Disgust: It’s written all over your face


It’s a pretty strong emotion.

The root of the word comes from the Latin gustus, which means taste.  You know that saying “it leaves a bad taste in my mouth”?  That’s disgust.  It goes beyond taste too.  It can be something you smell, see or touch. 

The psychologist Robert Plutchik described disgust as one of the basic emotions in his “Theory of emotion“. Fun fact: Disgust is also played by the wonderfully talented Mindy Kaling in the Disney Movie “Inside Out”. You can learn a lot from that movie.

Non-verbal communication

One of the things I learned quite early on in my career is to pay attention to non-verbal communication. People can be saying one thing, but their posture and facial expression say something very different.

Darwin linked facial expressions to human emotions back in the 19th century. Over a hundred years later, a psychologists named Paul Ekman wrote a paper on the “six universal facial expressions of emotions”.  Disgust is one of them (alongside anger, fear, joy, sadness and shock). 

Apparently these facial expressions transcend all cultures and groups of people throughout the world. Unlike words and gestures, facial expressions can be recognised by anyone anywhere, and are part of our human evolution.

In other words, disgust is written all over your face.

Different types of disgust

But what exactly does this have to do with weight loss, I hear some of you ask? Bear with me and I will explain.

Disgust is an evolutionary response to anything that might cause us harm.  Especially anything that might cause infection or disease.  There’s a reason most people turn their nose up at a pile of vomit on the floor. It’s a potential infection risk.

Joshua Tybur describes this as “pathogen disgust”.  But there are other types of disgust too.  There’s sexual disgust, which relates to attractiveness as well as taboo.  And there’s moral disgust.  It’s all evolutionary and designed to further the species. 

A lot of people out there find fat disgusting.  Maybe it’s because we know that obesity increases our chance of illness, so fat is considered harmful?  That might explain why fat was once considered a thing of beauty. Hundreds of years ago, fat people were wealthier and more likely to survive longer. Nowadays it’s the other way round.

Maybe fat people are considered less attractive and therefore sexually disgusting?  Maybe there is a moral objection – I’ve certainly heard people refer to obesity as a drain on society.

The point is that there are a lot of people out there who find fat disgusting.  And since disgust is written all over our face, it’s pretty hard to hide it.

Why disgust is so important

Is it any wonder then that weight is such a sensitive issue for me?  Being overweight is not something I can hide or keep to myself. It’s one of the first things people notice about me when they see me. And there are times when they make no effort to hide the way that they feel about it.

It hurts. It always has, especially when I was a child. I wasn’t particularly overweight growing up. I certainly wasn’t obese. But I always had a bit of a tummy, and my mother found this very hard to deal with.

I can still remember the look she would give me whenever my t-shirt would accidentally ride up.  Most of the time it was her fault for dressing me in clothes that I had outgrown in the first place. Nevertheless, she used to walk up to me and yank my top down in an attempt to cover it up. 

The look on her face was unmistakable.  She was disgusted by me.

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana 

That’s not very easy to deal with when you’re a small child.  I learned from a very young age that there was something wrong with me.  Even my own mother didn’t like the look of me.  Now before you get the violins out, I know for a fact that I am not the only one that has experienced this kind of hurt and rejection from a loved one.

How disgust affects children

Children are really good at translating facial expressions. When my mum looked at my tummy with disgust and then went on to limit the amount of food I was eating, I was able to put two and two together. Food was linked to fat and fat was disgusting.

I realise now that my mum was simply projecting her own issues and insecurities on me.  Interestingly, she never did it to my sister. But that is because my sister has a very different figure to me.  Tiny waist, big hips – the classic pear.

My figure reminded my mum of her own, and that caused a very basic, visceral, almost animal-like response in her.  As a result, I have had issues with my body image since I was a young child.  More importantly, my weight is directly related to my self-worth and my self-esteem.

Self disgust

I was recently talking to a group of friends who are all attempting to lose weight with me.  In their own way, each of them told me how disgusted they were at themselves.  They described themselves as failures.  As ugly and worthless.  They were so angry and disappointed in themselves, solely because of their weight.

And that made me sad.  Because these are all tremendous women.  They are kind, compassionate, loyal, hard-working, funny and intelligent.  All of them have overcome a number of obstacles throughout their lives and are strong and determined.  They never quit, they never lose faith and they always persevere. 

These women are daughters, sisters, mothers, wives and friends.  They are successful and loved by the people around them.  But deep down inside they are disgusted with themselves, because they are fat. 

And nothing they can do or say will ever compensate for that.

The way forward

So what is the answer?

I wish I knew.

But here is one thing I will point out.  Disgust is something that we can learn to overcome.  Over time, nurses and doctors learn not to be disgusted by bodily fluids like faeces and vomit.  In fact, most of us get quite excited about pus.  You can hand us a urine sample and we won’t even bat an eyelid.

Why? Because we have no choice. You can’t pull a face every time you come in contact with body fluids in our profession. You won’t get very far. If we can learn to do it, then anyone can.  It takes self awareness, determination and a lot of practice. But it is possible.

Look, if you’re the parent of a child with a weight problem, then you have a responsibility to address it.  But how you go about doing that will make all the difference. 

Remember that disgust is written all over your face.  No matter how hard you try to conceal it, your child will recognise it.  And if you’re not careful, you can hurt them in a way that they will probably never recover from.

You can love your child, think they are beautiful and help them to lose weight.  Next time they reach for a second helping of food, think about your reaction for a second.  Ask yourself what they see in you.  For all you know, your child is over-eating because they are hurting and that is their way of coping. 

The challenge

To those people out there that can’t help themselves, I suggest the following:

Stop being disgusted by fat people.

It’s not kind. There’s no need. Try harder.

You don’t have to love us.  You don’t have to be attracted to us.  Hell, you don’t even have to be nice to us.  But stop being so disgusted.

Fat isn’t contagious, but cruelty is.

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6 thoughts on “Disgust: It’s written all over your face”

    1. Thank you Tanya. Even though you are biased. Several people have commented on the final line of the post. “Fat is not contagious but cruelty is”. My hope is that one day people will be quoting it!

  1. Marlene Bregman

    beautifully written, it reeks with humanity and truth. Lets make the t–shirts: fat is not contagious but cruelty is. I love what you write Tash. You are so talented, I sincetely envy you, a good positive envy, I want to be like you.

    1. Oh wow! Thank you for such wonderful feedback. I’m not sure there’s much to envy but I definitely got my sense of humour from our side of the family!

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