Have you ever stood around a box of cupcakes
or donuts with a group of female colleagues, friends, or teammates and engaged
in an orgy of "I shouldn’t"s, "I’m terrible"s, and "I’m
never going to fit into that dress"es? If you live in America, chances are
the answer is yes. "Fat talk," light but loaded chatter about bodies
and food, has become a constant presence in our diet-obsessed culture.
The pervasiveness of this collective verbal tic gave rise to last week’s
"Fat Talk Free Week" a tradition started by the Delta Delta Delta
sorority as an outgrowth of their national eating
disorder awareness program. The group has produced a widely-circulating
as well as a promise form which participants can sign,
beginning with the words: "Today I promise to eliminate Fat Talk from conversations with my
friends, my family and myself." It’s a pleasant contrast to the kind of
endless, impossible pledges that dieters make: "this week, I’ll eliminate
all unnecessary calories, or desserts, or bread, or eating after 5pm."
Indeed, instead of axing certain foods, we should all take a cue from Triple
Delta’s pledge and go on psychological diets in which we get rid of critiquing
our own and others’ bodies, buying and reading diet-oriented magazines, and
paying attention to diet ads.
But to do this, we’d have to switch both not only our entire mentality but also
our everyday habits. Because the examples of "fat talk" on the endfattalk.org
site include the kinds of phrases most people, even die-hard feminists, hear,
or say, everyday without thinking:
- "I’m so fat,"
- "Do I look fat
- "I need to lose 10 pounds,"
- "She’s too fat to be
wearing that swimsuit"
- Even "You look great! Have you lost
To these phrases I’d add anything that associates food and
dieting with morality or obligation:
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- "I shouldn’t eat this"
- "This cake is evil"
- "Oatmeal is good, and an omelette is
Or…saying "I have to skip lunch today after dinner last
night." And fat talk is spreading by the same means as the movement
against it: Commenters on the internet have complained about fat talk
proliferating in cyberspace, on Facebook and Twitter in the form of constant
status messages from friends reporting on their weight-loss regimens.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that the ritual has a special prominence between
women, in groups or pairs. It’s often a way of bonding at first glance
–"You hate your thighs?" "So do I!" But under the surface,
it often serves the purpose of reinforcing divisions and sometimes even a
pecking order among women. Oftentimes a woman complaining about her size around
her peers will only unleash their insecurities, and some women may even enjoy
that sense of control. When women announce that they hate their body types in
front of other women with the same body types, or shower others with praise for
being "thin," telling them they’re lucky or good solely based on their
genetic structure, it creates a dynamic of inclusion and exclusion that can
trigger eating disorders, or at the least, misery.
And in a culture obsessed with food indulgence and restriction as a sort of
constant sin and redemption parable, fat talk makes it more difficult to have a
rational, emotion-free relationship with diet and exercise–and that’s the kind
of relationship we need to be healthy. The irony is that by ridding ourselves
of the fat-talk mentality we’d actually find it easier to make choices, to
borrow a phrase from Courtney Martin, that are based on our
authentic needs and cravings, rather than what we feel we should be doing. And if we listened to and valued our bodies’
needs, rather than our society’s demands, we’d likely treat our physical selves
more gently–less mindless eating and skipping meals, less obsessiveness and
guilt, and more normalcy.
But stopping fat talk is easier said than done, even for women enlightened to
its negative consequences. It’s hard to quit because it’s such a common,
knee-jerk instinct and because, as studies have shown, it feels
mandatory and expected in social situations. As Jill Filipovic wrote at feministe:
I hate “fat
talk.” It makes me uncomfortable when other women do it…And yet I’m the
absolute worst when it comes to fat talk.
external pressure and the unthinking habit of fat talk create a ubiquitous and
poisonous atmosphere for women who would like to stop being in a constant state
of angst about their bodies. So the conscious group mentality of "End Fat
Talk Week" is an excellent way to start changing attitudes.
But even after the week is over, it’s not impossible to
keep the momentum going. Feminist critique of beauty and body-image norms, as Amanda Marcotte does here, and the language
and logic of the Fat Acceptance movement are a great avenue with which to
continue excising unhealthy ideas from one’s life. Feminists and FA advocates
describe making "peace" with their bodies, which is an incredibly
attractive phrase, and advocate cutting off sources of unhealthy anxiety like
women’s magazines and commercial diets. Another, less ideological way to
move beyond the fat-talk mentality is to look around you and target someone in
your life who appears to be comfortable with his or her body, who enjoys food
without agonizing over calories, who never comments about weight as a
reflection of character, and who participates in physical activity for its own
sake, and pattern yourself after him or her.
At the amazing FA blog shapely prose, there’s a
200+ comment thread about the best ways to cope with fat talk, both your own
and more particularly in social situations. Some of the suggestions included
responding to those who label food "bad" with "it’s pizza, not
genocide"; saying "I hope not!" when someone says "you’ve
lost weight"; or asking bragging dieters "how are you feeling
otherwise?" to change the topic of conversation. Regardless of whether its
done with a snappy comeback, silent reflection, or a theory-laden lecture,
stopping fat talk in its tracks is one of the best ways to fight back against
our culture’s unhealthy norms for women’s bodies.