Girls, imagine the following exchange between your peers:
“Ugh, I just want mozz sticks from Lower. But I can’t I’m too fat.”
“No, you’re not. Look at me—I haven’t gone to the Plex in three days and I can literally feel my thighs growing.”
“No, you’re beautiful! Let’s start eating less late night and going to the Plex more?”
When viewed in print, this conversation sounds fabricated and hyperbolic. Yet this dialogue between girls can be overheard in the stacks of O’Neill, in the booths of the Cabaret Room, on the crowded Comm Ave bus or even in Stokes Hall before class begins. It is known as "fat talk", and inherent in this type of conversation is a damaging self-degradation and a belief that one’s own body will never be perfect. One will never obtain the ideal thigh gap or those inimitable, defined abs stretched across the pages of fitness magazines.
As Part of the Women’s Resource Center’s events for Love Your Body week, Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, tried to address the harmful nature of these speech patterns in her lecture “Fat Talk: How it Hurts Women and What You Can Do About It.” No seat was left open in Fulton 511 Thursday night as Dr. Engeln spoke passionately about the fat talk culture that permeates college life and denigrates women’s bodies.
“You can never be too rich or too thin.”
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
It is statements like these that cause pro-anorexia websites to emerge. Comments from body-conscious adolescents abound on these sites voice extremely unhealthy body images. For example, they may say, “I’m not hungry for food. I’m hungry for how this supermodel looks on the cover of Sports Illustrated”.
As Engeln emphasized, the concern about body image lies not in a concern about health and fitness, but rather in a concern about appearance. Men are taught that their bodies are made for dominating the natural world and emphasizing their power. The media, in contrast, teaches women that their bodies are meant to be objects of desire. The focus on the female body as an object of desire leads to the belief that losing a few pounds correlates with a few new admirers.
The evidence for this can be found in a study done by Engeln in 2005 where several young women were shown a picture of a woman with a slim and toned figure in a white bikini. Though the women acknowledged that the photo looked airbrushed, they all still retained a similar desire to improve their own physical appearances.
There was this deep-seated dichotomy in the minds of these participants—a division between a rational view of what a woman should look like and an imaginary ideal. The picture might have been fake, but their longing for change was all too real. As Britney, a sophomore and a member of Strong Women, Strong Girls said, “We can’t define ourselves by comparisons. We have to define ourselves by what we love about our bodies.”
The statistics speak for themselves. Almost 93% of women engage in some sort of fat talk. This correlates to body dissatisfaction, eating disorder symptoms, body shame, body surveillance and the internalization of the thin ideal. By speaking about their faults and emphasizing their weaknesses, girls lose the ability to see the beauty in their imperfections; the attractiveness of those details separate us from the masses.
In another experiment done by Engeln, three girls were shown advertisements with sexualized images of women. Two of the girls that were part of the experiment looked at the photo and then proceeded to compare their bodies with that of the model’s. The results showed that when the other girls participated in fat talk, the other individual felt pressured to join in and contribute her own negative diatribe. When one girl talks about her own body, there are much larger social implications at stake. Self-hate is contagious.
This fat talk plague is also apparent within the BC community. Think of the HerCampus video that came out in 2012, “Sh!t BC Girls Says” where a man dressed as a BC girl stereotype sits on the couch eating Wheat Thins and whining, “I should really go to the plex more often.” It has almost become an unconscious part of our daily lives to critique every aspect of our bodies.
As Engeln said, if a person can silence her inner Kate Moss, the cycle of fat talk would have no need for an outlet. Skinny, like money, is not the source of happiness. A girl’s body, she concluded, is not a thing for attracting other people, but instead “a vessel, to do what you love.”Images via Amanda C. Ikard/Gavel Media. Featured image via Scorpions and Centaurs/Flickr.