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This is one of those posts that I write for me, just as much as I write for you. It’s about mental health and our body size. It’s a topic I’ve had swirling around in my head a few days now, and one I wish I would have included in my book I have coming out this Spring about motherhood and mental health.
Most women hate their bodies at some point.
It’s a sad reality of American culture, especially if you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s a chance that the internalized fatphobia from the culture and the media infiltrated your psyche and you often dream of looking different than you do right now.
I’m no exception.
I’m a solid size 16. I’m the largest I’ve ever been. I can blame a lot of things to be honest. Poor genes (yep). Medication (yep). 2020 being a hellish year (yep). The weight has piled on the past few years sending me into my own spiral of self-loathing. I’m not happy with how I look. I wish I was thinner.
And yet, I also try to love myself. After all, the 40’s are when you’re supposed to stop caring about what others think and be comfortable in your own skin. In many many ways I am. But, in this one way, I can’t help but still struggle with loving my body. Some days I own my curves, and other days I despise them.
My Mental health meds are here to stay though.
I can’t tell you how many women I see in the comments sections of my posts about mental health meds talk about the weight gain. It SUCKS. The side effect of being happy is being fat? That seems criminal.
But, it’s the reality that many of us struggling with mental health issues deal with. We have to choose whether to have sanity or be able to fit into our size 10 (or 8, or 6) jeans.
There is one thing I know for sure, though and that is MY mental health meds are here to stay. I will choose over and over again a healthy mind over being thin.
Recently, I saw this old picture of me from years ago when I was about 40 lbs lighter. I have a big smile on my face and I’m doing something active. (Sorry this photo is from my digital frame but you get the point.)
One might assume that because I’m thinner, I’m happier. But, the truth is that there were days when I felt I was drowning in my own mind. I hated who I was. I was in constant OCD loops. I was in constant inner turmoil. I was angry. I wasn’t in therapy. I was yelling at my kids.
I’m not that person anymore inside or out. Yeah, I’m a little jealous of my thinner biceps. But, I bet that girl would be even more jealous of the happiness and peace in my mind. In fact, I know she would. I know the younger me would be jealous of the calm, loving approach I can take to my relationships.
And the even tempered mother I am today. Some days I’m even straight up chill.
I wouldn’t go back to being her if you paid me.
We have to stop fat shaming ourselves. Especially if we struggle with depression and anxiety.
Fat shaming myself is easy. It’s what I’m used to. It’s actually a part of who I am. I’ve been fat shaming myself since I was in high school and my thighs started touching.
I fat shamed myself through college. I fat shamed myself during pregnancies. And I’ve fat shamed myself through yo-yo dieting. I fat shame myself with every photo I take and every bite I put into my mouth.
The worst part is, that fat shaming is easier than loving your fat body. For those of us that struggle with mental health and struggle with our weight, It’s a comfortable spot to be in to berate yourself into action. But, also, fat shaming is easier because everyone around you makes it easy too.
People make comments. Not directly to you, but you hear them.
Like recently when a family member made a comment about a girl he dated in high school briefly that had gotten “really fat.” He claimed he “dodged a bullet with that one.” I saw a picture of her. She was about my size. My 16 year old daughter overheard the whole conversation.
Yeah, fat shaming myself is easy. I can do that forever. But speaking up when someone is fat shaming is so much harder. Loving myself when I hear comments like that? It feels impossible.
I can pick apart his gorgeous photo so easily. Posting it here for the whole world to see without making excuses for the weird angle or billowing shirt is so much harder.
Women need to stop sacrificing their mental health for skinnier bodies.
The number of women I see in the comments of my posts about mental health issues saying they stopped their meds because they gained weight, or they were too scared to try meds because they might gain weight is not surprising.
I have felt this way too.
But, you know what else I’ve felt? I have also felt hot rage spilling uncontrollably out of my body and into the psyches of my children when my mental health wasn’t under control.
I felt the pain in my child’s face as I’m screaming at them and out of my mind with anxiety and stress.
I’ve felt the pain of the inability to get out of bed, or the pull to immediately get right back in it from crippling depression.
I would rather be fat.
The ACEs Study
I think I’ve been thinking about this topic of body size and mental health mostly because this week in my graduate program we are talking about childhood trauma, and specifically Adverse Childhood Experiences known as ACEs in the mental health world.
There was a huge study done in the late 90’s by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC where they studied adults suffering from health conditions and surveyed them about early childhood trauma. The reason this study came about in the first place was because of a doctor that met a young woman struggling with her weight. She was over 400 lbs and in her 20s.
He helped her lose the weight and keep it off for a while super proud of what they had accomplished.
Then he watched as she gained back 37 pounds in like 3 weeks when she was triggered at work by a sexual advance from an older man.
He was stunned. Then she quickly put it all back on – yes all 400 lbs within a year. After doing some questioning, baffled at this quick regression, she admitted to years of childhood sexual abuse by a grandfather. After that, the ACEs study was born.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
If you want to read about childhood trauma (ACEs) in depth, I highly recommend starting at the CDC website where you’ll find studies, resources, questionnaires, etc. But, in short, the CDC has identified 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences that can have long-lasting negative impacts on physical health and well-being. They are listed as follows:
- Household Dysfunction
- Mental Illness
- Incarcerated Relative
- Mother Treated Violently
- Substance Abuse
1 in 8 adults have been found to have 4 (or more) ACEs. And the negative impact of having 4 or more ACEs is staggering. Your life expectancy can be affected by being 20 years shorter. You are also 2.4 times more likely to have a stroke, 7 times more likely to be an alcoholic, and TWELVE times more likely to attempt suicide that someone with no ACEs.
Why aren’t we talking about early childhood trauma all the time?
If you struggle with past trauma, and mental illness, there’s a chance your body is also struggling.
I score high on the ACEs questionnaire myself. I know I use food to cope sometimes. I know past traumas (and trauma I’ve experienced in the last couple of years) is contributing to my weight. But, even if I didn’t use food to cope sometimes, my body still holds onto trauma. All of our bodies do.
So, while we might be tempted to beat ourselves up for eating a sleeve of oreos on a triggering day, we have to remember that the trauma is not our fault. Trauma happens to us, and our bodies remember.
My body has been stuck in flight or fight mode for my entire life. Generalized Anxiety disorder is exactly that. When you’re stuck in flight or fight mode, your body and brain actually, physically change. The physical effects are astounding. I could go into all the science-y stuff behind trauma, but suffice it to say, that my point isn’t to do a deep dive into science, it’s to tell you that it’s OK if your body is helping you survive.
It’s OK if your body is helping you make it through a day.
This isn’t an excuse to be fat. It’s just a reality that many of us struggle with.
Here’s my disclaimer – being physically healthy IS important. We do need to eat better. Exercise. Try to get out of unhealthy habits, etc. This post isn’t an excuse to stop doing those walks, or to eat more oreos. I still have fitness goals. I still try to eat better.
The point is that our mental health matters just as much as the physical and for some of us, the mental health trumps being thin. Some of us need our mental health to be in check so we can stay alive.
What outsiders think about your body has nothing to do with you.
I write this post because I’m telling myself this as much as the next person. You, me, all of us deserve happiness and mental well-being.
Maybe your body is putting on pounds because of your meds. So what? Your mind is better. You’re happy. You have a desire to LIVE.
Maybe your body is putting on pounds because of trauma. Not ideal, but also not the end of the world. Therapy can help. Your body is protecting you from your past (or your present.) Everyone deserves to feel safe.
Maybe you were born with genes that just don’t allow for thighs that don’t touch. I’m with you. It’s OK. We are all different and beautiful and unique. Life is too short to waste trying to be someone we’re not.
If you’ve been putting off trying the meds even though your mental health is a mess, don’t. I promise mental wellness trumps being skinny every single time.
I’m tired of fat shaming myself.
I imagine I’ll always wish I was a bit thinner. But, I don’t want to beat myself up about it anymore. I love the progress I’ve made for my mental health. I’ve advocated for my mental well-being for years, and it’s one thousand percent worth the fight.
I’ve been the angry mom, the anxious mom, and the depressed mom. Panic attacks, and outbursts were my go to for so many years. I didn’t want to get on meds. I took daily naps to avoid my responsibilities because I was depressed. I didn’t want to talk to a complete stranger about my trauma. I still struggle opening up about it sometimes to my therapist I’ve been seeing for two years now.
But, the fight I fight every single day to move towards wellness in my mind is so much better than having thighs that don’t touch or a flat stomach. I plead for all the mamas struggling to stop putting being thin above being mentally well.
Meredith Ethington is an award-winning writer and author of her new book, The Mother Load where she writes all about motherhood and mental health. She started writing on her popular blog, Perfection Pending, where her viral essays reach millions of struggling parents. She is also the co-founder and editor in chief of Filter Free Parents. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, three kids, and muppety dog, Millie. In her loads of spare time, she is studying to become a licensed mental health counselor.