A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Tackling "Fat Talk" for Our Kids' Sakes

Feminine self-denigration has a name, so let's call it out, once and for all.

One of the apparent birthrights of American womanhood is our endless commiseration over how much we all hate our appearance. My thighs are fat! Just look at this cellulite! I could never wear that dress! Chances are that if you are female and over the age of ten in this country you’ve had this conversation and its variants approximately, oh, ten thousand times. Give or take.

It’s not the body loathing alone—though goodness knows there’s more than enough of that to go around as well—but the shared nature of the complaining that defines this oh-so-familiar discussion between women. And the banding together of all our negative body-image thoughts is what makes this interaction both so powerful and so destructive.

Last year my daughter was complaining about her stomach, which sticks out rather more than she would like. I told her she is beautiful, that she will soon grow up to compensate for the growing out, and that her shape will change more times than she can imagine. In short, not to worry about it. I felt free to say this because I know we have no family history of obesity, I know what she eats, and I know she’s a physically active child. Moreover, she looks just like my husband did at her age. Of course, this didn’t entirely assuage her fears—one of the new limitations of parenting tweens, as opposed to younger children, whose fears and anxieties are more definitively laid to rest by parental reassurance.

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What fully improved her perspective was discussing this new body gripe with friends. “Mommy, I feel so much better!” she announced one day, “Because Ava and Chloe also hate their stomachs.” I was surprised, but only a little. It’s obvious that our kids have been absorbing body image bias for so many years now that it was only a matter of time before she engaged in this time-honored feminine discussion. What blew my socks off was when she told me with whom she’d commiserated: two girls who fall clearly into the group of peers who have yet to begin developing any signs of adolescent adiposity. In fact, they are both bone thin. Yet she described to me how they lifted their shirts to show her how “big” theirs were too. Now I was torn between relief that she was no longer feeling alone in this discomfort with her changing shape, and a new anxiety that this no longer had nothing at all to do with actual body shape, and everything to do with girls’ attitudes towards their bodies.

I’ve reached a ripe old age before discovering that this kind of body-hate bonding between women actually has a name. I was genuinely astonished to discover a recent New York Times article  on a few studies that have been done about "fat talk." It has a name! Learning this had a dual effect: it crystallized my understanding that this is an actual phenomenon, rather than simply a necessary burden of being a girl, and it fueled a new determination in me to fight it.

A friend pointed me in the direction of an unlikely ally: the Delta Delta Delta sorority has for several years now been sponsoring a “Fat Talk Free Week,” with members signing pledges to refrain from fat talk and videos promoting their efforts. I’ve never much been one for sororities, but this is indeed what sisterhood should be. We must all promise each other to stop this ridiculous cycle of mutual self-denigration. Why do women insist on putting themselves down in order to reassure a friend? It’s so clear how these discussions encourage self-destructive behavior. Women’s greatest strength and greatest weakness lies in how much we interpret the words and actions of everyone around us. We are so much less likely than men to slough off words or deeds we perceive as hurtful, and so much more likely to instinctively empathize with those in need. It makes sense that the emotionally fraught intersection of weight and self-esteem is one which repeatedly draws us in. But once you begin to examine how much real harm these words can do, and the kind of peer reinforcement they provide for truly self-destructive actions, they seem less benign. While the commiserating friends may not actually be overweight, or even really unhappy with how they look, they pose as self-hating for their friend’s supposed benefit, and thereby make this their public face. They also sign on to support an unhealthy (and unhappy) focus on appearance.

Unlike obesity, which cannot be solved merely by exhorting each individual to make better choices, this pervasive behavior can be changed in a grassroots fashion, by one person at a time; or even more powerfully, by one parent at a time. So spread the word to your friends, your mothers and your daughters, that the time for targeting fat talk has come. What can possibly be the positive outcome either of indulging in self-hatred, or of pretending to? I’m certainly not the first to say it, and I dearly hope I am not the last, but discovering and naming this conversation has has been eye-opening for me, and I am determined to end this destructive discussion today.

What I cooked:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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