The very real problem of ‘fat talk’
The first time I realized that “fat talk” is its own separate, beastly entity within girl talk was when I was a freshman in college. One Sunday afternoon, I was at an ice cream social for my then-sorority (I dropped out about five weeks after joining), and I was standing in line for my two scoops of vanilla. That’s when the girl behind me turned to the girl behind her and said, “I’m such a fatty. I had dessert for lunch and now I’m having ice cream.”
For the record, she wasn’t “fat”—not that it mattered; but she was clearly having an insecure moment about her body or perhaps, the idea eating in public and being judged. Or maybe she was just exhibiting self-deprecation, something some women do to make each other feel comfortable. (It’s ripe for parody lately). Whatever the reason, her statement struck me as one of those body-shaming moments that’s more damaging than it seems. And it’s not uncommon.
Lately, I’ve heard the word ‘fat’ used as a bonding term, and not in a good way. While there’s a body positive movement that’s all about reclaiming the term, that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about when girls come together to commiserate over their workout routines, diets, gapless thighs, or changing sizes. It’s not too much different than gossiping about our exes or lending a favorite pair of heels; attempting to ease relatable discomforts by sharing them. Yet, it is — because fat talk can make us even more body-obsessed, and that is where we can get ourselves into a lot of trouble. (Believe me, I know.)
“Fat” doesn’t just connect us; it is also a jokey justification for simply EATING FOOD. Two days after that sorority ice cream social, I was seated at a stool in my dorm’s snack shop, when I noticed two fellow freshman gazing at the menu. One settled on the grilled cheese, then turned to her friend and asked:
“Are you getting anything?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said her friend.
“Oh. I need to eat. I’m fat.” the girl responded.
Before this period of my life, I’d never heard anyone talk like this, but now I notice it all the time. In fact, guys take part in this kind of “fat talk,” too — excusing eating by calling themselves “fat”—as if sustaining your body with nutrients was a choice.
While this kind of “fat talk” seems new to me, our cultural use of the term as a means of self-deprecation dates back years and years. Remember the stereotypical image is of a woman standing in front of her bedroom mirror, wearing her new party dress asking, “Do I look fat in this?”
That’s still a question we ask of each other, and it’s heartbreaking. A few weeks before my best friend’s 23rd birthday, I was at her apartment, sitting on her couch waiting for her to come out of her bedroom for a second opinion on her birthday outfit. My incredibly beautiful and confident friend stepped out in a tight, short, bright red number.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I love it!” I replied, with the proper and genuine amount of bestie enthusiasm.
“I don’t look fluffy?”
“Um, what’s fluffy?”
“Fat, Marie. Do I look fat?”
When a girl “speaks fat” about herself, she wants you to convince her, or at least try really, really hard to convince her, that she’s not. It is a monster-sized insecurity that needs to be tamed. If girls are willing to, at least sometimes, use that word (or its euphemisms) about themselves out loud, I can only imagine it’s at least a million times more frequent in their heads. That’s the way it works for me, anyway. I may never have asked a boyfriend or best friend, “Do I look fat today?” but I have asked my reflection twenty times a day for the last thirteen years.
While I try to keep the question in check, I have found that the word “skinny” is more openly embraced—though equally tinged with body pressure. Sometimes calling someone ‘skinny’ is a compliment with a bitter edge—it’s skinny-shaming. I hate to remember it, but even in elementary school, I had a friend who was naturally super-thin, and whose skinniness bothered her. So my other friend and I offered to help her out — by pressuring her with the tone of a drill sergeant to eat more at lunch. Thankfully, she got annoyed, and we stopped. But while there’s nothing nice about what we did to begin with, my motivations for doing it were even worse. I wasn’t doing it for her, I was doing it because I was jealous. Even at 8 years old, I understood that skinniness was enviable, and I wanted her to be on my level. Awful.
Years later, when I was a cheerleader in high school, I was calling myself fat to the point where skinny became my only goal, I lost everything. I didn’t really have friends. I was distant from my family. I didn’t laugh or kiss or dream, or think about anything but calorie counts, pounds, and jean sizes. I didn’t create; I subtracted. I couldn’t hear it all fall away; all I could hear was fat fat fat. I didn’t necessarily speak all the dialects of fat talk, but I was so dedicated I became completely fluent. The only ones who understood my language were my size-00 hip bones and the growing gap between my thighs, when we’d lie in bed at night and whisper success. I didn’t yet understand that not every “victory” bestows happiness.
. . . So what now?
The truth is, I’m not sure. I could say, “Let’s stop using that word ever!” but that would be naïve. The word — with all its meanings — is so culturally cemented I don’t know how you’d begin to remove it. Besides, I wouldn’t suggest anything I didn’t think I could do myself. I may rarely say “fat” out loud, but I still think it often. And while it may not cut me quite like it used to, the wound is still there, despite all the healing I’ve attempted, reopening when I need a reminder to stay in my place.
I don’t know what to do, but I am just starting to think this word is a little too heavy to keep carrying around. For me, “fat” takes the space of other language I could use, other thoughts and feelings I could fall into, other drives I could pursue. Somehow, I’ll find a way to diminish it. To not let it be the word that dances on the edges of everything, that whispers in my ear when I’m getting dressed and looking in the mirror and deciding what to eat and how my day is going to go. I’ll find a way to not let it think it can get to me.
Marie Hansen lives in Lincoln, Nebraska where she daylights as the “craft lady” at an after-school program for kids with behavior problems and moonlights as a writer, Kardashian fanatic, and glitter enthusiast. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @xomarielorene.