“Careless talk costs lives”: On Fat Talk Free Week

This week is Fat Talk Free Week, an initiative of Tri Delta sorority that in the last few years has become a national campaign. FTFW challenges participants to pledge to go one week without criticizing their, or anyone else’s body:

Fat Talk describes all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. Examples of fat talk may include: “I’m so fat,” “Do I look fat in this?” “I need to lose 10 pounds” and “She’s too fat to be wearing that swimsuit.” Statements that are considered fat talk don’t necessarily have to be negative; they can seem positive yet also reinforce the need to be thin – “You look great! Have you lost weight?

The idea behind FTFW is to make participants aware of how often they engage in fat talk, reinforcing, whether they mean to or not, the impossibly high beauty standards that to which women are subject, and reaffirming the disgust and discrimination that are so often directed at overweight people.

My first experience of cutting fat talk out of my life came before I was aware of the existence of FTFW. In the spring of my sophomore year, I became the artistic director of my all-women college dance company. I had been in the company for a year and a half, long enough to know that when my upperclassmen friends in the company referred to it as “the company of recovering anorexics,” they were barely joking. Many of the older members were recovering from eating disorders and many of the other dancers had, as you’d expect of high-achieving students who were also dancers, noticeable body image issues. For some, that manifested a near-obsessive devotion to toning their abdominal muscles, for others, in standing in front of the dressing room mirror before a show and talking disparagingly about their shape.

When I became artistic director, I was struggling, as I had been for several years, with body image issues of my own. But I realized that I was now in a position of responsibility, and of power. I had the responsibility to set a good example for the dancers, and the power to begin to change the culture of the company. If we were going to be “the company of recovering anorexics,” then I wanted to make sure that our company culture did nothing to impede that recovery, and nothing that might trigger a relapse.

So I quit fat talk. I stopped talking negatively about my own body in front of other people. I stopped complimenting people on having lost weight. And it was really, really hard. Fat talk comes so naturally to us that we often don’t even notice that we’re doing it. Now, if someone tells me that I’ve lost weight and look good, I respond – automatically, at long last – by saying, “I feel good.” I don’t thank them for the compliment, not because I’m trying to be rude, but because I’m trying to challenge the assumption that “Have you lost weight?” is a compliment at all.

My attempts to change the culture of the company had mixed results. The semester after I had become artistic director, we admitted a dancer whom we suspected might still be suffering from a full-blown eating disorder. I had joined the campus eating disorders awareness and prevention group in the intervening time, and when this dancer joined the company I decided to move I had to move from simply trying to set a positive example to trying to set a “no fat talk” policy for the company. I wanted to be sure that that dancer could see our company as a safe space, one where she wouldn’t hear people say the same things about their own bodies that the voices in her head were screaming about hers. Ultimately, this didn’t succeed, and despite my best efforts, fat talk did – still does – happen among company members (though it can no longer be accurately described as “the company of recovering anorexics”). What I learned is that cutting the fat talk en masse requires a commitment and a conscious effort from everyone involved, and that’s not easy to swing.

It’s hard to eliminate fat talk from your conversations, and it’s even harder to eliminate it from your thoughts. That’s a reality that I struggle with every day, even during Fat Talk Free Week when I’m making a conscious effort to think positive thoughts about my body. I encourage you all to participate in Fat Talk Free Week this week, and every week. But we need to be realistic: eliminating fat talk is a step toward cultural change, but it’s not enough on its own. Next comes the greater challenge of changing the way we think about our bodies, as well as the way we speak about them.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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