Bad. Naughty. They’re judging words; shaming words; they are words we use to tell children off. They’re also the words you’ll hear women use to describe their food habits. Go on, hover by the lunchroom in your office, or eavesdrop on a coffee catch-up; again and again, you will hear women engaging in fat talk; conversations that revolve around assessing food, body and weight. “I was so naughty over the holidays.” “I’ve been so bad, I need to get back to the gym.” Does it sound familiar?
Fat talk is something that we are socialised into, often long before we have developed the critical faculties to assess it. And it’s not all about critiquing ourselves, sometimes we use fat talk to build each other up and to reassure our friends “No, you look great!” “You’re not fat.” “Look at your salad - you are so good!” Yet whether it’s used to critique or to support, fat talk involves making judgements about food intake and our bodies, and when we engage in it we are buying into and supporting a world that revolves around our appearance and the way we are told we should look.
“Oh no, it’s not about weight,” some say, “I’m talking about my health”. And for a few, it isn’t. But for a lot of us, these conversations masquerade as being about health, wellness or nutrition. Behind the mask, body size and appearance are central. At the very least, concern with how our bodies appear frequently taints our pursuit of healthy living. There was a survey in 2011 that found one in six women would choose blindness over obesity, with others preferring herpes or alcoholism. Many of us would forgo some element of physical health to be physically thin. In fact, many of us are already forgoing elements of our health, including our mental health, in pursuing a certain appearance.
I remember the first time I worried about my body. It was in the changing rooms after Phys-Ed. As I slipped in and out of uniforms, using arm based gymnastics so no one could see my breasts, one of the girls snarked, “She’s not that thin”.
“She’s not that thin”; four words about my body. I was 13 and my body size had not really been on my radar before that point. If you’d asked, I’d probably have said I was the shortest in the class (we had to graph our heights on the science whiteboard). I was also painfully aware of my chest size, which I considered to give me a severe disadvantage with boys, but that was it. Yet that comment acted like an invitation to step through a doorway into a new world. In this new world, my body, my fat and my stomach were of critical concern. I needed to scrutinise them, I needed to worry about them and I needed to control them.
We live in a society where the messages about bodies, especially those of women, are vicious and unrelenting. Actually, I was very lucky to have those first 13 years of unawareness; some research has demonstrated children under six considering themselves “fat”. Many of us have mothers, aunts or older sisters who modelled dieting and fat talk to us from an early age, passing down a rite of oppression. Women’s bodies, particular youthful bodies, have been currency throughout history; on the marriage market, on the stage, and on the street. Within the last fifty years, this pressure upon our appearance has exponentially increased as we are saturated with advertising images selling us everything from toothpaste to car parts. With very few expectations, these images of desirable beauty have been various versions of “thin”.
But is it really a problem? Many people would argue that in a society such as New Zealand where high-calorie food is easily available and we are bombarded with food advertising, that fat talk, diets and monitoring are exactly what is needed. After all, aren’t we facing an ‘obesity crisis’?
Except… are we? Or is it more of a moral panic. And as a solution to avoiding health-related consequences from weight gain – well in general, the methods encouraged by our fat talk don’t work. Fat talk generally encourages fixation on diets in the form of shorter-term food programmes that significantly limit energy intake and food variety. A massive majority of dieters regain any weight lost. There are suggestions cyclical dieting can contribute to weight gain through repeated experiences of losing muscle and fat, then regaining fat, impacting appetite and slowing metabolism. And significantly, fat talk supports beliefs and practices which can be highly detrimental to our mental health, how we feel about ourselves and how much we enjoy the life we’re living.
Need more convincing?
- Concern with body weight is a risk factor for eating disorders. Anorexia is the third most common chronic illness for young women, behind obesity and asthma. It is linked to the highest death rates of any psychiatric disorder.
- Children as young as three display body image issues.
- A Sunday Star Times investigation reveals the number of young people being seen by NZ eating disorder services nationwide has increased by 50 per cent since 2011.
- Dieting behaviour is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder. In the 1940s landmark Minnesota starvation study healthy young men volunteered to go on restricted diets in order to enable research into food deprivation. These men began to display bingeing behaviour and obsession with food - some of the very traits we now associate with eating disorders, or even with ‘unstable’ (eyeroll) women. One participant changed careers and became a chef, another was found rummaging through rubbish bins for food. It appears that there is something about the process of reducing energy intake to the brain that triggers food obsession.
The general message we receive is that being thin is simple; (you should eat less, move more). There is only rarely any reference to the fact that reducing our food intake beyond a certain point sets us up for physical and mental cravings, and frequently a return to the size, or bigger, that we began at (see set point and settling points theories for two explanations of this). It’s a genius marketing set up for those peddling diets: customers experience short-lived success, but over time need to return for more ‘help’, sold to them in the form of diets, special food, and specialised exercise programmes.
It is usually impossible to reach or maintain the degree of thinness or leanness we are told is desirable without costs to our relationships with others, our physical health, and our relationship with ourselves. The appearance that is marketed to us as beautiful is simply not genetically possible for a large majority of us; and even if it is, it has an expiry date. It is very rare that you see an unmodified, sans makeup image of a woman over 25 in popular media; unless it is the (the shock! The horror!) “celebrities without makeup” magazine edition.
On a societal level, perhaps we need to follow the lead of France. There, the use of low weight models has been banned, and images modified with Photoshop need to be labelled. In recent times the rise of the Insta model and Instagram fitsperation has shown another side to this picture, where leanness, ‘clean’ eating and muscle mass become the desired goal, and only the rare poster will acknowledge the role of camera angles, and stomach flexing. While for some the pursuit of muscle may prove less destructive and perhaps more achievable than the pursuit of being thin; the monitoring of size, body fat and appearance can be yet another head of the body obsession monster. (You can read more about that here.)
You know what? Even if you skip through this minefield of body obsession, without falling prey to disordered eating, self-judgement, body monitoring or Insta-envy, partaking in fat talk zaps our energy. It saps our energy and our time, in a quest disproportionate to its importance. We end up fixated on food and body when we could be, oh I don’t know, learning something new? Spending time deeply connecting with others? Out in nature? Spiritual pursuits? Or maybe even working to change the world. Our bodies are important; our nutrition is important. I believe keeping active (and maintaining some muscle mass in a sedentary lifestyle) is important. But these things are not every conversation, beat yourself up, obsess over what you had for lunch, cry when you go tog shopping, important.
As mentioned, obesity as a concept also has some vocal critics. Critiques often focus on how we define it, just how adverse its impact on health is, and the overstating of the ‘epidemic’ label. In addition, many doctors continue to use BMI as a measure of ‘healthy’ body weight, when we know this is Eurocentric and deeply flawed.
If someone’s size is affecting their ability to actually physically do what they need to do everyday, then yes, possibly some attention to energy needs, nutrition and activity levels could be useful – I suspect it is most useful when it comes from a place of self-compassion, something that fat talk generally doesn’t support. There are people carrying more weight who have gained this through repeated cycles of stringent dieting, which frequently leads to reactive overeating or bingeing (driven by biological and emotional factors), and there is some evidence that this can lead to metabolic changes.
Our current approach ignores the evidence that dieting is a short term solution and continues to focus nearly exclusively on an individual’s behaviour, ignoring the social impacts of things like trauma and poverty and how these contribute to bigger size and health inequities. We need to make sure that any messages about nutrition and activity are not used to shame or ‘other’ people of bigger size; our lives, journeys, genetics and biology are all different, and we cannot see what factors have influenced someone’s body or life.
What do we do?
How do we escape this food and body bind? How do we feel good about our different, imperfect and wonderful bodies in a world where we are bombarded by messages that our bodies are too much, and only desirable while they are young and lean.
It’s a complex conversation, and yet on another level, it isn’t… Talk to anybody who’s struggled with any kind of eating difficulty; it is a lonely, painful struggle. If your relationship with food is difficult, you can’t leave that relationship. If your relationship with your body is one that’s abusive and where you judge and are disgusted by it, you can’t leave that body. So a primary goal for all of us should be to develop a nurturing relationship with our body; one that cares for its needs for a variety of food, for rest, for some activity.
- Find a circle of friends who support you in not engaging in body/fat/diet talk and judgement.
- Ask yourself - if this was my best friend, (my young cousin, my little sister) and I was in charge of her food for the month - what would be the most loving things to feed her? Or for animal lovers - if my body were a creature I was caring for, how would I show love to it through food, play and exercise?
- Think about yourself as an example to those you care about (this can be especially helpful if you have children). What messages are you giving them through the way you treat your body and talk about it?
- Join online communities that celebrate body positivity, intuitive eating and self-compassion.
- Remember food is not just fuel - it is a place we get enjoyment, experience connection with others and often we use it to express celebration and our culture.
- Buy clothes that fit you now. Do things you want to do now.
- Find a regular activity you really enjoy: Salsa, table tennis, walking with friends, rock climbing, circus skills. Do it with the body you have now.
- If you need to, visit a therapist or similar to get support in shifting your relationship to food and your body. Food issues and unhealthy food behaviours are often being used to manage distressing feelings. It can take courage to begin to look at these patterns. Search for people with experience with these issues, and remember you are allowed to audition those you are approaching to help you to see whether they’re a good fit for you.
- Put on your investigation hat - what works for you with activity and food? What really doesn’t work when it comes to food? Think of a time you were feeling more positive about yourself, and comfortable with your body - what were you doing at this time in your life?
- Stop weighing yourself. Don’t measure yourself. If this is too difficult, try looking at the way your clothes fit, and remember it is normal to have some fluctuation during the month and even between the beginning and end of a day.
- If you are at a point in your life when others that care about you have expressed concerns about your weight, try to keep your focus on balanced nutrition, reasonable activity and being a kind caretaker of your heart and body.
- Read some feminist classics like The Beauty Myth, Fat is a Feminist Issue or Paul Campos’ 2004 book The Obesity Myth.
- Remember that people that love and respect you see you as much, much more than your body or your appearance.
- Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you’re full. Eat a range of food. Be active every day.
Sheree Veysey works in mental health promotion for Mind and Body, who recently created the free health resource ‘Conversations for Change’. She also practices as a counsellor and is a songwriter and writer. She likes the gym and yoga to help her feel fit and strong but loves her body the best when using it for walking her dog, or cuddling nieces and nephews.
One resource that may be helpful, particularly for those working with young people, is an activity in ‘Conversations for Change’ called ‘Fresh Eyes’ which directly encourages awareness and critical thinking about food and body messages.
‘Fresh Eyes’ discusses eating difficulties and the way we experience and understand mental distress are located in our culture. Comprehensive guides, printable resources and activity cards etc. can be downloaded free from http://rethink.org.nz/conversationsforchange. ‘Conversations for Change’ is part of the Like Minds, Like Mine programme.Support Villainesse