This week, the New York Times Health section ran a blog post about the phenomenon of “fat talk:” women (and, rarely, men) cruelly and specifically critiquing their own bodies in casual conversation. Talking this way gives us no pleasure, observes the author, but we feel compelled to do it. It’s grinding, and unthinking, and a hard habit to break.
I read the post. I wanted to write about it. About how familiar I am with the “fat talk” reflex. How I learned it as a preteen, how it became part of my everyday talk–effortlessly, eagerly, like coughing or laughing. How it felt like the most natural thing in the world, as a fat (and growing) teenager, to fill pauses in conversation with tiny cuts at my own figure. How it never quite gave me the release I was looking for, the open acknowledgement that my body truly was the lumpen monstrosity I thought it was. How instead, it sparked my friends to hush me, to tell me in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t that bad, I was just imagining it, that they were the ones with real ugly-problems. How none of us ever believed it, and were left quietly convinced that our flattering reassurances to each other were lies.
How I finally made up my mind to stop, to go silent whenever the “fat talk” began and re-enter the conversation when it ended. How I don’t engage anymore, even when I am clearly the heaviest woman in the conversation circle. How good it feels to have conquered the reflex, and taken myself out of the self-shaming pool.
And then I stopped by Walgreens on my way home from work today. There was a display of infant tank tops, and this was the most prominent one:
And suddenly it clicked. This is where “fat talk” comes from. This is why it matters.
“Fat talk” isn’t just a habit. It’s a social script. Because we live in a culture that teaches girls, from the moment we exit the womb, to be unsatisfied with our bodies. There’s always something unsavory, offensive, or disturbing about our figures, and it’s our job to take notice. We enter the world swimming in criticism, and we don’t know how to climb out of the pool–because we’ve never been shown that the ladder exists. This is a culture that makes girls start “fat-talking” before they can actually talk.
It’s there, briefly, almost offhand, in the New York Times piece: “…not how the speaker actually feels about her body, but how she is expected to feel about it.” And there’s something else, too: it’s a “bonding ritual.” It’s the one thing women can almost always find in common.
We’re all swimming in it, this enforced self-hatred, and voicing it shows others that you’re normal, you’re relatable, you’re like them. Get into a room with one or two or four or eight other women, and chances are, they’ve learned to nitpick themselves just as effectively as you have. It’s a conversation that’s easy to join, and assumes participation from everyone. You may not like the same music, or agree on politics, but you all have body complaints, and can articulate them with military specificity.
That’s why, as the New York Times writer observes, a woman liking her body out loud is perceived as arrogant–because she’s violating the code. She’s speaking unauthorized language, from a realm we don’t know.
I mentioned that I’ve stopped the “fat talk.” It’s no longer my knee-jerk reaction. But here’s the thing: it took me the better part of 25 years to unlearn it. It’s not so much breaking a habit as it is stifling a reflex. Even now, when the “fat talk” begins around the table, when my friends start taking out the tiny knives–I’m too hippy, too limby, too cylindrical–I don’t call it out. I just sit. I keep my mouth shut. I wait for the conversation to run out of fuel. Because I know if I open my mouth, even to derail the conversation, I’ll be drawn back in. And sometimes I am.
If “fat talk” starts when we’re in diapers, no wonder it’s as easy as laughter by the time we grow up.