The Danger of Pandemic Fat Talk
Elsie returned to work this week with a great deal of apprehension. As a childcare worker, she’s used to getting sick from the infants and toddlers she works with, but she never imagined she’d be taking care of the germiest among us in the midst of a pandemic.
She wasn’t just concerned about germs, however. The 23-year-old was also worried about what she’d talk about with her coworkers. Although all of her coworkers are women, they come from all different walks of life – young, old, white, Black, politically liberal and conservative. Because everything feels politically charged right now – wearing a mask (or not), going to a restaurant (or not), participating in a protest (or not) – Elsie (a pseudonym to protect my student’s identity) figured she’d just focus on the kids and avoid any real conversation with her coworkers.
And then, a funny thing happened: On the first day back after months of not seeing each other, all the women seemed interested in talking about was the weight they had gained while quarantined at home.
Talking About Our Dissatisfaction With Our Bodies Isn’t Healthy
Since the 1980s, body image researchers have described women’s pervasive body dissatisfaction as a “normative discontent.” The phrase was coined by Judith Rodin, a psychologist and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues. It’s a phrase that’s been used extensively because it did and continues to resonate. Women are so inclined to dislike their bodies that this is the norm, which isn’t to say that this is healthy or normal.
And yet, conversations about weight and appearance concerns seem to provide an opportunity for female bonding. These concerns span age, ethnicity, class, and political leanings and seem to be conceptualized as “safe” topics of conversation. Body image research suggests these conversations are anything but safe, however.
“Body talk” or “fat talk,” as it’s referred to among body image scientists, perpetuates an unfortunate cycle. It’s those conversations that go something like this: “I’m so fat!…No you’re not. I’m so fat!”
Women experience body dissatisfaction and in talking about their dissatisfaction actually exacerbate their body dissatisfaction. Part of why fat talk proliferates is that it appears to be more authentic among women than is self-affirming conversations about weight. In other words, women have been socialized to view disliking their bodies as the default to such an extent that they don’t even believe other women who profess to like their bodies.
Although it may seem easiest to just ignore your friend who always complains about her weight, some research suggests that the best way to change the culture of fat talk is to challenge it. If more people encouraged others in their social circles to drop the self-shaming discourse and focus on the positive when it comes to their appearance – or better yet, talk about things other than their appearance – maybe it would become believable for women to view themselves in a positive light?
A recent study conducted by some of my colleagues at University of Missouri’s Center for Body Image Research and Policy found that 37% of women and 44% of men of over 800 young adults surveyed would rather contract COVID-19 than gain 25 pounds while social distancing. This finding suggest that it’s not only Elsie’s coworkers that may find themselves consumed by concerns about their weight in the midst of a pandemic.
Ginny Ramseyer Winter, one of the researchers behind the study, suggests this finding may be due, in part, to young adults’ relatively low fatality rate from COVID-19. It also points to the internalized fat phobia that many people experience. Weight gain is viewed more negatively than an infectious disease with far-reaching health consequences, including possibly death.
Elsie completed my Psychology of Eating class at Rutgers University this past spring semester. A theme across the semester is the extent to which we overvalue women’s appearance, thus devaluing their many other contributions to society. Which isn’t to say that we all need to discuss fraught and complex topics of race or politics if we plan to chat with our coworkers or make small talk with our neighbors. Just that we all have far more to offer one another during these dark days than fat talk.