About a decade ago, we published a book called Fat Talk by Mimi Nichter, currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. The book, which one reviewer called “a tantalizing glimpse into the intimate world of adolescent girls,” was the result of years spent interviewing hundreds of teenage girls about the ways that they think and talk about their bodies. Nichter and her colleagues found that girls didn’t so much diet as talk about dieting, engaging together in “fat talk,” an ongoing, ritualistic dialogue that served to build solidarity among them.
Last week, dozens of college campuses across the country took part in an organized event called “Fat Talk Free Week,” which Professor Nichter supported by offering “A Brief History of Fat Talk.” We invited Professor Nichter to comment here on the movement and its reference to her work.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking across my college campus and a colorful poster on the side of a building caught my eye. It read “Fat Talk Free Day.” As I read on, I learned that there was an upcoming sorority event on the college mall where women could “Take the Pledge” to free themselves from fat talk. There was also a Dove “Real Woman” speaker who was coming to campus to speak about “Embracing Real Beauty.” How curious to find a term I had coined ten years back having a new life. What was this fat talk revival all about? Googling the event as I walked, I found that a sorority had adopted “banning fat talk” as their “activity of the year” in an effort to free women, at least those on college campuses, from this common ritual.
I tried to wrap my head around Fat Talk becoming a social movement among sorority girls. And why was it occurring now? It seems to me that fat talk is as common today as it was when my colleagues and I first conducted our fieldwork. I still hear it everywhere, in the high schools and college campuses where I continue to do research, and among my own friends and colleagues.
So what purpose does fat talk serve? By the time a white middle class girl reaches adolescence, she has become a competent participant in this fat talk discourse. Saying “I’m so fat” or complaining about specific body parts (“I hate my thighs,” “Can you believe how big my butt is?”) is really much more than an observation about how a girl looks or feels. It’s a call for support from her peers. Comments like these evoke a response that the girl is not fat, that things aren’t as bad as they seem. Fat talk is a kind of social ritual among friends, an attempt to create solidarity. Saying that you dislike your body makes it clear that you don’t think you’re better than your friends, even if you are thinner than them. When the statement comes before eating, it provides an apology or excuse for what you’re about to indulge in (“I know I really shouldn’t but…"). In the household, there is also a lot of fat talk exchanged between mothers and daughters.
Fat talk is a popular idiom which results in support from friends and family, but at what cost? While it may seem innocuous, fat talk can result in slippage from an initial place of gathering support from friends to a self-destructive space. Commenting in a negative way about one’s body can have a host of ramifications including the lowering of self-esteem and the development of negative self-concept. It reinforces the message that you are far from “perfect” and constantly need to monitor and work on yourself. Further, by engaging in frequent self-deprecation, one can lose sight of who they really are and the enormous potential beneath the surface.
As I learned after seeing that poster on my campus, something called "Fat Talk Free Week" was recently launched by a national sorority, the Tri-Delts. This movement on college campuses nationwide brings attention to the need to stop this talk in an effort to promote more positive body image. Their campaign motto is “Friends don’t let friends fat talk.” Women are encouraged to sign petitions against fat talking, and there are stickers, tee shirts and YouTube videos to support the ban. There is also a program (“Reflections”) to bring women together to talk about body image. I support these efforts to bring awareness to friends and other women about the potential negative effects of fat talk.
But we also need to take a hard look at the big picture, and redirect attention away from individual women to an awareness of the conditions and contradictions that contribute to this phenomenon. College campuses are high consumption environments where students have little control of their food intake and drinking is rife. Unhealthy food environments are conducive to weight gain (the memorable freshman 15), which may result in increased fat talk. Thus, it makes good sense to begin a fat talk free movement among this population. Women need to learn how to navigate these unhealthy currents in their environment and to avoid taking on self blame for issues that are far larger than themselves.
While a “just say no” approach to fat talk on college campuses has its merits, it is not enough to counter a pattern that emerges by early adolescence. We need to do more and do it earlier. Parents need to be exposed to informational campaigns about how they can instill a healthy body image for their children at a time marked by intense change. They need to be aware of their own fat talk and ban it in their households. Above all, we need to recognize that fat talk exists in a cultural milieu which promotes dissatisfaction with self and striving toward a more perfect body while at the same time promoting unhealthy food choices at every turn. Building on the momentum of Fat Talk Free Week, we can begin a bigger conversation about how to create and maintain positive health and body image across the life span.