The Forever Fat Kid: Identity and Growth, Part 1

The Forever Fat KidPeople change all the time. You can think of life as a process of becoming. But one of the funny things about identity, as a psychological state, is that you retain traces of the person you used to be in the person you are. After thinking of yourself a certain way during the formative times of your life, you internalize that identity, even when  your reality changes.

One example of this that I have personal experience with is weight loss. Many people who were heavy and lose weight still think of themselves as big. I lost my weight as a young teen, and even though I’ve never struggled to the same extent with my weight again (just a more typical 10 or so pounds that appear and disappear), my instinctive self-image remains large.  Others have the same sort of experience.  Take Andie Mitchell, who writes in her weight loss memoir It Was Me All Along (emphasis mine):

Not at my heaviest, but you get the idea. Roughly 12 or 13 years old.
Not at my heaviest, but you get the idea. Roughly 12 or 13 years old.

The thinness I’d achieved came with its own brand of indignity . . . the fatness of my shadow that followed me . . . I wanted badly to conceal the fact that, despite a radical transformation, I remained as screwed up as I had ever been.

Staring at my body, pinching my love handles, I struggled to absorb that these changes were real. I wanted to stay this way. Without that mirror, without any way of physically seeing my own form in plain sight, I still believed myself to be the fat girl. My mind and eyes were in opposition.

I recognize myself in this description; I’m not the only one. Comedian Judd Apatow reports having similar feelings to Mitchell. In conversation with Amy Schumer, he noted:

I was much smaller than everybody . . . and by the time I caught up a little bit, in sixth or seventh grade, I had been defined. . . And as a result, I always feel like a nerd. I have a a beautiful wife, I’m successful. But I still feel like the kid who’s been picked last in gym class.

Whether it’s because we see our physical shortcomings as a metaphor for our spiritual ones or a concrete hangup on our bodies, being overweight early in life shapes adult identity.

[There’s also an expectation that losing weight will lead to happiness. Sorry to say, that’s not usually the case, as abundant research suggests.]

In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about what this “forever fat kid syndrome” means for behavior change, both good and bad.