Here's a challenge for the week, and it won't involve counting calories or pushing yourself to physical extremes. How about changing how you think and talk about your body? And, for that matter, what you say about others?
This is Fat Talk Free Week (October 19–23). It's a positive body image campaign that started with sororities at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and a resident eating disorders expert, Caroline Becker. Tri Delta has taken the campaign to the world, with support from groups like the National Organization of Women and the Academy of Eating Disorders. All of us can think of things that eating disorder experts consider fat talk: "I am so fat!" is obvious. And: "Does this make my butt look big?" "She really is too fat to wear that..." or "You'd be so pretty if you lost weight!"
All of these are probably on the "Not Nice Things To Say" list that your mother gave you. But more than that, just three minutes of fat talk is enough to change how we feel about our bodies, for the worse. When we're not happy with our bodies (aka, experiencing "body dissatisfaction,") we're actually less likely to do the good things we need to do to take care of ourselves: People who are dissatisfied with how they look are more likely to skip the gym, skimp on fruits and vegetables, and go on extreme, unhealthy diets. As Becker says, "If you hate your body, you are likely to treat it as badly as anything else you hate."
Here's the interesting thing: We know this, but we don't do a lot about it. Many women agree there's too much obsession with a thin ideal in society, and many women support the idea of a positive body image, according to research from Appalachian State University. Their study shows we like and admire women who aren't afraid to say they're happy with their bodies. (A recent example: Glamour readers raved about the magazine's published photo of model Lizzi Miller, who has a tummy pooch.) But what we do isn't always in sync with what we think; it's hard for many women to actually be happy with the skin they're in. The researchers at Appalachian State have two possible explanations.
Explanation No. 1: In real life, it's hard to shake negative thoughts about our own bodies. When we're out on the town, or shopping for clothes, or otherwise reminded about how we look, it's much easier to think about what we don't like about ourselves than it is to turn on positive thoughts.
"I had no idea how much I fat-talked myself," says Christie Yerks, a 25-year-old woman who went through Tri Delta's Reflections body image and fat-talk workshop as a collegiate member. Christie says changing her internal dialogue was, and remains, her biggest challenge. "In the past, when I went out with friends and someone was dressed cuter... I could ruin my own good mood, I could ruin my own night being out with friends I love, just by what I'd say to myself because of how someone else looked," she says.
During the Reflections workshop, the women were asked to talk to themselves in front of a mirror, explaining what they love about their appearances. Yerks struggled. "I couldn't even come up with a handful of items. But going through that with other women, I eventually learned to think about my body in a different way, to build a healthy ideal instead of a thin ideal, and to think about how grateful I am for all the things my body does for me. I have practiced that mirror exercise over and over, until now I'm comfortable."
But Yerks says everyday experiences, like looking at images of models in the media, make self-talk an important daily ritual. "Changing internal dialogue is ongoing, but I have the tools to change, and the number-one tool is I tell myself, 'I'm going to be a better friend to myself.' And if you don't make an effort to tell yourself that, you find yourself comparing your situation to something that's not realistic. Or something that's computer enhanced."
Yerks also tries to pass on what she's learned, in subtle ways. "I try to give meaningful compliments," she says. "'You look so cute in that outfit'—to me, that's not the best compliment I can give to someone, because it focuses on her body image."
Explanation No. 2: We think fat talk is normal for everyone else—except ourselves. Social psychology researchers call it the "above average effect": We assume fat talk is the social norm, and in order for people to like us, we have to do a little self-depreciation. But, if we were to be honest, we'd admit that we're worried expressing a positive body image may earn us the reputation as a stuck-up, geeky goody-two-shoes.
This week, dare to be that geeky goody-goody. Speak up. Steal Yerks' trick and hand out compliments based on who your friends are and what they do, and not what they look like. Catch yourself before you let these words slip your lips:
- You think you are fat? Look at me.
- I can’t eat that; it will make me fat.
- Look at these fat rolls.
- I’m too fat to wear a swimsuit.
- You look great! Have you lost weight?*
- How are you so thin? / You're so thin!*
* Yep, those last two are a problem. "You look great! Have you lost weight?" is like telling the person she looked bad before. Becker says that most of the time, we don't really know how someone's lost weight, and you may unintentionally encourage someone to continue unhealthy habits (smoking, starving, vomiting, etc). Many patients with eating disorders report that people unintentionally encourage them to stay with their disorder on a daily basis.
So I'm giving up fat talk (just like I gave up unhealthy eating habits), and I encourage all of you to join me. For more on fat talk, including a video, visit www.endfattalk.com.