s worse is that if the feelings of shame are chronic, our bodies could be responding this way every day. Over time, the body starts to become exhausted. It goes into reserve mode. Our metabolism slows. Our thyroid slows. As the body continually perceives itself in danger, our cortisol remains elevated.
And as our metabolism slows, it becomes easier to gain weight.
Looking back on tonight, I wonder how I would feel if the scale actually showed a one-pound weight gain instead of a weight loss. Would I have felt the same sense of relief? Would my shame and panic have increased?
And if my shame and panic did increase, initiating another stress response and elevating my cortisol levels, could I have potentially lowered my metabolism?
In other words, could body shame actually cause weight gain without changing a single habit? Is body shame fattening?
It seems like the science indicates that it’s plausible.