Say no to fat talk
Published in Cosmopolitan, April 2011. Copyright Rachel Hills 2011.
“Argh, I feel so bloated. I really shouldn’t have had that cookie with my lunch today. Look how skinny Amy’s getting. I bet she never eats cookies. How am I going to get away with wearing a bikini at Luke’s party on the weekend? Maybe I should just skip it. I’ll tell everyone I got the flu.” Sound familiar? Most of us have engaged in this kind of “Fat Talk” at one point or another, whether it’s a destructive internal monologue, like the one above, or an “I’m so fat” “No, you’re not. You’re skinny – I’m the fat one” convo with our friends.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Fat Talk is bad for us. It depletes our self-confidence, stops us from doing fun things (like eating cookies and going to pool parties), and reinforces the false idea that our value as a human being is based on how we look. However, breaking the cycle is easier said than done, which is why Cosmo is stepping in to help. We want every woman to feel better about herself – both internally and out loud – and we believe the first step to achieving that is to say no to Fat Talk.
“Negative self-talk has become the language we use to express an underlying lack of self-esteem,” explains Christine Morgan, CEO of The Butterfly Foundation, which provides support for Australians who suffer from negative body-image issues and eating disorders. “When we feel bad about something that’s happening in our lives, it tends to come out in a language that’s all about the way we look.”
According to Morgan, often it’s not our bodies we’re really worried about deep down. They just become the scapegoats for other issues in our lives. As Bethany, 26, puts it: “Rather than think about what I was actually worried about, I’d just think I was a big fat failure. Eventually, with a lot of work, I realised there are a lot of problems bigger than my arse.”
It’s not by coincidence that we feel this way, says Morgan. “Our society has become so fixated on how we look that it has become the measure of whether someone is successful or not,” she explains. “Young people in particular are coupling how they perceive their body shape and size with their value as person. If they don’t like their body, they can’t be valuable as person.”
Fat Talk extends beyond the comments we make about ourselves – it can be those “bodysnarking” comments about others, too. For example, celebrity gossip is often focused on weight gain. It might be a comment that “Christina Aguilera has stacked on weight lately”, with speculation she’s gained at least six kilos becoming a public topic you dissect with your friends. “Talking about celebrities’ weight, or the way they look, is just as destructive,” says Morgan. “Conversations like these may seem light-hearted and just a bit of fun gossip. The trouble with this supposed ‘fun’ is that it can subconsciously reinforce negative thinking, which can support damaging behaviour.
“Analysing or obsessing about the bodies of famous people only holds a mirror up to our own perceptions of ourselves and our friends,” continues Morgan. “Even when we’re talking about celebrities, expressing those sentiments can ultimately make everyone feel bad about their own bodies.
“If we can put a spotlight on the damaging effects of Fat Talk, we can help each other to change the way we talk about ourselves. Everything we say around family and friends should be helpful, caring, sensitive and supportive,” adds Morgan. “That doesn’t mean all lovey-dovey and fluffy, but it means being positive and genuine. It’s much more constructive to be positive than negative.”
However, it’s not just pop stars and models, either. Monash University sociologist Dr Samantha Thomas says the recent focus on the obesity epidemic also plays a role. “Instead of focusing on physical and mental health, we’re seeing a huge amount of emphasis placed on body size,” she explains. “We’ve created a situation and society where it’s almost unpatriotic to be fat.”
A new attitude
Fat Talk may be insidious, but it isn’t inevitable. With the right support and reinforcement, it’s possible to reprogram yourself. And there are major benefits. “Negative fat talk is tantamount to bullying ourselves. You cannot build good self-esteem if everything that’s coming out of your mouth is reinforcing how negative you are and how bad you look,” says Morgan. “We say it’s what’s inside that counts, but then we’ll have a conversation in the next breath that overrides that statement.”
The first step is to change the language you use. “It’s about stopping thinking that you can conform to a certain standard of beautiful, and [remembering] that every single body is unique and beautiful,” Thomas says. We also need to switch the conversation away from our bodies, to our minds, hearts and actions. Morgan is a big fan of journaling. “Write down what you like about yourself, your unique skills and talents. You don’t have to show anyone – just know they’re there. Start to create a reality that talks about positive things,” she advises.
The same goes for your conversations with your friends. Next time a friend complains that she’s “fat”, don’t respond by telling her you’re “fatter”. Instead, tell her she’s great the way she is, and shift the conversation to the non-bodily aspects of her you love, like her empathy or sense of humour.
However, if the root of Fat Talk is general life dissatisfaction, perhaps the best way to quit it is to figure out what makes you happy and do it. Join a club. Go for a walk. Ask that awesome girl you met at a party out for a coffee and make a new friend. Just get your eye off the number on the scale – and make a commitment to doing something that will take your attention off your body.