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How to Feel Normal When the World Says You’re Too Big

There are concrete ways to help your brain normalize your body (and pretty much everyone else’s)

Photo: Caroline Tompkins/Refinery29 for Getty Images

I’I’ve been told to avoid association with other fat people my whole life, out of fear, I guess, that the proximity might draw (extra) attention to the terrible fact of my size.

So spending a weekend with a group of exclusively big people at my first fat-activism conference, in Oakland in 2010, was a life-changing experience. We ate, talked, went to workshops, and floated in an enormous pool together. As the weekend progressed, however, something curious happened. Why is she here? I’d think, a little judgmentally, eyeing an attendee. Does she know she’s not fat?

But a few weeks after I returned to San Francisco (a city with the lowest average body weight for women in the country), I met up with one of the women I’d judged as “not fat” in Oakland — and I barely recognized her. In the conference space I’d assumed she was about a size 10, but as the train doors opened and I spotted her across the street, I realized she too was a size 18 or 20. Like me, she was the kind of fat that gets noted with alarmist, death-adjacent adjectives on medical charts. I felt a flash of guilt for my judgment, and even more, I wondered what was up with my brain. How could I not see what was right in front of me?

Turns out, it really was my brain. The occipital cortex, which is responsible for visual processing, adapts to different landscapes, and research suggests that exposing people to images of bodies of different sizes can change the way we assess weight. When researchers showed participants manipulated images that made their bodies look thinner, they rated other photos where they looked thinner to be “more realistic.” When shown images of their bodies looking heavier, they did the opposite. A similar study concluded that women’s perceptions of the ideal body were “easily malleable by exposure.” And still another study found that participants with “normal BMI” that were shown images of fat and not-underweight people reported feeling more satisfied with their size than those shown images of thin people with lower-than-normal BMI.

Most media normalizes an uncommon body type, and many of us have internalized the message that a below-average weight is normal and attainable.

These are heartening findings for the majority of women, and at least a quarter of men, who report body dissatisfaction. We are all inundated with unrealistic images of people who are medically underweight, and need to actively recalibrate how we see. This monolithic media clearly doesn’t just apply to size. In popular media, we are also much less likely to see bodies that are “othered” or marginalized by our culture: people with disabilities, people of color, and folks belonging to gender and sexual minorities.

When I decided to drop out of diet culture almost a decade ago, I immediately changed my media landscape. I stopped reading magazines at the nail salon, or in line at the grocery store, and began to populate my social media feed, and my social calendar, with people whose bodies mirrored my own. Here’s how.

Start with a media audit

One of the most important things you can do to normalize your body is to recalibrate your media environment. Take a look at what you consume: every show, magazine, web series, and social media account you regularly engage with. Ask yourself, “Is this promoting a better body image and the normalization of diverse bodies?” If not, consider limiting, muting, or unsubscribing. Keep an eye out for “thinspo” accounts, and media that normalizes food restriction.

Reset to reflect reality

Most media normalizes an uncommon body type, and many of us have internalized the message that a below-average weight is normal and attainable. There is no (as in, zilch) data that substantiates this. In fact, 68% of U.S. women are size 14 or above — the actual norm. Make sure your media diet reflects that truth.

If you’re on Instagram, commit to spending 30 minutes a day, for one week, finding and following body-positive accounts. Some of my favorites are Jessamyn Stanley (Mynameisjessamyn), Alexandra Gurgel (Alexandrismos), Bernardo Boechat (Bernardofala), and Sugar McD (Shooglet). Decide your own criteria for creating a healthier media landscape. I value these folks for documenting their own and others’ bodies with vulnerability and complexity.

Listen to your gut

If a social media account or television show makes you feel bad about your body (yes, even a little), unfollow or otherwise disengage with it. Before I went cold turkey on glossy mags, I noticed that every time I picked one up I felt lower energy, less happy with my life, more desirous of expensive lipstick, and less satisfied with my body. Dumping glossies is one of the best choices I’ve ever made for myself.

Make sure you cultivate body diversity IRL, too

For years, my unconscious bias steered me toward befriending and dating only thin people. One of the most important parts of changing how I saw myself was actively seeking out like-minded fat friends and dates. I loved that I could turn to the person next to me and see myself reflected back.

We can reset what we think of as “normal,” even in a culture steeped in abnormal ideas about what our bodies should actually look like. A consistent stream of realistic visual representation can help us feel less alone and more grounded, and even rewire the visual processing centers of our brains.

Living within the new “normal” we create allows us to stop worrying about other people’s bodies, and make better decisions that honor our own.

Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on weight-based discrimination and body image.

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