In March 2011, in the Psychology Of Women Quarterly, a study conducted by Rachel H. Salk and Renee Engeln-Maddox was published entitled If you are fat then I am humongous.
This study examined the types of conversations that women have about the size and shape of their bodies: a phenomenon that both reflects and creates body dissatisfaction in a majority of college women.
This type of commentary has been termed “Fat Talk,” and there is a wealth of research on it.
In Salk and Englen-Maddox’s study, an overwhelming 93% of participants admitted engaging in such talk. Interestingly, many of these women felt that they participated in it less than other women did, and that they only did so to make the other woman feel better. A typical script may look like this:
“My butt looks huge in these jeans.”
“What are you talking about? Your butt is super skinny. If anyone looks fat in jeans, it’s me.”
A different study found the men like women who are comfortable with their bodies and don’t mind saying so. In fact, one of the things that many heterosexual men find unattractive in women is the tendency to put themselves down. Women, on the other hand, like other women who collude in Fat Talk.
We’ve all heard it or said it. We can even predict it.
Denise Martz of Appalachian State University and her colleagues showed 124 male and female college students a scene describing three women engaging in fat talk. The test subjects were then asked to predict how a fourth female would respond to this discussion.
40 percent of male subjects and 51 percent of female subjects believed that the fourth female would self-degrade her body. This means that women normalize their own body dissatisfaction and that self-degradation is predictable.
The thing about Fat Talk that gets me is that we women feel a social obligation to participate. If we don’t engage in the usual “I’m too fat to wear this skirt (swimsuit, shirt, blouse, dress),” that we have seen and been around all of our lives, we come off as conceited, and as if we have never felt fat. I am pretty sure every woman in this country has felt fat given that if a mannequin were alive, she would be too thin to bear children, let alone menstruate, and that is our standard.
Thus we feel pressure to collude in our own oppression.
One of the things I noted was that most of the research was done on college women. What about us older feminists? Did we collude too? I very snottily wanted to assume that we did not. Sadly, I am wrong. Martz did a follow up asking just this question and found no link between higher body satisfaction, age and feminist identity.
We are all suspect.
And yes, it is us who participate, and participate willingly. We do not want our friend to feel bad so we take the bad body image on ourselves in some sort of demented competition to determine who is more unattractive.
Oh, we can blame media all we want to. It is an easy target, and takes the blame for a lot of things, sometimes righteously. But the bottom line is that over 10 million women have some form of eating disorder in this country. If we include Canada, that is more women than those who have been diagnosed with Breast cancer and Ovarian cancer combined. If we don’t, then it is just Breast Cancer that we beat with our Body Blame.
I see this all the time on the college campus’ where I teach, and while I used to just pass it off as another form of female bonding, I began to ask myself if I wanted to bond over body dysmorphia. No. I don’t, and yet I find myself almost automatically saying the expected thing. I have to force myself to stop, and try to turn it around by saying “I think you are beautiful, no matter your size. And if you can’t fit into those jeans, then it is the jeans that are the problem, and not your butt.”
Sometimes it is received well, and sometimes I am blown off. It is more comfortable to believe the bad things.
I want to shout out to Tri Delta Soroity who has put out a couple of You Tube videos on this issue citing the statistics, and asking for a week of Freedom from Fat Talk. They have the right idea, their videos are really well done.
But I don’t think a week is enough. Do you?
Photo Credit: Ed Yourdan