I remember 9th grade dance class like it was yesterday: I would take my awkward, leotard-clad body into class and try to avoid my image in the wall-to-wall mirrors for the entire hour. I also remember one particular girl from that class who spent the hour watching herself—dreamily—in those mirrors. She loved her body. Her curvy, imperfect, slightly overweight body. While the rest of the class would bond over talk of fat thighs and diets, she would simply enjoy the movement of dance class and avoid the destructive conversations around her. To me, she was the epitome of comfortable in her own skin. Back then, I just assumed she was hard-wired that way—lucky girl! But I've since realized that she knew a secret most girls her age (not to mention, many grown women) hadn't figured out: She avoided fat talk.
We're reaching the end of Fat Talk Free® Week 2012, an annual campaign that urges women to ditch the destructive talk both in their minds and their conversations. The campaign developed out of a program at San Antonio's Trinity University and is promoted by the national Tri-Delta fraternity. Its brilliance is in its simplicity: If we want to change the way we feel about our bodies, we first have to change the conversation.
How extensive is the fat talk problem? In a Glamour magazine survey, 97 percent of participating women noted that they had hateful thoughts about their body on any given day. The problem is not unique to grown women, either. In a study out of Florida, about half of participating 3- to 6-year-old girls were worried about being fat. Worse, many of these children already wanted to change something about their body.
The good news is that the solution is accessible to everyone, and it's free—simply take the pledge to stop fat-talking. Take a day or two to notice how often you have thoughts about yourself that are cruel, such as berating yourself for eating French fries or telling yourself how fat you look. And pay attention to what you say about yourself and others in conversation. If it involves weight or looks, it's fat talk. Cutting down or eliminating these thoughts and words can make a huge difference in your life. Consider this sampling of ways that fat talk makes us miserable:
It keeps us from having fun. Women report missing out on enjoyable activities simply because they don't like the way they look. Parties, vacations at the beach, and going dancing with friends can lose their luster when a woman is allowing fat talk to dominate her thoughts.
It makes self-esteem plummet. Fat talk is closely related to body image, and poor body image leads to lower self-esteem. The interesting thing is that we allow ourselves to talk about our body in a manner that we would never use with a dear friend; this cruelty takes a toll on how we feel about ourselves.
It's ruining our mood. One recent study found that undergraduate students who had high levels of fat talk were more likely to experience depression. Another revealed that women who participated in a conversation involving fat talk felt worse about themselves than women who did not join the conversation.
It might make us fat. Research indicates that feeling fat may be a precursor to becoming fat. Focusing on weight, rather than health, seems to lead to a perfect storm of extreme dieting, feelings of guilt, and overeating.
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Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.