Fat people and binge eating.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.


Lately, I’ve had a couple of run-ins with the assumption that all fat people binge eat.

I was surprised to find that it really hurt my feelings, and I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is. I don’t think it’s purely because I want to distance myself from the stigma of binge eating – I regularly work with and talk to people who binge eat, and I know to my core that I don’t value them any less, or judge them any more harshly. I just think that they are going through a tough thing.

But I dislike stereotypes to begin with, even the seemingly favourable ones (“Those gays are so creative!” etc.) because they gloss over the real, individual human being who is standing right in front of you, and paste over their humanity with snappy lapel-button aphorisms, conveniently hegemonic common sense, and bumper sticker wit.

And when you are ignoring the humanity of someone standing right in front of you, it shows you can’t be bothered to get to know them, to make the effort to incorporate their complexity into your understanding of the world. It also shows you aren’t really paying attention to what they’re saying, which is just flat-out rude.

Finally, I hit on the best way to describe how I feel about the assumption that all fat people are binge eaters – it’s like repeatedly calling someone by the wrong name, even when they’ve reminded you of your name over and over again.

And even though you might not find the other name personally offensive (I’ve got nothing against the Allisons of the world, but I’m not one, and dear Lord stop calling me that), but because it is not yours. It is not you. And somehow, in an absurd little way, it hurts.

(I will take this moment to offer my apologies to Craig, who I accidentally christened Greg a while ago. You know who you are.)

A simple mistake is a simple mistake, but a consistent pattern of “mistakes” is often a manifestation of disrespect, or even a deliberate display of social dominance.

My name is Michelle, I am fat, and I don’t binge eat. Binge eaters are not bad, out-of-control people – I simply don’t share that experience, despite being really fat. Assuming I do based on the way I look is stereotyping. And because stereotypes are a way of applying individual characteristics to entire groups of people, often based on appearance, they are by definition inaccurate. Because people vary.

The part of stereotyping all fat people as binge eaters that I find the most hurtful is when it comes from other fat people, or formerly fat people – because their experience of looking like me, at some point, apparently lends them the veneer of rarified insider knowledge; because fat people in our culture are such an intensely stereotyped group that, of course, it is assumed that the experience of a single fat person represents the experience of all; and because confessions of binge eating represent useful anecdata to prop up the dominant narrative of fat people as unrepentant gluttons.

(Which is not only a stereotype of fat people, but also a moral judgment of people who binge eat. Two birds, one stereotype.)

Let me make this very clear – I am not hurt when a fat person or formerly fat person discloses that they do or did binge eat. Not only is binge eating morally neutral, but a person sharing their personal experience is not about me.

But when they make it about me by promoting the idea that, because they did it, every other person of a particular weight must be doing it too – then I am hurt.

So let’s talk a bit about binge eating, what it is and what it isn’t. (Caveat: I am not an expert on binge eating or eating disorders by any means, more of an interested observer who has done some reading, since it is closely related to the work I do.)

What it’s not:

  • Binge eating isn’t accidentally or even deliberately overeating (which is something people of all sizes do sometimes – either you don’t realize you’re full until it’s too late, or it’s Thanksgiving and you purposely eat to the point of feeling stuffed because the food is awesome.)
  • It’s not any act of eating undertaken by a fat person (though this is often the assumption.)
  • It is not even eating for emotional reasons.

What it is:

  • The American Psychiatric Association defines binge eating as a large amount eaten in a discrete period of time, while feeling out of control.
  • In an “objective binge,” the amount eaten is much larger than most people would eat within that timeframe (e.g. three large meals’ worth of eating within an hour or two), and it can become a very expensive habit.
  • Sometimes, however, a “normal” amount of food is eaten in a way that feels out of control – this is called a “subjective binge.”

And, in my experience, I have observed that:

  • Binge eating is often used to blot out or completely dissociate oneself from emotions.
  • Binge eating is sometimes a reaction to starvation, fear of food scarcity, or dieting.
  • Binge eating is often very rapid and marked by feelings of restlessness or agitation while eating.
  • Binge eating often happens in secret.
  • Feelings of pleasure from starting a binge are quickly replaced with disgust and revulsion, even while continuing to binge.

(Some of the preceeding points come from Christopher Fairburn’s excellent book, Overcoming Binge Eating.)

And despite just about everything you will read online about binge eating, Fairburn states that it’s a misconception that binge eaters are all fat –

It is a common misconception that all people with binge eating disorder are overweight. Community studies indicate that only about half are overweight (defined as having a body mass index of 27 or above…)

Note that this book was written before the BMI category cut-offs were revised downward, making a BMI of 25 or above “overweight.” It is still serves my argument that you can’t pick out a binge eater based on who looks fat, given that people with BMIs between 25 and 30 often pass for “normal.”

Bottom line – people with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and you cannot make accurate assumptions about someone’s eating based on their appearance alone.

In those who are fat and who do binge eat, the cause-and-effect relationship between eating and weight may not be clear. At least one study reported that fat people who believed in negative stereotypes about obesity were more likely to binge eat after experiencing stigma – so it’s possible that the experience of being fat (and hating yourself) may sometimes cause binge eating, instead of purely the other way around. There is also the possibility that people who diet may be more vulnerable to binge eating, and guess who might do a lot of dieting? That’s right, fat people.

Another thing you might read online is that the proposed treatment for binge eating is, essentially, dieting – trying to control your food intake for the purpose of weight loss. The problem is that dieting often preceeds, and can trigger or perpetuate, binge eating.

Here’s one more thing binge eating is not:

It’s not a moral failing.

Binge eating can be many things – an impulse control problem among people who have other issues (like addictions, or certain psychiatric diagnoses), a compulsive response to intense anxiety and/or depression, or a reaction against food scarcity. But no matter its origins, it is disordered eating, not greed, gluttony, or lust. Not a character defect. Not a sin.

It’s painful and it’s a really difficult thing to go through, and it deserves treatment. No one sits down and rationally decides that they want to have an eating disorder. Binge eating is not willful disobedience against the cultural mandate to eat as little as possible at all times. It is often a side-effect of trying to do exactly that.

Caffeine and talking waaaaaay too much in comments.

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