What is ‘Fat Talk’ and How Can We Stop ItSep 13, 2021
‘Fat Talk’ is so harmful and pervasive in our society, it’s something we’ve all engaged in at some point. In this article, we’ll go into exactly what fat talk is, where it shows up, how it affects us, and how to stop it.
WHAT DOES FAT TALK SOUND LIKE
It's those phrases like:
- “I gained so much weight, I'm so fat, I need to lose some weight!”
- “Oh my God - these jeans make my thighs look huge. I look disgusting!”
- “I ate like a pig all weekend, I need to burn off the fat”
Sounds familiar? We've all engaged in this seemingly harmless banter but many of us don't realise just how harmful this pervasive fat talk can be. It has seeped its way into not only our daily conversations with our friends, our family, but also our television shows, movies, magazines, billboards. It's literally inescapable. It's everywhere.
WHY IS FAT TALK HARMFUL?
Let's face it, whenever we're having these conversations, we're not using the word ‘fat’ in a positive way. It's always something negative. It's something that is associated with us being unworthy. We're not good enough or not hot. We're not successful. We're not restrained enough. We're not disciplined enough.
Joking about it or making these offhand comments about ourselves or other people just continuously reinforces how fat equals bad and skinny equals good. They just reinforce the reason why you need to control your body and you need to be careful when you go on holiday to not indulge too much. Otherwise, God forbid, you might get fat! You might have more fat on your body, you might be fat. In today's society, it's pretty much the worst thing someone can be, especially a woman.
WHAT IS FAT TALK
What exactly is fat talk? The term was coined in 1994 by Nichter and Vuckovic. It’s characterized by women (typically peers) engaging in mutual disparagement about the size and shape of their bodies. It’s the belittling of one’s own body (usually demonising fatness) while promoting the thin ideal.
A classic example is:
Friend 1: Ew, I look so fat today.
Friend 2: You’re not fat at all! You’re beautiful!
Friend 1: No way. I look gross. You’re so skinny though!
Friend 2: No, look at me! I’ve eaten like a pig lately.
It’s implying fat is bad.
I’m sure you’ve seen it where the skinny friend says complains about how fat she looks. Which leaves anyone else in that conversation who’s bigger than her thinking, ‘what does that make me? If she thinks she’s fat, what must she be thinking of me?’
I'm sure a lot of past examples of fat talk have popped into your mind already. It's everywhere! The term was coined by those researchers because they were observing the way middle school girls talked about their bodies and this concept or this topic of fat talk just came up so often. And since then, there have been countless studies detailing similar phenomena - how much women of all ages talk about their bodies negatively. It’s so normalised for women to talk negatively about their bodies that they’ve called it ‘normative discontent’.
Fat talk is something that women of all sizes and body types engage in. It is oftentimes little to do with one's actual weight and everything to do with how we see ourselves and how we see fat and what we associate fat with. In fact, 93% of young women report engaging in fat talk regularly. It's often used as a form of communication and bonding.
I've definitely sensed that myself, especially when I was younger, at university or high school: A friend would say, “Oh my God, I'm so fat, I need to do something about this.” and there’d be a chorus of ‘me too’s going around. Friends would band together to be diet buddies. It’s a form of bonding.
FEARING BEING SEEN AS BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE
Fat talk is particularly problematic as we are so easily influenced by the eating and body body attitudes of people who we feel close with. The main reason we're likely engaging in so much fat talk is because everyone else is doing it. If we're all doing it, we're all going to join in. It's rare that someone would have the strength to disengage from a conversation that their friends are all discussing and all bonding over. So when a friend laments over eating too much cake at a holiday party, if you don't join in on that and say, “Oh, me too” or “Oh, I totally get it, I got so fat over the holidays too”, then you risk looking unsympathetic or even arrogant or better than. It is really a way to keep us feeling like no one is better than anyone else. We can all relate to each other’s suffering.
Studies have actually shown that hearing fat talk makes you more likely to start complaining about your own body or calorie load.
FAT TALK HELPS US GAIN REASSURANCE
Another motive for women to fat talk is for reassurance. Researchers found that the most common response to fat talk was to deny that the complaining friend was fat, instead asserting that you yourself are the fat one with.
It's become this integral part of the way that women socialise. It's what you see your mother doing from a very young age with other women. It's what you do with your peers. As soon as you become conscious of your body, it's how you fit in and interact with other women. The more we do it, the more we’re reinforcing that it's OK to hate our body, that that's normal.
There's almost a social pressure to be the kind of woman who does conform to this moral framework, this agreement that we women all have. We must complain about our bodies and if you actually like your body and have nothing to complain about, you’re unrelatable. Worse than that, you risk being seen as one of those women who eats whatever they want and doesn’t gain weight. The woman who has nothing to complain about.
'FAT IS BAD'
So I'm sure by now you've identified in your mind the countless times you've engaged in these kind of fat talk conversations with your friends, your family, colleagues. We know that this is just reinforcing this belief that fat is bad. The thin ideal and ‘fat is bad’ belief is so problematic, so harmful. It is part of the reason that so many of the women I work with are dealing with food and body issues.
Let's look at this statistic for a second, because this is insane: The National Eating Disorders Association states that 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat and 42% of third graders say they want to be thinner.
LIVING IN A FATPHOBIC SOCIETY
Fat has taken on a lot in our society. It's an insult. It's a way to put someone down. It’s often justified as an ‘allowed’ way to insult someone because we argue that people actually have control over whether they're fat or not versus making fun of someone who's, let's say, disabled. There’s free reign to make fun of fat people because they've put this upon themselves. It's just their fault.
The most ironic part of us demonising fat in society is while we have this idea in our head that fat is bad, the reality is every single body has fat on it. And if it doesn't have any fat on it, it's literally broken. We would literally diet without fat. We need it. Yet we hate and fear it so much.
FATPHOBIA IN POP CULTURE
Pop culture continues to reinforce the idea that fat is bad. I think it's so important for us to become even more aware of it so that when we see another character being villainized in a fat body or fatness being the butt of a joke, we can point it out and consciously remind ourselves that fat is not bad.
Some obvious examples in pop culture are Ursula from The Little Mermaid and Fat Bastard from Austin Powers. Fat Bastard’s entire character is built around his fatness (it’s quite literally in the name). There are plenty of scenes with him sitting on the toilet farting after eating so much, or eating buckets of fried chicken with food all over his face. His fatness is a joke, and made out to seem disgusting.
Popular shows like Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother are guilty of cheap fat jokes as well. The character Barney on HIMYM makes so many fat jokes that there are actually entire blogs devoted to that topic. It's unbelievable.
We all know fatphobia is rampant in the high fashion world, but it makes its way down to the high street stores too. Abercrombie and Fitch and Lululemon have explicitly stated they don't want fat folks wearing their company's clothing or they imply some women's bodies aren't meant to wear certain items of clothing at all. There’s also teen favourite (the most vulnerable demographic for eating disorders), Brandy Melville, which has one-size-fits-all for every piece of clothing. Of course, that one size doesn’t fit everyone. It caters best to a UK size 8 (US 4).
Victoria Secret is another culprit. After years of public pressure to put more diverse bodies in their catalogue and runways, they begrudgingly caved by adding a few plus size models who, let’s face it, were borderline plus size.
93% of women are preoccupied with maintaining or attaining the ‘perfect body’
No wonder that so many women, according to recent studies, 93% are preoccupied with maintaining that toned, svelte, slim, socially acceptable figure. We’re spending our mental energy, money, physical energy, trying to fit into this box that probably isn't even made for you. It's not your box. We all have our own box and we're all trying to squeeze into this same one that's fatphobic.
We're so afraid that our bodies might be perceived as fat. During the worst parts of my eating disorder, which also coincided with me being at my heaviest weight. I was so much more preoccupied with my weight than me trying to actually deal with the food side of things.
What I really cared about was that I was gaining so much weight and I was at my heaviest and I felt disgusting because I've been taught that you should feel disgusting when you gain weight and when you're at a heaviest weight. I spent so much time obsessing about trying to get back to my thinner body.
I was so trapped in this fatphobic culture that I probably delayed my healing process by years and years because I was so trapped in the idea I had to be thinner, which of course made me continue to restrict, which kept my eating disorder going.
WOMEN ARE CONDITIONED TO HATE THEIR BODY
Women of all sizes and shapes are taught to be on this endless chase of the perfect body. Of course, that goalpost is constantly changing with new body trends setting in every few years. We are conditioned to constantly spend money to change our bodies.
‘Normative discontent’, as mentioned earlier, normalises women feeling dissatisfied with their bodies. So rather than feel love or even neutrality about the way we're built, we tend to focus on our perceived flaws.
Think about it - have you ever been fully content with your body? Nothing to change?
We're not brought up to look in the mirror and think, “Hey, I look all right. I've got some pretty good stuff going on here. I look pretty good today. Cool. I'm going to go on with my day”. Our body is rarely a non-issue. It’s something to be analysed, studied, complained about, improved.
BODY DISSATISFACTION IS MODELLED TO US
We often learn fat talk and the beginnings of normative discontent from our parent figures in early childhood. Your mother / aunt / family friend may not have explicitly said how much she hates the fat on her body (maybe she did), but children are like sponges. They learn just by looking at how you treat your body.
A huge step forward is breaking that chain. Future and current mothers thinking about how they want to model body neutrality to children.
Companies profit off women’s body dissatisfaction
The job of an advertiser is to create a sense of discontent and distress in a potential consumer about who they are now, what they have now to convince them that by spending money with this company, this product will help them fix this discontent and they'll become happier.
The thin ideal is advertised to us left, right and centre. Women start comparing themselves inevitably to this thin ideal. The lead actress in most movies is thin. Most models are thin. We know things are slowly changing - more diversity is showing up. But, mostly, the thin ideal prevails!
What happens next? We start comparing ourselves to what’s marketed as the ideal. We develop a negative relationship with our bodies and with food oftentimes, and want to spend money to get closer to that than ideal, which, by the way, is not even possible for so many women.
Factors like genetics, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status affect our ability to fit into the thin ideal. So this endless chase for the ‘perfect body’ really is endless for many women.
Those who do engage in fat talk have been reported to have higher levels of body dissatisfaction and guilt, and people with higher levels of body dissatisfaction are more likely to engage in fat talk in the first place. It's just this vicious circle.
WHERE ELSE DO WE SEE FAT TALK
Take one look at a magazine stand and you’ll instantly see how prevalent fatphobia is. This one hits home for me because, as a child and teen, my mother would buy tabloid magazines and fashion magazines. My developing brain absorbed the message put out there that fat is bad. I remember so clearly how it would be front cover news when a celeb lost a ton of weight or ‘lost control’ and gained a bunch of weight.
I remember even being excited by seeing how much weight a celebrity would lose and how much happier and healthier I thought they looked. Why? Because that’s the story that was always sold.
HOW CAN WE STOP FAT TALK
The good news is we can control it, or at least we can take steps to control our own fat talk and how the fat talk of others affects us. If a friend is engaging in fat talk, don’t be afraid to say, “Are you listening to the way you're demeaning yourself? You're so much more valuable than that.” or “You and I are not doing that. We are way above fat talk. We are no longer available for fat talk.”. It's not shaming her for talking that way. It's lifting her up. She deserves better. We deserve better. We are above fat talk.
WE NEED TO DO BETTER
Men may be leaders of companies like Victoria Secret and Brandy Melville, they may be producing and casting models and actresses for leads. They definitely play a role in perpetuating the thin ideal. But, us women are part of the problem too. We indulge in it. We must stop sharing photos of celebs who’ve aged ‘badly’ or gained weight. We must stop commenting on those photos negatively. We must stop judging what the woman is wearing or what her makeup is like - and instead focusing on who she is. Instead of slating a female politician for wearing the same outfit twice in a week, we must focus on what she’s actually doing for her country.
CURATING YOUR FEED
Of course, changing your own perspective on fat is key. Recent studies suggest that your visual diet can make all the difference, meaning some curation and social curation. What are you consuming through your eyes? Studies have shown that women's preference for thinness decreased when they were exposed to images of larger bodies more frequently. So it really is about adding more diversity, bigger bodies, different bodies, not just the same thin ideal into your environment.
If we see bodies of all shapes and sizes in our media, everyone is going to be happier. Studies have also shown that individuals show less disordered eating when their friends engage in positive body talk or neutral talk compared to those whose friends engage in fat talk.
STOPPING FAT TALK STARTS FROM WITHIN
When it comes to fat talk, much of the noise is coming from inside our own heads. While we can disengage conversations with friends, we've got to disengage it within ourselves too. So listen out for fat talk going on within your mind. You might not say it out loud, but you might say to yourself, “I feel so fat. I've gotten fat lately, I need to do something about this.” We need to lift ourselves out of to stop reinforcing this whole idea that our value is so tightly linked to being thin because it ain't!
Hopefully this article got some cogs moving in your mind. Hopefully you're thinking about where you've seen fat talk, when you've engaged in it yourself, what you can do about it, and also noticing how much of it is out there in movies, social media, advertisements. With this newfound awareness in mind, in future you may be quicker to knock down the messages you see out there. You’re more able to realise that fat joke you just heard isn’t actually funny - it’s cheap humour and is not ok. You’ll remember that there’s nothing wrong with being fat. And that no matter your size or shape, we’re all conditioned to dislike our bodies - companies are profiting off it. So take a stand and choose to revolt - choose to accept your body!
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