The other night I was surrounded by a group of gracious, intellectual, and supportive girlfriends at KGB, the legendary (to writers, anyway) bar in the East Village. One of us was about to take the mic to read from her upcoming novel that's already garnering buzz. We were giddy, imbibing a round of cocktails and making chitchat to allay the nerves of our friend who was about to read, and to celebrate this moment in her literary career. It was a Friday night; we were dressed up, taking photos (documenting the event on Instagram, natch) when suddenly the conversation took a disturbing turn. I'm not sure how it even began, but suddenly, I found myself in the middle of a fat-shaming sesh. And the targets of these zaftig insults were ourselves. "I'll never be the woman who can wear a slinky dress/has a tiny waist/can say no to chocolate." These were just a few of the jabs we seemed only too happy to exchange with one another over our vodka sodas and pony-necked beers. I couldn't help but think, why were such accomplished women, on the cusp of a celebratory event nonetheless, bonding over fat talk? Didn't we have anything more substantial, and less self-denigrating to talk about?
Let me add, it's not easy making a living as a writer, especially in New York City, where a quarter's royalties pays a month or two of rent. Yet all four of us, after completing prestigious MFA programs, are making the writing life work, publishing books, teaching writing, and being public, as one has to do to be a writer these days. I remember 10 years ago standing in the packed, dimly lit parlor bar at KGB, where the walls are lined with Cold War paraphernalia and editors and literati are among the crowd, thinking, "I'd give anything to read here one day." And I have read there. Each of the women in our semi-circle that evening has. But yet, we weren't being self-congratulatory; we were self-flagellating, and about our bodies, no less. And I will say this: not a one of us is overweight. In fact, we're all objectively fetching. But that is never enough, it so seems. In fact, being displeased with one's physique, especially if you're a woman is more the norm. There's even a term for it; it's called normative discontent. In 1984, psychologist Judith Rodin coined this term to describe the widespread negative preoccupation with body image, especially in women.
Fretting over weight is a common psychological issue for females, beginning at a young age. In fact, the term normative discontent was coined in the 1980s by researchers who found widespread negative body image, particularly among women in the United States. -- Cristen Conger
This is not really groundbreaking news. But this discussion bears repeating. I'm just a bit miffed that after all the triumphs forward-thinking women have to dish about, when it comes to gal talk, why does our conversation fall to shaming ourselves for not being skinny enough for our skinny jeans? How many hours upon hours have we spent on such topics -- berating our diets; comparing our body parts to those of other women; wondering aloud why those last five pounds just won't disappear no matter how hard we will them away? And why does talking about these things bring us closer to our friends? I'm not saying we need to censor ourselves. After all, a woman's gal pals become in many ways her family, and not because of the Sex and the City myth, but because as women have become increasingly involved in the public sector, leading more and more public lives, and choosing domesticity later in life, (if at all) her friends take on more relevance. Female networks are invaluable to a woman's existence, resilience, and happiness within this new(ish) modality. What we can be aware of is two things: the frequency with which we engage in fat talk and the times at which we choose to do so.
No matter how many Women's Studies classes you've taken, or even taught, it's hard to silence the noise that tells you: at least part of your worth is tied to your waistline. So, I understand the impulse for women like me and my girlfriends to talk about our bodily insecurities. We just don't need to fat talk all the time. And secondly, let's rethink the timing of these chats. Case in point, I find it hard to imagine our male counterparts would be talking back fat how or how to squeeze in another Soul Cycle class before one of them was to read at KGB. Maybe, because over many decades in the American context, the mind/body binary has been convoluted by gender to mean man is to mind as woman is to body, that even though everything in our lives dispels this toxic paradigm, we still cling to it.
And, I write this with trepidation lest it be misinterpreted: maybe even such smart, progressive, and public women find some need to hang onto this patriarchic nonsense. Maybe it's our way of saying, we may be strong, but we're still fragile. Please handle with care, world, especially when we put ourselves out there. Well, how about we just say that. Do you talk pretty about your body? Take YouBeauty's Fat Talk Quiz to measure the frequency and severity of how much you engage in this behavior.
Jill Di Donato is the author of the novel Beautiful Garbage, published in 2013 by She Writes Press