Writer Rebecca Shaw
If you make the mistake of daring to walk through life as a fat woman, there are many different ways that the world attempts to make you feel bad about your body. Some of these are incredibly blatant, and involve incidents that would horrify most regular people. I was recently walking along a street filled with fun-loving (obnoxious) partygoers (drunk groups of men) when I heard a familiar tone of laughter from behind me that immediately caused my hackles to rise. One of the sad realities of being fat is that you become hyper-aware in anticipating which people around you might call you names, or laugh at you, or try to embarrass you in some way.
In this moment, my instincts were correct – I was looking down at the ground when a lit cigarette hit the side of my leg and bounced off as its thrower called me a "fat bitch". Yes, things like this happen on occasion. Yes, it is awful. But at the end of the day, I don't actually care what some gross drunk stranger on the street thinks about me. His opinion runs off me like water off a fat duck's back rolls.
What is much harder for me to ignore is the insidious, negative language around fatness that is spoken by loved ones, acquaintances, colleagues and strangers alike on a daily basis. This is a concept known as 'fat talk', which sadly is not a late night show where I invite cool fat women on to talk about their lives, but rather an informal dialogue during which participants express body dissatisfaction, often expressed by the very people who would be disgusted at the man who threw his cigarette at me.
To figure out exactly how insidious fat talk is and how to stop it, researchers at Deakin University are using a survey app in the hopes of tracking exactly how often (and when) this kind of talk occurs, and the impact it has on self-image. Deakin lecturer in psychology, Jacqueline Mills, points out that talking about your body in this way might not have the effect you think:
"Although you might think talking about the parts of your body that are getting you down would help you to feel better, fat talk has been shown to actually increase body dissatisfaction levels. Engaging in fat talk has also been linked with greater acceptance of the "thin ideal" promoted by the media, as well as comparing your appearance with how other people look."
If you have a mother, or friends, or a job in an office, or you spend time with people in almost any capacity whatsoever, you probably have encountered this kind of language. Women of every single body type and body size participate in it, with sentiments ranging from, "I feel so fat today", to "I wish my legs weren't so huge" to "I shouldn't eat this cake, I'm so naughty".
Mills says that the negative impact holds true even if the language is used in humorous or light-hearted ways:
"…it can be said in a humorous way, but it is actually quite harmful and it can have some pretty serious impacts on the way that the individual who's speaking feels, but also the people around them, because research has shown that not just actually participating in fat talk yourself but actually overhearing it can still have an impact on the way that you feel."
There have been many times in my life when I have heard the horrified claims from relatively thin friends or colleagues that they feel fat, or that they shouldn't have skipped that gym session because they look fat, or that they shouldn't have eaten that burger. The effect this has is two-fold. First, it makes everyone in the vicinity understand that being fat is a fat(e) worse than death. Secondly, it always causes me to flush with embarrassment, more so than I do at strangers abusing me on the street. As an actual fat person always much fatter than the person in question, it of course makes me compare myself to the person speaking. If my friend is sad about how fat they look, and they aren't fat, how should I feel? They must think I am disgusting. Why am I even outside, forcing people to gaze upon my frightening and hideous being?
I know logically that none of these people would ever think that about me, or want me to feel that way, but fat talk does reinforce the idea that being fat is the worst thing you can be, and that women are principally valued by how they look. As well as all of this, Mills also says that fat talk can be contagious:
"Hearing someone speak negatively about their body, or even that of another person, can greatly increase the chances of you engaging in fat talk yourself"
This fact is especially worrying when, as Mills points out, body dissatisfaction ratings are being seen extremely early, with children of preschool age identifying the desire to be a different body shape or size than they are.
This app will assist in the development of techniques to stop this kind of damaging dialogue we all participate in. However, in the immediacy, hopefully its existence and the discussion around it will help create awareness of the language we use, and the damaging influence it might be having on you and those around you. We can't stop drunken men on the street being awful. We can't stop the world's obsession with thinness, or its prejudice against fatness, but we can stop ourselves from participating in the vicious cycle that is perpetuated by the negative and unnecessary comments we make about our own bodies.
Follow Bec Shaw on Twitter: @Brocklesnitch