“Fat Talk,” Body Image and Eating Disorders

“Fat Talk,” Body Image and Eating Disorders
By Julie Holland Faylor, MHS, CEDS

 

After consuming a high-calorie food, have you ever said “I need to hit the gym now!” or “I know that went straight to my thighs!”

Do you call your comfortable jeans “fat pants”?

When asked how you’re doing, have you ever responded with a quip like, “I’d be better if I didn’t have to squeeze into a bathing suit this weekend!”?

 

At one time or another, we have all been guilty of using disparaging self-talk related to weight, size, or shape. This tendency is so commonplace in today’s culture that there is actually a term for negative body commentary, used by the general public and clinical circles alike: “Fat talk.”

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Whether we say these comments aloud or just in our heads, “fat talk” can have a significant impact on the way we feel about our bodies and ourselves. For most people, disparaging self-talk just makes us feel inadequate or depressed. However, negative body image plays a significant role in the development and maintenance of eating disorders. For individuals that are predisposed to developing an eating disorder (in other words, if eating disorders run in their families), seemingly harmless comments about themselves—or unsolicited comments from others—can contribute to the development of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, or trigger a relapse for those in recovery from these serious illnesses.

 

Because “fat talk” is pervasive in our society and has the potential to impact our—and our young loved ones’—body image and self-worth, it is important that parents understand this phenomenon. Below are five considerations to help combat “fat talk” and cultivate positive body image in our lives and homes:

Be aware. “Fat talk” is everywhere; if you pay attention, you will find that fat jokes and “fat talk” are speckled throughout movies, sitcoms and books, even those geared towards adolescents and young adults. It is the fodder of seemingly every comedian in the world, and it underscores countless ad campaigns touting products and services promising to make us thinner, prettier and more desirable. For women and girls in particular, “fat talk” has become a bonding ritual of sorts—we often connect with others over mutual dissatisfaction with our weight, shape and size. Awareness is the first step in any meaningful behavioral change, so consciously try to identify the ways you and those around you use “fat talk” in your daily lives.

Be kind—to yourself, and to others. Our body weight and shape have nothing to do with who we are as individuals, mothers, daughters, friends, and employees. When you feel the urge to insult yourself related to your body size, shape or weight, instead think about the value you bring to your family, friendships, workplace or community. Also, avoid drawing attention to others’ body and weight insecurities. Our comments may come from a good place—we may think we’re supporting or motivating others with these messages—but we can never know the true impact of our words on others. Err on the side of kindness and make it a practice to not talk about others’ bodies.

Model healthy attitudes and behaviors. The most important thing parents can do to help their children develop a healthy body image is model healthy attitudes and behaviors toward body weight, size and shape. Kids are behavioral sponges—they watch what their parents do, they listen to what they say and they develop their worldview accordingly. Rather than toning down the “fat talk” around your children, try to remove it from your vocabulary altogether. Adults in your life may benefit from this change as well—family members and friends may notice the absence of “fat talk” from your conversations and follow your lead.

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Normalize eating in your home. Our thoughts and behaviors around food and eating are often closely linked to how we feel about our bodies. With that in mind, don’t allow or encourage dieting in your home. Don’t stigmatize foods as “good” or “bad”—all foods are okay in moderation, and the goal should be to consume a diverse, balanced diet with as much real, unprocessed, natural foods as possible. Do help to cultivate the social aspect of meals by turning off the television, putting down cell phones and making conversation with loved ones at the table. Additionally, talk to your children about their meals outside the home—who did they eat with, what did they eat, what did they talk about—to help them think critically about their patterns.

Frame exercise as fun and healthy. “Fat talk” often paints exercise as a punishment for eating too much or the wrong kinds of foods, or as a means to “fix” a perceived body flaw. Be sure to position regular physical activity as a fun and healthy habit for children and adults alike—in fact, it can be even more fun when families get active together. Exercise doesn’t have to involve a treadmill or weights—it can be walking the dog, building a snowman or playing softball with friends, family or colleagues.

 

Let me be clear—“fat talk” can adversely impact body image and self-esteem, which is a contributing factor in the development of eating disorders, but it doesn’t cause an eating disorder. Eating disorders result from a complex interplay of biological, psychological and sociocultural factors. However, it is important to understand the connection between “fat talk,” body image and eating disorders, particularly as it pertains to helping our children develop healthy body image and attitudes toward food, eating and exercise.

Embracing Our Daughters: Supporting Them as They Enter Adolescence

Embracing Our Daughters: Supporting them as they enter adolescence
By Christie Caggiani

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Truly some of the most humbling moments as a professional come from teachable moments as a mother.  I recently had a conversation with a mom, as our nearly teen daughters were getting together for the day.  She was clearly concerned about her child’s blossoming body, and shared that she had told her daughter she was going to buy her a gym membership. That alone gave me pause, however, when my daughter later recounted that they were encouraged to go for a walk to burn off some calories, it shifted me into anger. Fortunately, the girls said they went outside because it was a beautiful evening and they had a lot of fun walking, but I realized that no matter how much I try to teach body positive attitudes, the forces in this world are challenging those messages at every turn.

 

It is critical that as our adolescents’ bodies begin to change, we are a solid, reliable resource and support system for them.  This is a time when they are uncertain about their physical self, how to act, and how to feel, so we as parents are key in letting them know these changes are normal and that they are exactly where they should be in their development. Our role is to help them connect with, listen to, and respond consistently to their body’s signals, whether their body is asking for food, sleep, activity, or a good cry.  Our role is NOT to control how their bodies turn out or interfere with their changing process along the way.

 

One of my favorite books on this topic, Like Mother, Like Daughter by nutritionist Debra Waterhouse, is one I would highly recommend to any female.  Not only does it help us understand what is happening in our daughter’s body, it gives us greater insight into how we can better equip our young women to avoid the traps of weight and food preoccupation.  To quell your fears, and give you some direction, remember the following:


What Society Wants You to Do

What Your Daughter’s Body Naturally Wants to Do (and what we can reinforce)

Mold her body into an aesthetic ideal Find a comfortable weight that is biologically and genetically right for her
Encourage dieting Eat enough food to supply her body with nourishment and fuel
Condition her taste buds Stimulate all of her taste buds and enjoy the taste of sugar starting in infancy, salt starting in toddler years, and fat starting in adolescence.
Feed her low-fat foods Consume enough fat for brain development and physical growth
Feed her by the clock Eat when her body tells her it’s time to eat
Enforce three balanced meals a day Eat small, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day
Provide a full-course dinner Eat as much as her body needs at dinner and have a snack at night if she’s hungry

 

Here are some other pointers that may be helpful as you assist your pre-teens and teens in their journey:

  • Just talk.  Share your memories of puberty, and use it as an opportunity to open dialogue.  Ask her if there’s anything she finds confusing, and encourage her to name her emotions.
  • Arm her with resilience to handle insensitive comments from classmates, well-meaning relatives, and friends.
  • Connect openly with other parents and ensure that they provide a similarly positive body attitude environment.
  • Avoid making comments that tell her she will be okay once she grows taller, loses some weight, or changes her body in some way.  She is exactly where she is supposed to be today.
  • Focus on the internal qualities that make up her person – her creativity, compassion, or strength of character.
  • Never, ever talk negatively about your own or anyone else’s body.  Period.
  • Enjoy food with your child.  Let her see you eat, savor, and enjoy meals and snacks.
  • Encourage movement as a way to connect with the body, unload some stress, and have some unstructured fun!  Never encourage exercise as a way to change the body, burn calories or lose weight.

Recommended reading: 

200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem, by Will Glennon

Embody: Learning to Love your Unique Body, by Connie Sobczak

Like Mother, Like Daughter, by Debra Waterhouse, RD

A Therapist's Changing Body – Guest Blog

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Today’s guest blog from Psychotherapist Jessica Aronson touches on a question that many working women and expecting moms often wonder. What can we do as parents or professionals to teach others (kids and adults alike) to both respect and feel comfortable with the inevitable physical changes as they grow, from puberty to pregnancy? How can we learn to cope with our bodies through different stages of life?

As you know, this is a topic I hold near and dear to my heart. Her account is decidedly honest, and I hope you enjoy. Please feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section below.

A Therapist’s Changing Body

By: Jessica Aronson, LCSW-R, ACSW, CGP Psychotherapist http://www.wmhcnyc.org/aronson/ www.jkpassages.com

As I anxiously and joyously await the arrival of my second child, another boy, I am reminded of the process all over again. It’s no longer just my client and I sitting in the room; with my son growing inside of me, there are three of us now.

My clients in particular are heightened to these changes. Having worked with eating disorder patients for more than 10 years, I’m familiar with—and prepared for—the comments: “You look great, did you change your hair?” or “You’re so little,” or “You’re wearing colors today.”

So it wasn’t all that surprising that the comments continued as I too continued to grow and change. People have remarked on how big I’ve gotten; how my skin has broken out; how uncomfortable I must be (and am). The list goes on.

At eight months pregnant, there is no way to hide my belly. It now shares the sacred space of a therapy session, a place that’s otherwise reserved solely for my patient and myself. That being said, I nevertheless try not to talk about my pregnancy or my changing body with my patients at great length, as it leaves me exposed and vulnerable as their therapist.

When the situation seems appropriate, however, I do push myself to inquire as to what thoughts and feelings my changing body and unborn child brings up for them. Clients have shared feeling uncomfortable by the size of my belly. They’ve expressed sympathy as well as the desire to take care of me by offering me a seat on the couch. They’ve expressed fears about my maternity leave.

Of course, there is no way to avoid these changes—or the physical changes any woman experiences during the course of their pregnancy. And while I know it is so important to use my own position as an opportunity to help my clients explore their own feelings and fears about pregnancy and weight fluctuation, I am also honest when I say that, as a therapist, I feel very exposed and vulnerable in doing so. Sure, I am happy to make this sacrifice to benefit my clients. I’m just far less enthusiastic about sharing it with strangers.

Many of my clients stayed with me through my first pregnancy, but I still struggle to cope with my own discomfort (as the baby kicks and moves inside me), as well as anxieties and fears that arise while in sessions with patients. Like any transition or change in a therapist’s life, this too is major. We just can’t hide or cover this one up.