By Cara Arizmendi
In honor of Love Your Body Day on October 19, Carolina Women’s Center volunteer team leader Cara Arizmendi contributed this post about women and “fat talk.”
This humorous scene from the movie Mean Girls is a shockingly accurate portrayal of the dynamics of what has been called “fat talk.” In this scene, the members of the “Plastics,” the most popular girls in high school, and Cady, the new girl, stand around a mirror putting themselves down, criticizing everything from their pores to their hips.
The girls who are considered the most popular, most attractive girls in high school feel the need to self-degrade as a group. After everyone but Cady finishes criticizing their body, they turn to her, waiting for her negative body statement, because without one she is not conforming to the standards of girlhood and womanhood. These are the dynamics of the pressure to engage in fat talk.
Sociologists and psychologists have studied fat talk as the tendency for girls and women to engage in negative body talk. While fat talk most often includes statements about weight, such as, “I missed my workout and ate too many desserts” or “I hate that my jeans don’t fit me anymore,” it can include any number of body putdowns, such as the ones from Mean Girls.
In addition to the tendency to engage in negative body talk, psychologists have found that despite the frequency with which it occurs in groups of women, women do not actually gain enjoyment from fat talk. So why do it? While psychologists cannot pinpoint what causes fat talk, they do know that there is actually a perceived pressure by girls and women to engage in fat talk once one person in the group has initiated negative body talk as a conversation, despite the fact that girls and women do not actually enjoy it (Britton 2006).
While Mean Girls pokes fun at fat talk as a form of commentary, other movies seem to be promoting fat talk as a form of normalcy. For example, Kristin Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids, a film considered female-friendly, expresses concerns about not being as skinny as one of her “frenemies.” Movies with these scenarios are creating a form of cultural fat talk. Film creators make movies featuring women who self-degrade their bodies as an attempt to create relevant characters for women. However, because Hollywood favors skinny actresses, most of the women self-degrading their bodies are also conventionally attractive, thin women. When these celebrities complain about their bodies on screen, it sends the message that even celebrities’ slender bodies are not good enough, increasing the pressure on average women to engage in fat talk.
What do we do about fat talk?
First, try not to self-degrade your body in conversations. From personal experience, I know that sometimes I think it will make me feel better, but it never does. And while I do think we should talk about our insecurities, fat talk is not a productive way to do so. Fat talk does not make anyone, the speaker or the listener, positive or happy about themselves.
Second, whenever someone begins to self-degrade, try to turn it into a positive conversation by talking about positively about your friend or yourself, or by starting a conversation about the negative effects of fat talk.
Third, whenever you see examples of fat talk in movies, TV, or magazines, have a conversation about the negative aspects of it with whomever you’re viewing it with. Write to filmmakers or magazine editors who include fat talk in their media and explain the harmful effects of self-degradation.
While these techniques may not end fat talk all together, it is sure to create healthy, positive conversations.
Source: Britton L, Martz D, Bazzini D, Curtin L, LeaShomb A. (2006). Fat talk and self presentation of body image: Is there a social norm for women to self degrade?. Body Image, 3(3), 247-254.
Cara Arizmendi is a senior Women’s Studies and Psychology major from Chapel Hill. She is an intern at the Carolina Women’s Center.