Skoog: Words carry weight

Reframing the way we talk about bodies with one another can reframe the way media conveys bodies to us.

by Caroline Skoog

I lost 18 pounds in three months during my sophomore year of college. The somewhat abrupt change in my body worked its way into conversations with old friends and acquaintances I hadn’t seen in a while. My baggy pants answered the “What’s new with you?” question for me. When I visited my grandma she doused me with compliments on my new image and asked, “What’s your secret?” 

Feeling like a fraud for having accidentally lost weight, I just said: “I don’t know. It’s a secret to me too.” Truthfully, I hadn’t slept more than four hours a night during that three month period. I struggled to buy sufficient groceries. The bags under my eyes had to be checked luggage on flights. My hair was thinning; I was not well. 

When your physical being changes, a lot of people assume that grants permission for them to discuss it.

Still, the unexpected attention made me ask myself what I was doing right. People who brought up my weight loss always painted it in a positive light, yet every comment about my size intensified the pressure I felt to remain the same weight. Despite feeling like a stranger to my body as a result of the change, I felt obligated to continue unhealthy behaviors in order to sustain a certain image and keep others happy or proud, or whatever. 

Conversations about weight are so normalized and embossed into U.S. culture, I remember asking if I looked fat in my Girl Scouts uniform. The idealized image — thin — is spewed through mainstream media, advertisements, the fashion industry and, most insidiously, discussions with our friends and loved ones. Things we say, how we communicate our relationship to our body, demonstrate what we consider to be normal and desirable with regards to our own bodies, and consequently with others; for instance, ordering the same meal at a restaurant with a friend. The friend says, “I can’t believe I’m eating this, I’m so fat.” That comment can’t be considered solely self-deprecating, whether that was the intention or not.

‘Fat talk,’ a term created by researchers in 1994, is a toxic manner of discussing or shaming body shape, type and size (one’s own or others). The irony of the phrase is its reinforcement of stigmas against fatness, in a way re-classifying “fat” as a bad word. However, it pretty accurately describes the nature of these commonplace conversations; lots of “oh my god I’m so fat” and “if you think YOU’RE fat, what does that make me?” As mundane and trifling as these conversations can be, they leave seeds of self-doubt, self-hate and fatphobia in the subconscious. Fat talk contributes to behaviors linked with eating disorders. What’s worse is that fat talk tends to happen in circles of female friends, and the collective self-deprecation actually forges bonds between those who participate. 

Weight-centric, as opposed to health-centric, thinking and talking emerges from the overwhelming amount of industries that sensationalize thinness and vilify fatness: show business, designer fashion and of course the fitness and weight loss industry are all examples of industries that uphold a standard of beauty and size that’s virtually unattainable for most. However, the growth of the body positivity movement, which prioritizes valuing one’s relationship to their body rather than their body itself, has made waves in our current society’s culture. 

Instagram, for one, recently updated its policy on the commercial promotion of detox or weight loss teas and has resolved to remove any post advertising the product(s). Even Weight Watchers — a program based on assigning point values to food to assist in weight loss — has rebranded and is now called “WW,” with “Wellness That Works” as their new tagline. 

A lot of us exist in the in-between of admiring or endorsing the body positive movement but still find ourselves in situations that reinforce stigmas around fatness. Awareness of the conversations we engage in and of our own insecurities is important to dismantling the idealized body image. Language matters. It directly impacts ourselves and others. Reframing the way we talk about bodies with one another can reframe the way media conveys bodies to us.