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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “big” when it comes to body image.
Similar to “fat” and “huge,” many of my clients use the word “big” to describe what they hate about their bodies. Big is often the ultimate insult, the height of self-criticism, the worst “feeling” they can imagine, while “small” is often a way of describing how they feel when they feel their best.
Why, though? Why does something like a person’s relative body size lead to such strong positive or negative feelings at all? Is this purely fat-phobic diet culture at work, or is there more to it?
To explore the topic, I brought it to the table for discussion. First with the women in my group coaching program, and then to my followers on Instagram, I asked what “feeling big” was really about for them, and was met with a flood of personal stories, insights, and observations that I’ve been mulling over and want to share with you.
One thing I discovered about how body size affects a person’s experience is that according to one fascinating study, being taller seems to make a person feel more confident and calm while being shorter inherently makes a person feel more anxious, self-conscious, and paranoid.
This kinda makes sense, right? Being shorter might make us more vulnerable to being overpowered, and therefore lead to feeling unsafe. I can’t help but wonder how much female height (typically being shorter than the men around them) might contribute to our self-consciousness, anxiety, and insecurity.
It’s interesting to note here that while a few tall women resonated with feeling more confident and self-assured than their shorter female friends, for other women, being tall just made them feel self-conscious for sticking out.
Which brings me to how “big” is a relative term.
A person can only be big compared to something, or someone. For example, a big dinosaur is only big when compared to other dinosaurs, right? When compared to planets, even the biggest dinosaur is tiny. And when compared to insects, even a tiny dinosaur is gigantic.
So, what are women comparing themselves to when they feel “too big?” Big compared to whom? Too big for what?
The answer seemed to be unique for everyone. Some people compared against their own bodies in high school or college or during some other specific time in their lives. Others compared against a sister, mother, childhood friend or rival, or the vague, size-zero “ideal body” portrayed in the media.
For others, it was just a general sense that if they could only get or keep a smaller body than this one, something wonderful and magical would happen: they would be transformed into a blissfully happy, gloriously fulfilled version of themselves and all their problems would disappear.
Some people told me haunting stories about how they lost weight (due to sickness, diet, growth spurt, or otherwise) and started getting tons of positive attention and praise from well-meaning congratulators, which made them feel like the way they looked before must have been secretly unacceptable, bad, or gross.
This is one of the reasons I am dead-set against complimenting weight loss, by the way. These individuals felt not only like they needed to maintain their smaller body (if not keep making it smaller), but also felt ashamed and paranoid that they had previously been unaware of their own badness or wrongness.
Several women were insightful enough to recognize that feeling too big physically was something else entirely though—a kind of stand-in for feeling too big emotionally, mentally, and energetically.
Taking up space as a woman is a rebellious act.
We’re often shamed for being too pushy, too loud, too opinionated, too shrill, too sensitive, too hysterical, too emotional, or too needy just for being ourselves. We’re shamed for having too much desire, wanting too much attention, making too much money, or (god forbid) having too much sex.
Despite how far we’ve come toward gender equality, women still feel the pushback when they advocate for their needs or wants instead of centering around someone else and playing a supporting role. When women take up an equal amount of intellectual or emotional space as men, it’s often seen as taking up too much space, whether in the workplace, bedroom, academia, high-level leadership positions, heterosexual relationships, or even when it comes to speaking roles in TV/movies.
Women feel pressure to defer to others, play a supporting role, and put ourselves last so strongly that most women I talk to often feel like having needs, opinions, boundaries, desires, and even basic self-care is too selfish.
For a lot of women, the feeling of “bigness” is actually a representation of feeling like they take up too much emotional/energetic/intellectual space, in a world that resents them for it.
One woman told me that because her body is fat, she feels like she has to make up for it by being extremely nice, deferential, supportive, and never burdening anyone with her own stories, preferences, or limitations. As if the contract she made with everyone around her is “they’re letting me exist in a fat body, so I owe it to them to be as small as possible in every other way.”
Personally I had the inverse experience growing up, feeling like since my personality was so demanding and “difficult” (a message that has been ingrained deeply into me from childhood) I owed it to the people around me to make my body as thin, desirable, and perfect as possible. The contract I felt I had made with everyone was “their reward for dealing with me is that I’ll be pleasing to look at.”
In a totally different direction, I heard many associations with “bigness” tracing back to childhood, when a person discovered they were “too big” to be picked up or carried by their parents anymore.
This angle was an interesting one because we rarely think about the nourishing intimacy of being held and carried as a child, but it’s undeniable that when we outgrow that, there is a real loss: one that may not be acknowledged by parents. Often the parents might not realize how a sensitive child would feel to hear something like “you’re getting too big to carry, it hurts mommy’s back!”
Quite a few parents wrote in to share stories of the heartbreak and rejection their children seemed to feel when they were told they were too big to carry, a fact which seemed to especially affect girl children.
I wonder how much of that is the result of how boy children are already socialized by that age to know that they must hide their feelings of heartbreak or rejection. Or perhaps it’s because boys are incentivized to get big and strong, praised for it, and aware there is a benefit to getting bigger. They may feel a loss of being held, but I imagine that’s balanced with pride and excitement.
Meanwhile, girls might feel the loss of intimacy and touch that comes from being carried, while also becoming aware that their size is a burden on their parents, and having absolutely no incentive or positive association to getting bigger.
Even at a young age, children know that girls and women are not praised or celebrated for being big the same way boys and men are, and so getting big comes with no great new source of pride or confidence. Instead, for many girls, it seems to just represent loss—a loss made even more painful in some cases by the fact that around the age that little girls get too big to be carried, they also tend to receive significantly less touch from their fathers, who either feel uncomfortable with physical affection in general, or start to see their daughters as “too old” for cuddles and hugs and kisses and other affectionate comforts.
Let’s not forget of course the fact that getting bigger for girls is often synonymous with the onset of scary and unsettling sexual objectification and harassment, if not outright sexual abuse or violence. One woman wrote me to say that she developed her eating disorder around the age that her body started to develop, in a determined (and intuitive) effort to avoid getting curves or becoming a “woman,” because she knew too well that becoming a woman meant being subjected to constant danger.
Add to all this the obvious fact that the beauty/body ideals for women in our culture revolve around being very thin, and the fact that body shape and size are believed in our culture to broadcast truisms about the person underneath.
We often look to our bodies to be the walking proof of certain desirable internal qualities we want to broadcast and feel shame when our bodies broadcast the wrong message.
The idea that any woman can be “thin and acceptable” if they try hard enough is underneath a lot of shame about being “too big” for many. Thinness is often seen as the visual reward for (and display of) a woman’s hard work, discipline, self-control, and self-denial: character traits which are celebrated in all genders, but are especially cherished in women, who are praised for denying their own needs in favor of serving others.
Given the explicit fat and thin biases in our culture, being small and thin can feel like wearing a billboard that you are a good person, a good woman, the “right kind” of woman, a woman worthy of love and belonging.
If thinness and smallness are seen as good, strong, and impressive, then fatness and bigness are seen as the exact opposite: bad, wrong, weak, and embarrassing.
In such a case, a woman may catch sight of her body in the mirror or in a photo and feel disgusted by how “big” she looks, with the bigness functioning as a stand-in for the self-criticisms she has about her personality, character, or inner self.
I say it all the time, but body image isn’t just about the body. This body image subtopic is a big one (pun intended) and I could keep going and going. There’s so much to unpack and explore around feelings related to body size!
But for now, I simply want to challenge you to consider this topic for yourself.
Do you like to “feel” big or small? What makes you feel that way, and why? What context or comparison do you use to determine your own bigness or smallness? If one of these is negative, why? If one of these is positive, why? What does that feeling feel like for you, and what’s underneath it? Do you like your partner to be bigger or smaller than you, and why?