Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fat Talk

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.


Anonymous said...

The greatest threat to a woman's liberation is other women. The idea that it's men is a canard.

I love how whiney women blame the "fashionista-gastrological" media complex (read: women's magazines) as being responsible for their problems with self-image. They believe these (supposedly male-dominated) periodicals with airbrushed photos of beautiful celebrity women are the cause of their insecurity. It's "The Man" telling them how to feel about themselves. It's a conspiracy against the sacred feminine. And they buy said magazines in the billions. Does that make sense to you?

This reminds me of a significant realization I had in my early 20s. I was listening to a radio program, and the conversation was about this controversial book called "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" (1996) by Fein and Schneider. It astounded me that one of the rules was that a woman should dress for men instead of women. Duh... I wondered why that even needed to be said aloud. And as the exchange continued, the guests said this was one of the most dangerous ideas in the book. That may have been the key moment in my life when I realized women were taking the male-female dynamic in a really wacky direction. The other key moment was reading Christina Hoff Sommers' "Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women" (1994), which drew a distinction between what she called "equity feminism" and "gender feminism." This was all new to me. I have since grown to realize that (a) most women do dress for other women, and (b) the loudest complainer/whiner in a gaggle of women will define the tenor and agenda of the conversation. And why do we wonder why men don't feel comfortable around women in social settings?

It's a woman's world, folks. How's it going?


Anonymous said...

I read that 6 months after Guam got American TV (maybe '70s), a majority of young women developed eating disorders.

It's been my belief for a long time that media & fashion have promoted female morphological freaks (and even They starve suffer & die). Occasional scandals after runway models die suddenly, & the Overlords repent and promise changes that Never come.

Golly, I hope this doesn't seem hateful, it's not my intention. Many (most in some fields) Overlords are gay. I'm sure they have different perspectives on bodily beauty.

But Most women could starve themselves to death, and Never reach the anorexic Ideal. They simply don't have the somatotype.

I suspect that's why the zaftig beauty Christina Hendricks seems to be regarded as some kind of Chimera.

The Ideal has infected boys and men, which makes it all the harder for Most women.

I don't have an answer for this needless suffering. But I know it's wrong. -- Rich Lara

Dennis said...

An addict cannot be cured until they admit that they are the real problem and actually want to do something about it. It is just not going to happen.

Bobbye said...

The fashion and cosmetic industries exist because girls/women want to be 'wanted' by men. It has always been so as any ancient literature will attest. In a patriarcal society, girls learn acceptable dress and behavior from their dad. Most fathers do not want their little girl to dress and act like a slut. In a matriarcal society, dad's voice is silenced or margialized and girls learn how to dress and behave from mom. Our current society is the result of that.

Anonymous said...

After all, Bobbye, all the moms want to be seen as "hot." What an aspiration and inspiration.


Anonymous said...

Fat Talk would be an effort to feel good or bad about oneself using an iconic sign associated with feelings of pleasure or pain:

Whereas the indexical feelings of pleasure (love of self and others) are generated not by any iconic meaning, necessarily part of the ideas formed in early childhood, but by the integration of memories of pleasure in the presence of others.

Bobbye said...

Anonymous @ 12:39 PM

Is there a way to rephrase your comment so that a child could understand? I sure would like to understand your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hoo Boy! Orwell said highfalutin language & jargon was for Obfuscation, not Communication. How right he was. -- Rich Lara

Anonymous said...

Icon: a sign that points to and typically resembles a similar object.

Index: a sign that indicates a causal relationship.

Feelings of pleasure or pain can be accompanied by iconic signs or by indices.

No child can understand these things because the ability to recognize iconic versus indexical knowledge is emergent in adults to some degree.

Fat Talk is an effort to process the meaning of the image of one's body to self and speculate about that meaning to others.

Bobbye said...

anonymous @ 5:10 PM

“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein

Anonymous said...

Bobbye, you've just got to understand our friend Anonymous. He doesn't believe in free will. He thinks we're all just bumbling sacks of protoplasm, hurtling through the (ever-expanding) universe at blistering speeds, acting upon each other's atoms and creating experiences of pleasure and pain... and nothing else. I'm happy to introduce you. And let me caution that resistance is futile, the fog never lifts, Einstein's admonishments are never heeded. It just goes on, and on, and on, and on. Enjoy. You see, without free will there is no choice. There's just endless banter about this, that and the other... index and icon and mitochondria. Because, you see, without free will there is no hope. There is just fate. Which we're all headed toward on God's clock anyway... if there is a God, which im sure Anonymous views to be a vacant, childish pleasure construct. Everything is "emergent in adults to some degree," until Anonymous points out... you're not an adult. He is? Fun game, eh? You see, by Anonymous' reasoning, "Fat Talk" is an attempt to reason something out that you can't affect anyway. Great pointless fun! Weeeeeeee!!!! It's all about feeling good.


Anonymous said...

And in case you'd all like to get the crib notes on Anonymous' academic reference (see specified URL from Anonymous @12:39 PM post), here's the bottom line:

Language creates meaning.

There you go. All in one sentence. Three words. Wow!


Bobbye said...

Thanks for the crib note Tip. I did check the link before I replied to Anon. I don't however accept the notion of free will, since you brought it up. Never saw a definition of it that I could buy. Seems to me that with hundreds of millions of factors affecting9 our friend would say, effecting) every choice, I prefer to simply call it choice.
Thanks Stuart for another great donnybrook.

Anonymous said...

Haven't laughed this hard from a blog post in a while. Great side discussion on top of an excellent analysis of fat talk dynamics (which all seemed surprisingly accurate)... really enjoyed this one. Where can I donate?

Anonymous said...

Sarcasm duly noted.

Anonymous said...

I do not mean that "language creates meaning."

Meaning emerges via a process of self-other communication which has the same properties as language. The content of meaning can be recognized as modes of communication with icons, indices, and symbols.

In the Common Law, a child cannot be held "responsible" for a crime or tort prior to age seven. The doctrine recognizing that reason is emergent is called The Age of Reason. This age was set arbitrarily at seven but in contemporary law a contract with an "infant" can be set aside up to age 18.

Sam L. said...

The War On Women is an un-civil war between/among women.