When today’s strong, empowered, autonomous, independent, liberated young women bond with each other the talk invariably turns to “fat.” Or diets or weight gain or thighs.
Apparently, young women today are obsessed about their bodies. Most especially, they are obsessed about the food they put into their bodies and about the way their bodies are proportioned. This causes them to engage in what Jan Hoffman, writing in the New York Times calls “fat talk.”
Hoffman sets the scene:
Over winter break, Carolyn Bates, a college senior, and a friend each picked out five pairs of jeans at a Gap store in Indianapolis and eagerly tried them on. But the growing silence in their separate fitting rooms was telling. At last, one friend called out, “Dang it, these fit everywhere but my thighs! I wish my legs weren’t so huge.” The response: “My pair is way too long. I need to be taller or skinnier!”
The young women slumped out of the store, feeling lousy.
This exchange is what psychological researchers call “fat talk,” the body-denigrating conversation between girls and women. It’s a bonding ritual they describe as “contagious,” aggravating poor body image and even setting the stage for eating disorders. Some researchers have found that fat talk is so embedded among women that it often reflects not how the speaker actually feels about her body but how she is expected to feel about it.
Most women do not like to talk about fat, yet they do so compulsively. Hoffman reports on a study that suggests that 93% of college women do it.
Fat talk is demoralizing. It undermines confidence. It produces feelings of worthlessness.
Since it invariably involves finding fault and flaws, it seems to function as a form of moral self-flagellation. These women are punishing their bodies… for what… I will leave to your imagination.
Yet, young women feel compelled to do it, as though against their will.
To the best of my knowledge, the compulsion is limited to the female sex. Men do not do it. Men do not bond by talking about how fat their thighs are.
This means that women who bond over fat talk are affirming their womanhood as exclusive.
A woman might affirm her womanhood through her relationship with a man. Since this is seriously frowned upon these days, women have chosen to affirm their identities through their similarities with other women.
Fat talk excludes men. More clearly, it seems to exclude the dread male gaze. It may appear to be about how women are seen by men, but I think that it is more about how women feel bonded to other women.
Precious few modern women will allow their womanhood to be defined by a man.
Yet, young women are not affirming themselves by sharing their pride in how they look. The more than indulge in fat talk the more they will cease to be happy about how they look. Many of them are painfully self-conscious about their bodies. Feminine curves seem not to impress. Feeling womanly does not seem to matter.
At best, these women are more interested in transforming their bodies into works of art, objects of aesthetic contemplation than in having healthy, attractive female bodies.
If female bodies are supposed to be valued as works of art, then they are there to be looked at, but not to be touched.
After all, fat talk is not just talk. It involves women looking at women’s bodies, for flaws, imperfections, disproportions. It involves a close examination, but one that is decidedly, I presume, asexual.
The issue is not merely aesthetic. It is also moral. It is a tale of two appetites. Human appetite is not merely limited to the alimentary. It includes the sexual appetite too.
When it comes to sexual appetite, young people are taught that attempts to control or to temper it are bad. They have been taught that sexual repression makes you neurotic and thus that you ought to give your libido free reign.
One wonders whether these same women, fully in touch with their sexuality for having explored and often exposed it are compensating by becoming excessively controlling, to the point of punishing their unruly bodies.
Or perhaps they are taking refuge in fat talk from the roles that the college hookup culture has accorded them.
If so, the solution must be: tempering all appetites. That means sex within a relationship and food consumption at the dinner table.
Defining yourself in terms of your mind’s struggle with your appetites is a losing game. Everyone does better to define him or herself as a social being whose appetites will find a happy medium when they are socialized.
Having recently recovered from a ten year bout of anorexia Emma Woolf asks what went wrong in the relationship between women and food:
Rule 1: be thin. Rule 2: don’t ever be fat.
You know the rules – but where do they come from, and why do we prize female thinness so highly? Why does slim equal success; why does flabby equal failure? It’s an inconvenient truth: gaining weight is losing; losing weight is winning.
And so in the 21st century most women police their diets in some way, moan about their weight and worry about what they eat. I’m not even talking about Atkins, Dukan or the 5:2 diet – I mean how we became suspicious of ordinary things such as bread and milk and meat.
The stricter our regimes, the more intensely we crave forbidden foods: the classic yo-yo cycle of deprivation and bingeing.
One day we’re raw-only and no-carbs after 6pm, next day we find ourselves inhaling all the Cs: chocolate, cake, crisps.
Woolf calls it an all-or-nothing attitude toward food:
This all-or-nothing attitude leaves us wide open to manipulation, even exploitation, by the food industry. Its messages are cunningly mixed: on the one hand, we should treat our bodies like macrobiotic temples; on the other, we should indulge our naughty appetites – because, remember, ‘we’re worth it’.
All-or-nothing thinking is depressive thinking. Unable to find the mean a depressed individual swings from one extreme to the other.
It makes sense that a woman who has learned to indulge her naughtiest sexual fantasies would compensate by engaging in a permanent struggle against her naughty appetite for chips.