In the wake of an online petition signed by thousands of people, Facebook announced that it was removing “feeling fat” from its list of status update emoticons. The petition argued that the offending emoticon, with its chubby cheeks and double chin, reinforced negative body images, and Facebook seemed to agree.
Is it really such a big deal if you tell everyone how fat you feel? After all, a simple “I’m so fat!” can result in a chorus of empathetic voices, saying, “Me, too!” or “You’re beautiful just the way you are!” And that will help you feel better, and help others feel better, too – right?
Wrong. As someone who studies this type of public body self-disparagement, known as “fat talk,” I can say that it probably will make you feel worse. And it may drag down other people with you.
Conversational shaming of the body has become practically a ritual of womanhood (though men also engage in it). In a survey that a colleague and I reported in 2011 in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, we found that more than 90 percent of college women reported engaging in fat talk – despite the fact that only 9 percent were actually overweight. In another survey, which we published in December in the Journal of Health Psychology, we canvassed thousands of women ranging in age from 16 to 70. Contrary to the stereotype of fat talk as a young woman’s practice, we found that fat talk was common across all ages and all body sizes.
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According to an analysis of several studies that my colleagues and I published in 2012 in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, fat talk was linked with body shame, body dissatisfaction and eating-disordered behavior. Fat talk does not motivate women to make healthier choices or take care of their bodies; in fact, the feelings of shame it brings about tend to encourage the opposite.
Fat talk is also contagious. In a study published in 2012 in the journal Sex Roles, a colleague and I asked young women to join two other young women seated at a table to discuss magazine advertisements. The trick was that the two other women worked for us; they were what researchers call confederates. The ads started out innocently enough. One was for an electronics store. Another was for a water purifier. But the third was a typical fashion ad showing a model in a bikini.
In the control condition, our confederates commented on the visuals in the background of the fashion ad, but avoided any mention of the model or her appearance. In the “fat talk” condition, our two confederates (neither of whom was overweight) commented on the model. One said: “Look at her thighs. Makes me feel so fat.” The other responded: “Me, too. Makes me wish my stomach was anywhere near flat like that.”
Then it was our subjects’ turn. In the control condition, when neither of our confederates engaged in fat talk, none of our subjects fat talked. But when our confederates engaged in fat talk, almost a third of the subjects joined in. These subjects also reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction and shame at the end of the study than did their counterparts in the control condition.
We can’t control a lot of things in this world. We can’t stop advertisers from Photoshopping images. We can’t stop the fashion industry from preferring skinny models. But we can control the words that are coming out of our own mouths. And when women question whether their bodies are good enough, they may well be causing other women to do the same.
It doesn’t really matter, in the end, that Facebook banned the double-chinned emoticon. What matters is that, for our own good and the good of others, we women stop talking this way, one way or another. Emoticon or no emoticon, we must change the conversation.
The New York Times
Renee Engeln, a psychologist, is a professor at Northwestern University.