How 'Fat Talk' Became A Social Epidemic -- And How You Can Stop It

How 'Fat Talk' Became A Social Epidemic

Some may think the seminal moment in "Clueless" was when Cher Horowitz had a computer help her pick her outfit, but it was another exchange that perfectly captured the reality of being a contemporary woman. It was when Cher casually said this to her friend Dionne:

Sound familiar? We've all engaged in it, the seemingly harmless banter about our calorie intake or how we really need to hit the gym. But many of us don't realize just how harmful this pervasive "fat talk" can be. It's seeped its way into not only our daily conversations, but also our television shows, movies, magazines and billboards. It's inescapable.

The term "fat talk" was coined by researchers in 1994 after observing the way middle school girls talked about their bodies. The girls were self-abasing and apologetic. Since then, there have been countless studies detailing just how omnipresent this negative body talk and fear of "fat" are for women of all ages.

"It's about the body, but it also seems to be about discipline and restraint," Alexandra F. Corning, a research associate professor in psychology at the University of Notre Dame, told The Huffington Post. "Essentially, it's self-degrading talk about the body, food or eating."

To be clear: Obesity is a problem in America, and there are serious health risks associated with it. But "fat talk" is something that women of every size and every body type engage in. It has little to do with one's actual weight, and everything to do with how we see ourselves.

There's a lot more to "fat" than, well, fat.

Perhaps one reason "fat talk" is so ubiquitous is because "fat" has become such a loaded term. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat, and 42 percent of first- to third-graders say they want to be thinner.

"The word 'fat' has taken on a lot," said Corning, who's conducted multiple studies on "fat talk" among both children and adult women. "'Fat' is a way to really put someone down."

Self-proclaimed fat activist Lindsey Averill, one of the brains behind the documentary "Fattitude," says that the term "fat talk" is problematic in and of itself. She cited Kellogg's recent "Fight Fat Talk" campaign as one of the many misguided attempts to address the issue.

"Intrinsic in that idea is that 'fat' is bad," Averill told The Huffington Post. "The reality of it is that every single body has fat on it, and if it doesn't have fat on it, it's broken."

"The reality of it is that every single body has fat on it, and if it doesn't have fat on it, it's broken."

Averill also pointed out that pop culture has taught us to equate "fat" with "bad." Characters like Ursula the Sea Witch, the Queen of Hearts and Fat Bastard are just a few examples of large-bodied people portrayed as either jokes or villains onscreen. Just think about the all-too-casual "fat jokes" that appear on beloved shows like "The Big Bang Theory" and "How I Met Your Mother."

"They are both hilariously funny but unbelievably fat-phobic shows," Averill said. "With Barney Stinson, it's like every third word is a fat joke." (In fact, there are entire blogs devoted to this topic.)

Then there are public figures like Mike Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, and Chip Wilson, former CEO of Lululemon, who either explicitly state that they don't want "fat" folks wearing their company's clothing or imply that some women's bodies aren't meant to wear certain items of clothing at all. It's no wonder so many women -- a whopping 93 percent, according to one recent study -- are preoccupied with maintaining svelte, socially acceptable figures.

"We're so afraid that our bodies might be perceived as fat," Averill said. "Fat is literally one of the worst things you can be in our culture, and it comes with so many different prejudices and negative effects, that when we look in the mirror, we're so afraid of crossing over into that category and we internalize that fear into hate."

Women are taught to be unhappy with their bodies, whether or not they're "fat."

In contemporary America, women are raised to feel dissatisfied with their bodies, a phenomenon that's called "normative discontent" in research, Corning said. Rather than feel love or even apathy about the way we're built, we tend to focus on our perceived flaws.

"Women are not brought up to believe, 'Hey, I look all right -- I've got some pretty good stuff here' or 'My body's a non-issue, so I'm going to study my math,'" Corning said.

Anecdotally, Corning blames the way women are bombarded with advertising, from billboards to the little boxes that appear on Facebook -- all of which portray a singular, skinny body type, what researchers refer to as the "thin ideal." She says that it's the job of advertisers to create discontent and distress about who we are and convince consumers that said discontent can be fixed through their products. Now, with the ability to digitally alter images, some of the female figures we see on a regular basis aren't even human. Think tiny waists, large breasts, no pores and not an ounce of cellulite.

Inevitably, many women start comparing themselves with the "thin ideal" and develop a negative relationship with their bodies. This is what leads to "fat talk" -- which, in turn, only makes matters worse. Researchers at Northwestern University have found that people who engage in "fat talk" report 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.

And that self-loathing is reinforced in our favorite movies and television shows.

From "Clueless" to "Sex and the City" to "Mean Girls," "fat talk" is something we also see modeled on television and in movies. It's easy to fall into this spiral: If Alicia Silverstone feels badly about her body, I must be enormous. This line of thinking has been borne out in studies as well as in the personal lives of many women. When Averill was a child, she said, she would watch her mother and grandmother try on clothes in store dressing rooms. It laid the groundwork for a number of negative habits.

"I would sit on the floor and I would listen to them talk about how they can't wear these white jeans because their thighs are too fat," she said. "So if their thighs are too fat, mine are humongous. I don't really think it was intentional, but that's the way it was."

Averill's mother and grandmother each weighed about 120 pounds, she said.

The media is also a major contributor to the national preoccupation with weight and appearance. Take one look at the tabloids at your local newsstand and you'll see an overwhelming amount of headlines about women's bodies, like "How I Got Thin" and "65-Pound Weight Gain!" Following this year's White House Correspondents' Dinner, Averill noticed that news anchors spent a generous amount of time commenting on the women's clothing while completely ignoring what male attendees wore.

"This is why we're talking about women's bodies in particular all of the time and why women are often talking about their bodies," Averill said. "The news is telling them that that is what's valuable about them -- how attractive they look."

But we also "fat talk" to fit in.

The main reason we're probably engaging in so much "fat talk"? Everyone else is doing it. When a friend laments eating too much cake at a holiday party, you risk looking unsympathetic, or even arrogant, if you don't join in with your own pledge to start running after your next slice.

"It's a way to keep us feeling like no one is better, no one is above the mean and we're all the same," Corning said.

Studies have shown that hearing "fat talk" makes you more likely to start complaining about your own body or calorie load. Unsurprisingly, during a recent controlled experiment, Corning and her co-author, Michaela Bucchianeri, discovered that women were more likely to believe the "fat talk" statements of other women than their self-affirming body statements. If women are defaulted to "negative" when it comes to looking at their figures, it's no wonder discontent is the norm.

"There's social pressure to be the kind of woman who conforms to the moral framework that says if I eat whatever I want, I'm a bad girl."

Another motive for women to "fat talk" is reassurance. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University 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. The vicious back-and-forth cycle of "No, you look great -- just look at my huge thighs!" (as so perfectly played out in that "my nail beds suck" scene in "Mean Girls") has become an integral part of the way women socialize. It's what you see your mother doing from a very young age, and 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.

"'Fat talk' is women affirming with each other that it's OK to hate your body," Corning said. "There's social pressure to be the kind of woman who conforms to the moral framework that says if I eat whatever I want, I'm a bad girl."

So how can you avoid "fat talk"?

There's good news: 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.

Both Averill and Corning recommend attacking the issue head-on if you're talking to someone with whom you're comfortable. If your friend starts in on "fat talk," Corning suggests saying something like: "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 'fat talk' -- we are way above it."

Changing your perspective on "fat" is key, though, and a recent study suggests that your "visual diet" can make all the difference. The 2012 findings showed that women's preference for thinness decreased when they were exposed to images of larger bodies more frequently. Basically, if we see bodies of all shapes and sizes in our media, everyone is happier.

The burgeoning "fat acceptance" movement is a great place to start. Activists like Jess Baker, Marilyn Wann and Lesley Kinzel have spoken out against "fat shaming" and challenged society's body ideals. (Baker's "fat Abercrombie" ads in response to Jeffries' comments are a must-see.) Find these books, these blogs, these women. Don't just accept the images thrust at you by the mainstream media.

Of course, when it comes to "fat talk," much of the noise is coming from inside our own heads. For that, Corning had simple advice to offer.

"If you want to work out, go work out. You don't need to tell everyone what an awful person you are," she said. "If you don't want to eat a piece of pizza, don't eat it. Or if you find yourself eating it, just eat it. Enjoy it."

Bon appétit.

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