In Geneen Roth’s books, she talks about the dreaded Fat & Ugly Attack when one becomes convinced they are irredeemably unattractive. In more recent years, she also refers to it as ‘The Fat and Uglies.’ No matter what you call it, struggling with thoughts like ‘I feel fat and ugly’ can diminish your self-esteem and make it harder to be an engaged participant of your own life.
Largely due to diet culture, we all seem to have days when we look in the mirror and can’t help but feel dissatisfied with our bodies. The self-criticism creeps in and we find ourselves stuck in a self-defeating state of mind that’s stuck on one track: I feel fat and ugly.
It’s as if, in our heads, we are one size, but our bodies feel much larger. Why does this happen so frequently, and how can we work past it? Let’s explore some causes and strategies to cope with The Fat and Uglies. Instead of letting it diminish our self-esteem, we can use it as a doorway into personal growth.
The Fat & Uglies: Rising Strong from Body Dysmorphia
Before we dive in, I’d like to emphasize something that I frequently say here on my eating psychology blog: try to exercise curiosity and compassion as you navigate your personal journey. If your friend said ‘I feel fat and ugly’ surely you would not make them feel worse or talk down to them. Yet, this is often how we treat ourselves.
Many people who struggle with low self-esteem are their own worst critic, and they are harder on themselves than they would ever be on others. Why is this?
I did a little digging to see if other online resources mirrored my thoughts, and I was surprised that some did not. Some articles talked about how we “need” to be hard on ourselves in order to grow back stronger. Clearly these articles have not journeyed a single day inside the mind of someone with body dysmorphia.
Body dysmorphia is a mental condition characterized by obsessive thoughts about perceived defects or flaws in your appearance. Emphasis on perceived. Someone with body dysmorphia can have thoughts like ‘I feel fat and ugly’ all while possessing admirable qualities. Worthiness is in the eyes of the beholder.
If you or someone you know struggles with body dysmorphia, it’s important to reach out for help. Even if it is the last thing you want to do (which it often is) talk therapy is an amazing form of self-care, and it is an effective treatment for body dysmorphia.
I’ve been there before, in the depths of depression, struggling with The Fat and Uglies every day. I have been so riddled with shame about my appearances that I dreaded going to the gas station. I felt like anyone who looked at me was judging my belly rolls and acne. It made it very difficult to be an engaged participant in my own life.
This is why I say, no, people don’t need to be hard on themselves to grow back stronger — especially people with body insecurity. People who think ‘I feel fat and ugly’ don’t need to be any harsher on themselves. They need a healthy dose of self-compassion so that they can nurture themselves back stronger.
Tips to Find Self-Compassion When You’re Struggling with ‘I Feel Fat and Ugly’
Understanding the connection between our emotional state and body image allows us to address the root cause of thoughts like ‘I feel fat and ugly’ and develop healthier coping strategies.
Here are some techniques that can help get you through an ‘I Feel Fat and Ugly’ day:
1. Recognize the Influence of Diet Culture on ‘I Feel Fat and Ugly’ Days
Diet culture bombards us with messages that thinness equals worthiness, leading us to internalize unrealistic beauty standards. Personally, back when I used to struggle with my weight, I would dream of being able to see my clavicles; and in hindsight, that was all diet culture.
Then, whenever I would have a day where I felt puffier than usual, I felt like I was doing something wrong. This fed into a vicious cycle of thinking ‘I feel fat and ugly’ and reaching for a diet to solve my problems. Only, diets never work long-term (clinical studies have proven so) so I would “fail” at them, feel even worse about myself, and perpetuate the cycle.
Recognizing the influence of diet culture is the first step towards reclaiming our sanity on those dreaded ‘I Feel Fat and Ugly’ days. By challenging societal norms and embracing the understanding that true beauty comes in diverse shapes and sizes, we can begin to cultivate a healthier relationship with our bodies.
2. Stop Dieting: It’s About Empowerment, Not Defeat
The journey towards breaking free from the restrict-binge cycle begins with a powerful choice: giving up dieting altogether. This transformative decision not only liberates you from the self-esteem damaging effects of dieting but also nurtures a sense of empowerment within.
By releasing the grip of restrictive diets, you open the door to a more compassionate and intuitive relationship with yourself and your body. Not only does it cut off the restrict-binge cycle at its source (restriction) but it also lays the groundwork for overcoming those challenging ‘I feel fat and ugly’ days.
Letting go of diets is not an act of giving up hope. Rather, it’s an act of embracing a more compassionate and sustainable approach. When you stop fixating on rigid rules and instead listen to your intuition to inform what and when you eat, you reconnect with your body’s natural wisdom. Honoring your hunger and fullness cues, and eating what genuinely appeals to you, nourishes not just your body but also your spirit.
3. Use the Urgent Desire to Feel Less Puffy As a Compass
Along with ditching diet culture and dieting itself, we can actually use those dreaded ‘I feel fat and ugly’ days as a path to personal growth. This is not about toxic positivity. It’s about recognizing that the overwhelming urgent o alter our appearances can be a profound indicator of unresolved and challenging emotions seeking our attention.
For example, let’s say that I am really struggling with ‘feeling fat’ and I feel an urge to restrict my diet to regain a sense of control. If I were to do an emotional check-in (i.e. the Stop, Drop, & Feel) in that precise moment, I may stumble upon a strong emotion like loneliness or rejection. Perhaps a friend just moved away and I am actually feeling sad; but instead of actually feeling sad, all I seem to be thinking is ‘I feel fat and ugly’ and then do the next (seemingly) reasonable thing: try to fix it.
By recognizing that ‘I feel fat and ugly’ days may be coping mechanisms for emotions that require healing, we open the door to self-discovery. It’s an opportunity to extend empathy to ourselves and nurture the parts within us that long for acceptance and understanding.
4. Take Up Yoga (It Helps with Body Perception)
If you find yourself in the grip of stress, and the persistent thought of ‘I feel fat and ugly’ seems to linger, it may be linked to changes in proprioception. This refers to a vital biological system that provides us with an awareness of our body parts in relation to one another.
Thankfully, there’s a powerful tool to help improve proprioception: yoga. Through the practice of yoga, we slow down, engaging in controlled body movements that foster a strong mind-body connection. Given the mindful and deliberate nature of yoga, it’s no surprise that it enhances proprioception.
We can take this topic even deeper, though. Research suggests that feelings of distorted body perception might be part of a protective mechanism triggered by trauma or stress. In times of vulnerability, our body might form an imaginary ‘bubble’ for self-protection, leading us to feel larger than we actually are.
5. Acknowledge Your ‘Shared Humanness’
When grappling with the persistent thought, ‘I feel fat and ugly,’ remember that this experience is not merely a product of your imagination. There are genuine biological mechanisms at play, distorting your senses during times of stress.
By acknowledging the impact of stress on our perceptions, I hope you can find a sense of validation. Even though it does not remedy the situation, it lets you know that you’re not alone; and acknowledging your shared humanness is a pillar of self-compassion, according to the wonderful Kristin Neff.
In times of perceived inadequacy or negative self-judgment, remind yourself that shared humanness is an integral part of the human experience. None of us are exempt from vulnerability or self-doubt. This shared humanity forms the basis for empathy and compassion, both towards ourselves and others.
So, the next time ‘I feel fat and ugly’ lingers in your thoughts, respond with gentle understanding and kindness. Offer yourself the grace of shared humanness — something you likely already provide for those around you — and the reassurance that we are all works in progress, navigating the ebbs and flows of life.
6. Surround Yourself with Body-Positive Content
There’s an amazing memoir by Lindy West, a popular columnist, called Shrill. In the book, she talks about how she came to fully accept her plus-size body; and one of the things she did was look at lots and lots of photos of plus-size bodies.
In her memoir, she talks about how it felt weird at first to see photographs of beautiful plus-size bodies, but as she continued to expose herself to it, she began to feel more and more normal.
As they say, you are what you repeatedly do. When I used to read Women’s Health magazine (before I knew any better) I was programmed to associate thinness with worthiness. When you expose yourself to body positive images, you will begin to program the far more true and helpful belief that all bodies are beautiful.
7. Acknowledge the Benefits of Healthy Body Fat
Along the lines of body positivity is a friendly reminder of the scientific fact that having some body fat is good. Without body fat, your body would not be able to function; and with severely low levels of body fat, you might actually be an emotional wreck because fat helps regulate our hormones. It can help ease negative self-talk when you’re ‘feeling fat’ by recognizing that body fat actually serves many important functions in our bodies.
8. Be Vigilant About Protecting Your Boundaries
Whenever I’m struggling with ‘I feel fat and ugly’ and someone comments on my weight, it can set me off. I personally don’t like it when someone comments on my body size, even if it was a compliment, because it sends a backwards message when our body weight goes back up — which is normal because healthy bodies fluctuate.
If you struggle with this, equip yourself with some thoughtful things to say when someone comments on your weight. Not only will it help you stick up for yourself, but preparing for these moments can help you break stigmas and move even further away from diet culture. Focusing on non-physical compliments is much better for everyone.
9. Engage in Intuitive Movement
On those challenging ‘I feel fat’ days, it’s crucial to avoid the temptation of overexercising. When already burdened by mental stress, subjecting your body to intense physical stress may exacerbate the situation.
Now, let’s clarify that engaging in gentle movement, such as a calming walk, can actually have a positive impact. However, from my work as an eating psychology coach, I have found that many people are all-or-nothing with exercise. Even when they’ve worked a 10 hour day, they force themselves to hop on the treadmill. This only adds more stress to their plate, ultimately hindering their path back to balance.
Instead of perpetuating this cycle, consider the concept of intuitive movement. What matters most is finding activities that genuinely resonate with you and make you feel good, both mentally and physically.
Intuitive movement encourages you to tune into your body’s needs and desires, recognizing when it craves gentle, nurturing movement or when it seeks relaxation and rejuvenation. Whether it’s practicing yoga, going for a peaceful walk in nature, or even allowing yourself the luxury of a well-deserved nap, trust your intuition and do what feels right for you.
Shifting from ‘I Feel Fat and Ugly’ to ‘I Deserve My Own Compassion’
Your journey towards self-compassion and body acceptance is a process—unique and evolving, just like you. When faced with the daunting ‘I feel fat and ugly’ days, remember that you are not alone in grappling with these emotions. They are part of the shared human experience, and acknowledging this is a powerful step towards self-compassion.
Choosing empowerment over defeat, let go of restrictive diets and embrace intuitive eating—nourishing your body with compassion and kindness. Understand that your worthiness is not tied to a number on the scale, but rather to the unique qualities and strengths that define you.
Above all, as you journey through ‘The Fat & Uglies,’ remember to extend the same kindness, curiosity, and compassion to yourself as you would to a cherished friend. Embrace your shared humanness and understand that moments of vulnerability are an opportunity for profound self-discovery and growth.