So How Do We Talk About Our Bodies Now?
On rejecting "Fat Talk," being a thin ally, and figuring out a new conversation.
I’d like to kick things off, once again, with a giant thank you to everyone who has subscribed, shared, or otherwise supported the newsletter in the past week—even if all you’ve done is politely not unsubscribe while I’m in the midst of this pledge drive-like launch phase. I appreciate you!
Today you’re reading the weekly free essay. On Thursday I’ll be sending out my first newsletter to paid folks only, and it’s going to be GOOD. I’m chatting with Aubrey Gordon of Your Fat Friend fame about thin privilege and what the body positivity movement gets wrong. You’ll hear a bit from Aubrey in the essay below, but for the full conversation, make sure to subscribe. And, make sure to check out Aubrey’s brilliant book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, and next-level-amazing podcast, Maintenance Phase.
Here’s a weird confession: Sometimes, I miss Fat Talk.
“Fat Talk” is a term that researchers use to describe “public body self-disparagement.” I tend to call it “body shaming” now, because even sticking fat in the name reinforces the idea that “fat” is the worst thing your body can be. But that’s usually what conversational body shaming comes down to anyway, in our culture.
I don’t miss how Fat Talk made me feel. Saying “I hate my stomach” so someone else would say “your stomach is fine, but look at my thighs!” has never made anyone feel better about these body parts. Instead, it makes those perceived problems feel bigger and more urgent. By giving these thoughts oxygen, we give them more power over us.
But sometimes I miss Fat Talk as social currency. It was a useful shorthand; an easy way to fast-track a friendship with another body-anxious person. Fat talk communicated that we were all on the same team. We could bond because we didn’t need to compete—nobody was too perfect, nobody had it all figured out, we were all loathing our bodies together.
There are so many problems with this. Fat talk is both a perfect example of, and a powerful tool for, conditioning girls and women, especially, to understand our bodies as our value. Fat talk is one way we learn to take up as little space as possible. This kind of body commiseration also tends to lead to trading diet tips or other so-called solutions that rob us of our time, money, and mental health. And this should go without saying but: Fat talk is deeply fatphobic. When thin people or small fat folks complain about our bodies publicly, we are telling anyone larger than us that they are our nightmare scenario. You cannot bond with your fat friend by telling them you feel fat; you can only hurt them. And then gaslight them by expecting some return of bonding or comfort in exchange for your vulnerability.
Last week, I interviewed a 12-year-old named Lila for the book. Lila is biracial and recently came out as pansexual; she talks about racism, gay rights, and trans rights with an authority and confidence I could not have fathomed having at her age. Granted, I was 12 years old in 1993, the year of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Wilson Cruz had not yet played Ricky on My So-Called Life. As a white, cisgender kid in the suburbs, I did not have many friends of color and while I absolutely had queer friends, they did not feel safe being out in our middle school and I did not yet have the language to support them. But there is one thing that has not changed: Lila and her friends still body shame themselves. Constantly. “I make random mean comments about myself but laugh it off as a joke,” she says. “A lot of girls my age do it. It’s like we’re bringing our friends up by putting ourselves down.”
I asked Lila why it felt necessary to put herself down in order to give someone else a compliment. “Well, you want to make your friend feel better,” she said. “And when you just compliment them about themselves, then they deny it or tell you to stop lying. But then, when you put yourself down to bring them up, I don’t know—I think it just sounds more true.” I think she’s right. But that also means that the bonding we think we’re experiencing through this kind of self-deprecation is a sham. We’re not connecting with someone over some shared misery; we’re simultaneously centering our anxiety and using it to shore up our friend’s thin privilege and place above us in the middle school hierarchy that is also life in diet culture.
Lila thinks she started making jokes about her “dip hips” or “bubble chin” somewhere around the time other people started to make comments about her body. “I was in second grade,” she says.”I was on the jungle gym and my leggings were kind of see-through and someone said, ‘ew, I can see the Korean girl’s butt.’” If she made the joke herself, it seemed like a way to get out in front of any potential attack. And then, it just became the normal way she talked and thought about her body. “You just lose consciousness about it after a while,” she says. “You get used to one form of putting yourself down, and then you get used to another.”
Because we normalize body shaming and because we learn to use it as a tool for connection without recognizing all the ways it’s actually creating dissonance, it can be a particularly disorienting habit to break. I’m often asked in interviews how writing about diet culture has improved my own relationship with my body, and the story I always tell is the time I said “I hate my body right now” to my husband, within earshot of my two-year-old who proceeded to pat herself all over exclaiming, “My body! My body!” It was the quintessential record scratch moment; I realized that I had to stop body shaming out loud so my daughters didn’t grow up thinking that was normal. But stopping myself from articulating those thoughts was a process. Eventually, it led me to start interrogating the thought when it showed up, which helped. The part I don’t usually get into on the radio is just how long it took (and is still taking) for the thoughts to stop coming.
And if you don’t talk about your negative body feelings, it can be hard to figure out where to put them. “While I recognize that these feelings are rooted in diet culture and unhealthy for me and others, they are also real,” a friend (with thin privilege) recently messaged me. “A few years ago, I would have sought relief by sharing these thoughts with friends and listening to ways they related or connected to this experience. Now I feel like I should try to keep those thoughts quiet. I feel guilty contributing to diet culture. But this also feels like suffering in silence—and with more isolation—than I used to experience around these ideas.”
I feel this. We have to process our feelings in order to extract ourselves from diet culture, but how do we do that without harming people around us? “We live in a culture that makes absolutely all of us feel like garbage about our bodies,” Aubrey Gordon, author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, told me for Thursday’s newsletter. “And so we sort of conflate how we’ve been made to feel about our bodies with how much privilege comes from being in our body. We’ve got to do a better job disentangling these things.” Asking yourself whether your negative body feelings are the result of the general diet culture messaging that harms everyone, or the result of a targeted encounter with systemic weight stigma can help you figure out who in your life might be up for this conversation. If you’re thin, it’s probably not going to be your fat friend. Or your friend recovering from an eating disorder.
A good general rule, Aubrey suggests, is to ask for consent before you dive into the conversation. “You can say, ‘I’m having a bad body image day. Are you up for talking about it?” she says. Then, as you have the conversation, look for ways to acknowledge the experiences of fat people along with your own struggle. “So it’s ‘I’m having a really hard time finding clothes that fit’ and ‘I know people who wear larger sizes and I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be for them,’” Aubrey explains. “Even if you’re a thin person talking to another thin person, this will reintroduce the awareness that you ideally already have, but maybe don’t necessarily bring into these conversations.”
There is another, more militant version of “where do I put my bad body feelings now” that I see pop up from time to time on social media, where a woman (usually with a fair amount of thin privilege) will argue that posting about her pursuit of weight loss isn’t fatphobic because she’s totally fine with other people being fat, she’s just personally trying to be healthier or feel better in her clothes. I get this argument because if you dig back far enough, you will find me making it in old posts or essays. But: It’s the “but I have so many black friends!” justification for what is actually a fairly loud expression of our anti-fat bias. I know that can be hard to see when your own body discomfort feels so huge, but consider that just under 50 percent of American adults tried to lose weight between 2013 and 2016, according to the CDC. “Notably, white people and people with higher incomes were the most likely to be engaged in weight-loss efforts,” writes Aubrey. “Meaning that those of us with particularly pronounced privileges were most likely to be engaged in activities to try to reduce our size.” We can tell ourselves that our need to change our body isn’t rooted in hating fatness. But it’s worth considering just how sure we are that wanting to “feel better in clothes” isn’t code for “get all my thin privilege back.” As Aubrey explains in Thursday’s newsletter: “The hard thing is, folks will feel defensive and disconnected from a sense of their own privilege, while at the same time, kind of consciously cashing in on it.”
I do think there’s a distinction between how we have this conversation in a public space, like Instagram, and how we have it in private. Feeling driven to lose weight is not a personal failure; it’s a completely logical response to a culture that has sold us that message since we were in preschool. But posting about your intentional weight loss on Instagram, even if you dress it up as “not really about weight,” will cause harm.
I think we end up stuck in Fat Talk, and also stuck in “it’s not a diet” and “I’m just doing this to be healthy” because we don’t know how to have the other conversation. What we need to be able to say is something closer to “my body has changed and I’m struggling to remember that my worth isn’t contingent on my body size.” Or: “I hate that my stomach doesn’t look like I think my stomach is supposed to look and I hate that how stomachs look matters so much to me.” We never need to hate people who diet; we never need to hate ourselves for struggling with our bodies. We need to hate diet culture—and then identify it, interrogate it and dismantle it. But that’s a tricky shift to make when diet culture has taught us to blame ourselves.
Listen: I joined Rachel Coleman and Tina Laboy on the Mom Genes podcast to do some myth-busting about healthy kids. Listen here.