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In last week’s Sexist Beatdown, Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown and I discussed the great social dilemma facing girls today. It concerns, of course, “The Fat Talk,” a ritual that girls of every size practice in order to keep their self-esteem firmly in check. Behold, the “Fat Talk” Model of Female Friendship:

Girl 1: I am fat.

Girl 2: Me too.

So, girls: Do you cement your spot in the social hierarchy of girlhood by engaging in this self-destructive chatter about how fat, dumb, and ugly you are? Or do you risk being cast out of girlhood’s good graces by holding yourself with confidence?

Commenters to the rescue!

Julia, too, is vexed by the incessant “fat talk” of women and girls:

Wait no! I need more practical tips on how to handle fat talk! It is absolutely RAMPANT among my friends, and I have no idea how to handle it in a constructive and healthy way. It doesn’t help matters that I’m thin, and so any objections I raise are usually met with “well you wouldn’t understand, anyway.” Actually, when I was younger that used to cut me deeply, because it felt like I was being ostracized for being thin, and I SO BADLY wanted to participate in fat talk with a level of authority. I don’t even want to think about how messed up that is… I was supposed to want to be thin, but then everyone [female] HATED me for being thin, so then I hated me for being thin, even though I supposedly possessed something praise-worthy. Which was/is confusing, to say the least.

Anyway! Point being, does anyone have ideas/stories about how they have successfully navigated the fat talk mine field? I for one freeze in fear every time the subject comes up. (Because even more than a decade later, it still signifies being left out, in my mind). How do I effectively communicate concern about body image issues without coming across as condescending or dismissive? I love my friends, I think they’re all beautiful, and I love that we don’t all look the same! Why does self-esteem have to be some sort of messed up self-sacrificial zero sum game?

Em suggests getting it all out over a couple of beers:

Julia, a friend and I successfully navigated this by just being honest. We were up late drinking one night and I honestly said what I thought for years, that I was really jealous of her 5′11, 120-pound frame. She laughed and said she had always been jealous of my curves! From then on out we’ve always discussed our INSECURITIES, not our supposedly awful, ugly bodies, knowing that we’re being ridiculous.

Of course, I only have this sort of candidness with one friend, so I don’t know if that’s a really group-wide solution. But for the girls you are really close to, I think it helps to think of the real reasons you engage in this kind of “fat contest” and then to be honest about it. It usually comes down to jealousy—-I’ve had to explain to my boyfriend, men look at women to check them out, women look at women to compare. Constantly and exhuastively. If we talk about this pissing contest and we’re all aware of it, sometimes we can transcend above it.

Of course, this assumes the maturity of all parties. Ha.

b-bop notes how frighteningly pervasive the “fat talk” is:

I have a friend who is extremely gorgeous and always turns heads wherever she goes….she thinks her teeth are a major embarrassment because they’re “too pointy” and is sensitive about her age for some reason…

I have known girls who were size 0 and model height claim to be fat…

Affects everyone I suppose.

Frankie explains how “fat talk” works as a cover for all manner of “insufficient talk”:

I have an awesome group of close female friends. I don’t think a single one of us is the same height, weight or shape and yet we’ve all engaged in this weird ‘fat talk’ thing, where by one of us gets to feel guilty for being the skinniest/lightest/curviest/tallest/shortest or whatever is deemed the most awesome trait of that five minutes whilst everyone else feels terrible for not winning the contest to be most beautiful right that second.

It’s ridiculous because there is no way that my gorgeous six foot tall friend should weigh the same as I do, or that my girlfriend should be both proud of and embarressed by her breasts because they are somehow both something to be envied and ashamed of at one and the same time. We all know this but still engage in this behaviour. So we’ve been trying something new, something my therapist suggested when I was being treated for Anorexia.

When any one of us says ‘I feel fat/ugly/whatever’ we do our best to make the time to sit down and talk about what is making us feel bad. It’s not ideal but it seems to be working, enough so that I’m more likely to get a call from a friend now saying she feels low and could do with a chat than I am to be asked to reassure her that she’s not hideous.

One thing we seem to have noticed is that nine times out of ten, something which is unrelated to looks is going on but our self esteem is so tied up in how we see our bodies that we translate feeling bad about anything into feeling bad about how we look. So for example, if I forget to do something important aswell as feeling terrible about forgetting I ALSO feel fat or ugly, even though there is no way the two have anything to do with each other. What’s more, I will feel so bad about feeling fat that I am more likely to mention that as the reason I am upset. I did used to think this was just because I had an eating disorder, but it turns out that the same is true to a greater or lesser degree for all my close female friends.

Photo by SantaRosa, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0