We’ve all done it.
“Ugh. I am SO fat.”
“No! You’re beautiful!”
“No seriously, LOOK at me.”
“You? Look at me.”
“You look great!”
“Are you kidding me? I had White Mountain today!”
“Do you want to start working out together?”
“Yes, let’s hit the Plex ASAP.”
How many of us have uttered this mechanized conversation? According to Dr. Renee Engeln, Senior Lecturer and head of the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University, 93% do it and 29% do it frequently. On Thursday night, Dr. Engeln was the keynote speaker on a talk for Love Your Body Week entitled “How Fat Talk Hurts Women (and Men) and What You Can Do to Stop It”. In a fun and dynamic way, Dr. Engeln forced us to reflect upon some of our most conditioned habits, and suggested ways to go about making a positive change in our self-perception.
She began her talk by exploring conflicting cultural influences of the society we live in. We are simultaneously faced with an “obesity epidemic” and indoctrinated by the “cult of thinness”. She began by citing examples of this cult that are admittedly too close to heart. Skinny mantras such as “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” immortalized by Kate Moss, strategic poses for photos such as the infamous ‘skinny arm’, or a ‘collar pop’ and even a new obsession with ‘the thigh gap’ ideal.
Yep. Some of these hit a little too close to home.
According to Dr. Engeln, it is simply too easy to blame the media. After all, we are aware of airbrushing techniques and most of us have fiddled with Photoshop at one point or another. Here’s the catch: we are quick to judge, but at the same time, we want what we see. “Body dissatisfaction has become the norm for women,” states Dr. Engeln, “which in Psychology we now term normative dissatisfaction.” She went on to explain that this could be both descriptive, the observation of how a situation is, and injunctive, how it should be.
So what happens when this internal feeling becomes interpersonal? Fat Talk.
Please refer to the initial example, and imagine a million twists. Feel free to recall any of your conversations that simulated the same model. This is what is meant by the phenomenon of Fat Talk, a constant emphasis on bodily depreciation. Dr Engeln pointed out that, amidst serious concerns about the dangers of obesity, some may try to argue that this is essentially a good thing: surely it will only motivate people to lead healthier lives and get their bodies in shape. What’s the harm in promoting health?
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Dr. Engeln pointed out that body dissatisfaction seems to cause anxiety, which often results in binging and, oftentimes, purging. More importantly, it has never been about health, but rather about physical appearance. She demonstrated the dichotomy of merely talking about it and actually doing something about it, explaining that expression seemed to be the main aim of Fat Talk. The fact that body concerns reflect a social comparison had been made clear at this point in the lecture, but Dr. Engeln pointed out that her studies have made her believe that ‘fat’ can be a feeling. Sometimes, you feel fat, even if you actually are not. When you fat talk, you are not just seeking compliments, but rather, voicing something that you have embedded within yourself.
So amidst all media and social pressure to hate your body, how can you carve out the space to actually love and appreciate it? “I’ll give you two choices. You can either change the way you talk, and that will change the way you think, or you can change the way you think and that will eventually change the way you talk.”
Dr. Engeln suggested talking about the body as someone you actually care about. For instance, we would never talk to a dear friend the way we often talk about our body. Or we could start to twist how we often think about little social practices, such as refuting the idea that we don’t fit into a pair of skinny jeans, but rather, that the jeans don’t fit us. After all, we’re the one with the agency here. Another way is to focus on the function of your body. We all have different body goals, and we know that these cannot be solely about appearance. These goals could be towards sports, dance, art… anything that we feel pertinent to our own happiness.
“Think of your body as a vessel, to do what you love with it. Shift your focus to what actually matters.”
Dr. Engeln’s talk was extremely interesting and fun, and the student body was very welcoming and receptive to her message. But now comes the hard part. Listening and understanding is all very fine, but when it comes to putting these lessons into actions, well…that involves a lot of effort, and it is definitely not easy. That being said, when it comes to loving your body and yourself, it is a challenge that is worth trying to live up to.