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My eating disorder told me fat was bad. Healing taught me to accept my body

This First Person column is written by Karli Jahn, a master’s student at Athabasca University who is writing her thesis on weight stigma in counselling interventions. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

“Are you sure you have an eating disorder?” the doctor asked me. “Why do you think you have an eating disorder? You’re not underweight.” 

You’re right, I thought, looking at the stubborn fat on my stomach, rolling over the size 0 shorts I was wearing. I was 25 years old, five feet tall, and probably weighed around 110 pounds at the time. To be considered underweight, I would have had to weigh 94 pounds. 

But I hadn’t made that appointment based on how much I weighed or how fat I felt. I wanted a referral to an eating disorder program because I had returned to behaviours I’d been treated for six years earlier as an 18-year-old in Windsor, Ont. 

After moving to Calgary and enduring a traumatic summer, I found myself spending hours in the bathroom, monitoring my body in the mirror by lifting up my shirt to look at the fat around my waist. I’d suck in my stomach to make it as hollow as possible, making sure there were two or three inches of space between it and my pants.

I would purposefully buy clothes that were too small to motivate me to continue shrinking my body. Each night in bed, I would revel in the sharpness of my pelvic bones while going through the list of every calorie I had consumed that day and making plans on how to consume even less the next.

It had taken me two years before I made that doctor’s appointment.

Different posed photos of the same teen girl.
Jahn in 2009, left, and in 2012, right. With her discomfort of her body image, she avoided getting her photo taken. (Submitted by Karli Jahn)

In Windsor, I was diagnosed with aneating disorder not otherwise specified” (EDNOS), a mental health diagnosis that has since been replaced with “Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders” (OSFED). Basically, I fit the criteria for an anorexia diagnosis except I wasn’t underweight.

I’ve struggled with body image and self-esteem for as long as I can remember. When I describe how my eating disorder started, I say it’s as if a switch went off in my brain. 

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. 

If I wasn’t thin, I wasn’t any good 

From a young age, I believed there were good bodies and bad ones. A thin body was the epitome of good — the good me, the real me was thin. The bad me was the fat one. I remember looking in the mirror, gathering the fat around my stomach, bunching it together in my hands and thinking: If I’m good, this will go away.

My eating disorder told me I just had to try harder to be good. Whatever the price was, I was willing to pay it. I was desperate. But my body was also desperate. It was stubborn, clinging onto fat for survival. 

For years I did everything “right.” I ate less than 500 calories a day, I worked out two to three times a day, getting up as early as 4:30 a.m., and not going to bed until well after midnight. I was burning dramatically more calories than I was consuming but no matter how many hours I exercised or how little I ate, my body refused to surrender to the basic laws of physics. Despite my best efforts, I was failing at trying to be thin. At trying to be good. 

I had a bad body, I thought. Therefore I was bad.

Listen: Karli Jahn speaks to CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active about her winning presentation at the three minute thesis competition 

Radio Active6:39Why fat shouldn’t be a bad word

We speak with Karli Jahn about her presentation at the Three Minute Thesis competition

To treat my eating disorder, I entered a cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) program at the teen health centre in Windsor.

While the CBT program focused on reframing my thinking around eating — I had forgotten what a real meal looked like — I still struggled to separate my idea of feeling fat from being fat. That struggle ultimately inspired me to begin writing my thesis on weight stigma. 

I saw myself living in a body that was defiant, out of control and unworthy of even the most basic forms of compassion. This one characteristic, being fat, came with deep-seated feelings of shame, blame and despair. It defined my entire existence. 

And it still does.

Today, at five feet tall and 165 pounds, I’m classified as obese by the body mass index, a mathematical value based on weight and height. Despite this, I have to acknowledge my thin privilege. 

What is “thin privilege”?

A privilege is a right or advantage held by a specific person or group. Examples in today’s society include being white or male or straight — or thin.

The advantages of thin privilege, such as easily finding your size at trendy clothing stores, not being judged by what you eat or finding a seat that comfortably supports you, are in contrast to the experience of people in larger bodies.

“Studies have shown that those considered ‘obese’ are bullied, discriminated against in the job market, and receive lower quality medical care,” states an April 2021 Good Housekeeping article published as part of its anti-diet special report.

“If you are perceived to be of ‘normal’ weight or below, as determined by (relatively arbitrary) BMI cutoffs, there are certain harms in society that you don’t have to endure just because of your body size.”

While medically I am defined as obese, I don’t face many of the challenges that fat people regularly experience. I can go to the mall and expect to find cute clothes that comfortably fit. I don’t have to Google a restaurant to see if it has seating that will accommodate my body. I don’t have to purchase two plane tickets when my body cannot conform to the space the airline has provided. I have thin privilege because of these things that I don’t experience.

Nevertheless, my emotions and ideas of fatness impact my ability to leave my home. My entire day is dependent on how comfortable I feel in my body. The simple decision of what to wear for the day is debilitating.

I didn’t see myself as a person

To that doctor in Calgary, I looked healthy. I was thin but not that thin. I pushed hard to finally get the referral I needed, but I wonder how sick I would have had to look for that doctor to deem me sick enough? 

I forgot to see myself as a person and instead just saw myself as fat.

Research has shown the emotional harm caused by objectifying women’s bodies. For me, healing could only come through destigmatizing the way I see and feel about fat bodies. Just like someone can be short or tall or Black or wear glasses, someone can just be fat. I had to challenge the way I objectified fat bodies and dissect the underlying assumptions and beliefs I had about fatness and fat people.

Now, I try to use the word “fat” fluently while remembering that fat does not equal bad. 

I’m authentic, bubbly and playful. I’m a passionate learner, a supportive friend and a loving partner. I’m rebellious, impulsive and loud.  I am more than just my body. 

I’ve tried to embrace my body for what it is. The concept of “body positivity” has never resonated with me but I try to see my body as the thing that I happen to live in — and that how I look is the least interesting thing about me.

If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, here’s where to get help:

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