Let’s talk about body image. Everyone else seems to be. American culture is completely obsessed with thinness. Criticizing how we look and how others look could be the US national pastime. Whether we are comparing ourselves to someone else, putting down our food choices or the food choices of someone else, or talking about how fat we are, fat speak is doing a lot more harm than anyone is realizing. Negative fat speak is bad for the body image, bad for the self-esteem, and contributes to the development of low self-esteem that can lead to eating disorders and depression.
In Everyday Health, Sheela Raja, PhD, says of fat speak, “It’s an epidemic. People do it to get reassurance from their friends, and they may do it because it has become somewhat of the norm in our culture. When is the last time you heard a woman say, ‘Wow, I think I look pretty good today’ — we don’t reward that kind of contentment and satisfaction. Instead, we tend to put it down as being smug.” Raja is an assistant professor and clinical psychologist in the Colleges of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Illinois Chicago. She maintains that engaging in fat speak is forcing us as a culture to focus on appearance rather than the emotions that each of us are hiding.
Raja also warns that fat speak is dangerous because of the connection between behavior and emotion. Causing someone to have a negative body image through negative discussions about weight and fatness can contribute to the “cycle of self-loathing”. This will actually cause a person to be less likely to eat healthy, take care of him or herself, and exercise.
Four Ways to Stop Negative Fat Speak
1. Find positive role models
Celebrities tend to be who we all look up to, but they are just people. Look for the people who you can admire their character without focusing on what their bodies look like, how much they weight, or how great their exercise routines are. Choose real women who have accomplished things or who have done important works. Focus on the things they have done and the people that they are. Bring these role models up to others. Talk about the things that make them good role models. Maybe this will encourage others to follow suit.
2. Practice your compliments
Start a new way of relating to people. Rather than point out that your friend looks great in her dress, point out that the dress brings out the color of her eyes. Rather than telling a little girl that she is pretty, talk about what movies she likes or what books she is reading. Let your brother know that his smiling face was a real boost to your morning. Take the focus away from appearances and body image. By modeling the behavior you expect, you are becoming what you expect from others, and they may be more apt to be the same way.
3. Do not engage in fat speak
If one of your friends is going on and on about how fat he looks today, stop him. Tell him that while you appreciate his feelings, you are making an effort to be more positive and not focus so much on appearances. Compliment him on something else such as his firm grasp of how much scent is enough and change the subject. Ask him about other aspects of his life where his feelings can still be expressed without the fat speak.
4. Tell people what you are doing
As mentioned above, explain to people how you are feeling and what you are trying to do. Your friends and family should understand that you are trying to make everyone’s lives better by engaging in this kind of behavior. Encourage them to do the same and check in regularly to see how it is going. There is no need to be pushy, but if someone continues to make you feel bad after you have explained your position, that person may not be a right fit for this new direction your life is taking.
The real conclusion is that negative fat speak is not going to help anyone. The constant focus on thinness and the constant judging about food choices or healthy vs unhealthy behavior simply feeds the cycle of self-loathing. It creates a barrier between the person who is spewing the fat speak and person who it is directed at. Fat speak often leads to eating disorders because the person who the fat speak is directed toward is very likely to hide food choices and habits from the other person so that criticism can be avoided. It is this hiding that can lead directly to an eating disorder like bulimia or binge eating disorder.