What It Means to ‘Feel Fat’

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Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

It is an incontrovertible law of the universe that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. What goes up must come down. What goes around comes around. And so this Friday, one day after millions of people around the country stuff themselves full of turkey and potatoes and squash, they will wake up from their food comas, roll over, and think some version of, Ugh, I feel fat.

It may be a symptom of a Thanksgiving Day done right, but as many of us know well, it’s not limited to the holiday itself: A sudden dissatisfaction with your own physique can strike after any big meal, or in the dressing room, or on the beach, or for reasons unknown. It’s subtly different, and more fleeting, than having an overarchingly unhealthy body image: It’s “a state perspective, not just a trait perspective,” explains Bryan Karazsia, an assistant psychology professor at the College of Wooster. Everyone has those moments — and what’s going on in your mind when they happen isn’t necessarily connected to anything going on with your body.

You’re internalizing other people’s ideas.

According to Karazsia, who studies body image, there are three psychological characteristics that make someone more susceptible to “feeling fat.” The first is a high degree of internalization, in which people easily adopt others’ beliefs and attitudes as their own. In the context of body image, that can mean absorbing “media images that glorify a thin ideal for women or a muscular ideal for men,” he says: “[When] you internalize it, you’ve taken what society said people should look like, and now you’re saying this is what you think you should look like.” The second, along similar lines, is self-objectification, when people tie their overall self-worth to their physical appearance.

You’re extra sensitive to anything that could be taken the wrong way.

The third characteristic, Karazsia explains, is a high degree of neuroticism, one of the “Big Five” personality traits defined in part by sensitivity — including to “environmental influences, whether they’re good or bad,” he says. “So if something’s going on in either their environment or their bodies that makes them feel a certain way, they’re more likely to respond strongly to it.” A highly neurotic person, in other words, would be more inclined to take a relative’s, “Wow, should’ve worn those stretchy pants, huh?” as a passive-aggressive barb rather than commiseration from one overstuffed eater to another. (Incidentally, for your own good, please consider stretchy pants tomorrow.)

You really are a little more bloated than usual.

It’s worth stressing that you can be towards the lower end of the spectrum on each of these three elements and still have that feeling. Each one is a primer of sorts — not the thing that triggers the fat feeling, but the thing that makes you more vulnerable to whatever does trigger it.

And sometimes, yes, that trigger is just your body. Maybe something weird is going on with your gut bacteria that’s making you a little gassy. Maybe you’re puffed up from sodium after a salty snack. Even drinking a ton of water can make you more bloated than usual. All are purely physical phenomena that can cause that “I’m feeling fat” funk.

You expect to feel fat, so you convince yourself it’s true.

But sometimes, the trigger is purely psychological. It’s a stray comment, or the sight of a tabloid spread of celebrity beach bodies — or, often, something as simple as your own expectations. Feeling fat is a self-fulfilling prophecy: In one study published last year, normal-weight teenagers who considered themselves overweight were 40 percent more likely to become obese as adults. And the same pattern can play out in the short term, too; if you assume that you’ll wake up feeling fat the day after a feast, you probably will.

And that expectation is kind of baked into the DNA of Thanksgiving itself, says Charlotte Markey, a psychology professor at Rutgers University and the author of Smart People Don’t Diet. “It’s such a part of our culture to be sort of disparaging about our own bodies,” she says. “This sense of ‘Oh, I’m so fat,’ or ‘Oh, I just ate so much’ — it’s culturally sanctioned. It’s a lot of people’s knee-jerk response to eating Thanksgiving dinner.” We can feel fat, in other words, because we think we should.

Which, fine! Look at it another way, and that just means you have permission to own that feeling around this time of year: “I think it’s valuable to emphasize that it’s okay to enjoy food across the holidays and to indulge a little bit,” Markey says. “And not feel like you have to worry about it, like you have to embody this sort of backlash the next day.” So take another slice of pie and then, just for kicks, see if you can balance the plate on your food-baby belly — it’s Thanksgiving, dammit, and reveling in your own gluttony is just part of the holiday package. Besides, everyone else is in the same boat. And this time, that boat is filled with gravy.