The Effects of “Fat Talk” on Body Image – National Eating Disorders Awareness Week

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Let’s talk about “fat talk.”

We all do it.  Whether we say something about ourselves or judge another person based solely on how his or her body looks, we are all guilty of “fat talk” from time to time.  And no wonder.  It’s in our faces wherever we go.  TV shows, magazines, advertisements and even the weekly circulars from our favorite stores all perpetuate an “ideal” body image for both men and women.  Society tells us that we should be tall and thin, lean and ripped, tan and smiling with windblown hair and white teeth no matter what age or gender we are.  Beauty is pushed as an image rather than a concept, a body shape to aspire to rather than a feeling to treasure.

Lindsay over at Happy Herbivore did a great post recently about the dangers of tying self-worth to body image.  She writes:
Why should our self esteem be tied to what someone else thinks we should look like or weigh? Shouldn’t it be tied to how healthy we are and feel, and be more about what we think and not what a stranger thinks?

Unfortunately, with society’s constant fixation on being the “right” weight and having the “perfect” body, our minds are often programmed to think of health in terms of thinness.  We see thin people and assume that they’re healthy while assuming that overweight people are not.  Most people rarely, if ever, stop to think about a person’s circumstances and how those might affect his or her weight.  Lindsay’s post shares a lot of important insights on this, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Even our perceptions of what constitutes “fat” and “thin” are skewed.  With all of the images that the media bombards us with on a daily basis, it’s hard to look at ourselves or the people around us and see what’s really there.  I know I’ve looked in the mirror in the past (sometimes the not-so-distant past) and seen a person whom I considered to be “fat.”  Just thinking the word creates a negative mental landscape and changes the way we see ourselves.  Think about your own glances in the mirror.  Do you like what you see?  Or do you spend all your time fixated on some part of your body that you “hate?”  Do you find yourself saying things like, “I’ve been good today, so I think I’ll have a cookie after dinner,” or calling yourself “bad” for eating a food that you think has too much fat or too many calories?  All of this constitutes “fat talk,” and it’s a dangerous and detrimental way to think.

It’s bad enough when we put ourselves through this.  But when the unreasonable ideal of thinness clouds the way we see others, it can ultimately influence how we treat them.  And depending on another person’s circumstances, what we say or how we behave can go far beyond rudeness and wind up having disastrous consequences long after the interaction is over.

Marya Hornbacher illustrates this perfectly in her memoir, Wasted:

Sitting…one day after school, I was reading and eating a bag of chips.  The teacher didn’t know it was the first thing I’d eaten that day, and would also be the last.  She didn’t know I was bulimic.  She was a nice person… . There was nothing wrong with her, so I don’t blame her for this.  She said, wagging her finger at me…, “A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.”
I stopped midchew.  Looked at her hips.  She had big hips.  She smiled at me.  I smiled back.  On my way out the door, I dropped my bag of chips in the garbage can, headed straight for the bathroom [and] threw up… .

Most of the time, you can’t look at people and know they have an eating disorder.  You can’t know the negative thoughts they struggle with or how they view their body.  You can’t know what they’ve eaten that day, or how much, or if they’ve eaten at all.  A passing glance can’t tell you what they felt they had to do to compensate for what they did eat, how many times they threw up or how many laxatives they took.  You can’t look at the people around you in the gym and know whether they’re there because they’re pursuing health and fitness or because they had a hundred more calories than they usually allow themselves and are now working desperately to try and make it go away before it becomes a part of the distorted body image that haunts them every day.

Another good point from Lindsay’s post:
Do people really believe that the only way someone can be skinny is if they have a high metabolism or is just naturally that way? That there is nothing else a person can do or does?

I’ve gotten nasty, almost hateful looks from complete strangers when I’m out in public, and the only reason I can find for it is that I’m thin.  What these women probably aren’t considering is that it’s possible to be too thin, and I am.  At 5’6″, I weigh 104lbs. on a good day, and often have days where the number is lower than that.  This puts me at least 10lbs. below what’s considered the absolute lowest healthy weight for my height.  These women don’t know that I didn’t get this way because of a diet, or because of exercise or because I have a “high metabolism.”  I got this way when I struggled with calorie restriction and laxative abuse.  I got this way because I was sick.

I consider myself much healthier now than I was when I was fighting anorexia and bulimia.  I exercise regularly and am incorporating more whole foods into my daily diet.  My body feels better and works better.  I’m continuing to move toward health, and on the days when my eating disorder rears its head and tries to tell me that I’m fat, lazy, ugly or one of its other lies, I’m doing my best not to listen.  I commend Lindsay and the host of other bloggers and website owners who are working to promote positive body image.  Blogs like Stop Chasing Skinny and Weightless that keep the focus on health and wellness are valuable resources, life preservers in the vast sea of today’s skewed portrayals of “ideal” beauty.

And that’s where our focus needs to be, for ourselves and for others.  “Fat talk” only breeds satisfactions and, for some, has the potential to suck us down into a pit we may never climb out of.  Each of us has a body that was given to us for a purpose.  We need to learn to treasure it and treat it well so the true beauty we all have can shine through.

For the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. 1 Corinthians 3:17b (KJV)


About the Author:

Sam has been eating a plant-based diet since summer of 2009 and has spent the subsequent years experimenting with all manner of plant-based food. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a graduate of the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant Program. She is a former member of Toastmasters International and was awarded a Competent Communicator designation for public speaking. When she's not blogging or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, play silly card games and knit socks.
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  1. Happy Herbivore  February 29, 2012

    I’m so glad you wrote this.

    I am 5’8″ and 130lbs. I would describe myself as slender. I’m not bonesy thin, I have fat in various places that’s noticeable, cellulite too, but overall, I’m a string bean, and maintaining a 35lb loss.

    I’ve seen so many things written about me online — some people call me fat, yesterday someone posted I was “a chunky vegan” on youtube and there was a forum I stumbled on where people kept talking about how I was skinny and I inverted/stretched photo graphs to look thinner. Okay, I’m not technical, I wouldn’t even know how to do it. I use my webcam, iphone and camera, and barely get that right.

    Then there is the exact opposite, people calling me too thin, emaciated, unhealthy, and 12 other things.

    This is on top of all the other people who make comments like “I wish I could be naturally slender like you!”

    Gah. I see beauty in all shapes and sizes, and every day I try to love people for who they are. Not what size pants they wear. I’m not perfect, I have judged, but I’m trying to do less of it because it’s not fun to be judged by how you look, take it from me.

    • Sam  February 29, 2012

      Thanks for sharing, Lindsay. It’s amazing that people think it’s okay to say these types of things about others, or that words somehow have less of an impact just because they’re said over the Internet.

      There are times when I’ve been tempted to post a picture of what I “really” look like, but I know that some people would look at my underweight frame with jealousy or envy…or worse, as something to aspire to. Others would probably think I look gross. Regardless, you’re right; it’s not fun to be judged.

      I get the “Oh, you don’t have anything to worry about” comments, too. And it’s just as frustrating now as it was when I was a more “normal” weight…even more so, in a way, because I work out a lot and am pretty proud of the muscle tone I’ve been able to build in recent years. For people to think that it’s natural or didn’t take any effort is pretty insulting.

      I’ve been so glad to see the posts about body image on your blog. Thanks for the insights you give and for promoting health–not thinness!

  2. Gena  February 29, 2012

    Great post, Sam. I find it appalling that we live in a society in which other peoples’ bodies are made topics of public conversation. Thanks for pointing out how wrong it is.

    Lindsay: you are the epitome of toughness and grace. As a public figure, you can’t help the commentary, but…keep on keepin’ on.

  3. JL goes Vegan  March 1, 2012

    This is such an important post, Sam! You are so right, we do need to treasure ourselves … and others!

    I was skinny for a period of about six years– meaning each year I would spend January – May getting skinny (“dieting” and running races); I would stay skinny during the summer; and, in the fall, the weight would creep up. In January I would start the cycle again.

    Today I’m embracing extra pounds, gone up a few sizes and have love handles. Instead of weighing myself daily, I weigh myself monthly and my weight is consistent year-round. Someone on my blog questioned whether I was “worried about my health” since I stopped chasing skinny when I posted an honest picture of what I look like today. I thought …why wasn’t anyone asking about my health when I barely ate carbs during the years that I was racing marathons, half-marathons and triathlons?

    I’m much healthier (and happier) now!

    Lindsay, as a personal friend, I know for a fact you are the picture of balanced-health!

amazing salad bowl with ripple carrots
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