Wednesday, February 18, 2015

College Students: The Dangers of Fat Talk and How to Combat It

We’ve all heard it; we’ve all done it. Fat talk and muscle talk have reduced our precious words to
degrading our bodies and those of others. As a graduate student in the Northwestern Medill Integrated Marketing Communications(IMC) program with an interest in positive body image, I have examined two brilliant articles that delve into the dangers of "fat talk" and "muscle talk" and have provided 3 strategies to combat these degrading practices.

According to a 2014 Huffington Post article, "How Fat Talk Became a Social Epidemic – And How you Can Stop It," the term "fat talk" was coined in 1994 to describe how young women talked about their bodies in a "self-abasing and apologetic" manner. The term was later redefined by Notre Dame psychology professor Alexandra F. Corning as "self-degrading talk about the body, food or eating." Fat talk is a critical element within the phenomenon of "normative discontent" - a term describing how people are socialized to feel and speak negatively about their bodies. If my friend complains about her enormous thighs, I feel compelled to negate her comment and chime in with a complaint about my own body as an expression of empathy. People feel as if they must conform to these practice to provide and receive reassurance, garner acceptance from peers, and interact with others. A study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University reported that around 93% of college women have engaged in fat talk.

Fat talk is as damaging as it is pervasive. Fat talk reinforces the idea that certain body types are inherently bad. This idea, perpetuated by our favorite TV shows, movies, magazines, and clothing companies, instigates a fear and preoccupation with avoiding "fatness" that can quickly escalate into self-loathing. "We're so afraid that our bodies might be perceived as fat," stated "Fat Activist" Lindsey Averill "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."  Indeed, Northwestern researchers reported that those engaging in fat talk reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction and guilt than their body-positive counterparts. These heightened dissatisfaction levels are linked to higher rates of disordered eating and eating disorders.

A New York Times article "Fat Talk Compels but Carries a Cost" echoed these concerns and highlighted an important, but often overlooked, part of the equation: men. Renee Engeln, Director of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University stated that men often perseverate on different issues than women, such as thinness and muscular bulk, but are also susceptible to these damaging conversations.

The pervasive and escalating nature of fat talk makes it difficult to break.  We have become comfortable with self deprecation that confidence is perceived as "unsympathetic" and "arrogant."  Confidence, however, remains an important catalyst for changing the conversation.  Based on my experience with Body Positive Activism and Fitness I have provided three important steps, based on the findings of the articles discussed, to combat fat talk and promote positive-body image.

1. Break the Cycle - The first step to defeating fat talk is not partaking in it. When those around you speak disparagingly about their body or those of others, don't engage. Instead, redirect the conversation.  Reassuring your friends that they are "not fat!" only reinforces ideas that fat is "bad."  A more compassionate and productive way to support your friend would be to ask directly what they're actually thinking or feeling...the likelihood is that their verbal expression of body discontent is related to something deeper.

2. Leverage Your Relationship With the Person
Your response to people in these conversations should depend on your relationship to him/her.  You talk differently with your best friend than you do your classmate.  Shutting down fat-talk follows the same rules.

3. Change the Way You Talk 
In order to stop fat talk, you have to monitor your own language. Don't say anything about yourself that you wouldn't say about your best friend. Educate yourself on the media's body shaming tactics and don't ascribe to them.  Carolyn Bates, a senior at Notre Dame, doesn't say that she doesn't fit into clothing, but rather, that the clothing doesn't "get" her. This lighthearted positive attitude, is refreshing in an all-too critical world. By serving as a strong role-model for body acceptance and positivity, others are sure to follow. 

Fat talk is pervasive and harmful. It detracts from the quality of our interactions with others, our self-esteem, and our mental health. By practicing the above three steps, we can work to stop the cycle of fat-talk and engage in more productive conversation.  In doing so, we not only protect ourselves from the harms of fat talk, but those around us who may be affected second or third hand. Fat talk stops with you.

Huffington Post - Rebecca Adams
New York Times - Jan Hoffman

Colleen Daly is a M.S. Candidate in Integrated Marketing Communications at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.  She is the Co-Founder of Embody Carolina, an organization that trains college students to serve as compassionate and effective allies for those struggling with eating disorders.  She is a nationally certified fitness instructor and personal trainer, and body image advocate. 

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