A recent study from Psychology of Women Quarterly showed that 93% of college-age women engage in “fat talk” — conversation in which women criticize their weight and bodies with their friends. “Fat talk,” in the case of this study, generally took the form of one woman making self-deprecating comments about her body, only for her friend to reassure her and follow up with negative reflections on her own body. The scenes described in the study and in the New York Times coverage eerily mirror a scene in Mean Girls. Regina, Karen, and Gretchen stand before a mirror pointing out all their own flaws, then turn to Cady, the new girl, expecting her to criticize herself. When Cady fails to measure up in her criticism of herself, the other girls are unimpressed and annoyed.
There is a general acknowledgement amongst people that there are unhealthy, unrealistic, and unsafe expectations put upon women’s bodies and appearances. However, there is a less acknowledged but just as real standard that women not be allowed to feel good about their bodies. While women may want better self-esteem and body image, and want these same things for the other women in their lives as well, a huge majority of women engage in punishing behavior that only reinforces a norm of low self-esteem and body hatred, not just for themselves but for their friends as well. Rather than encourage women to feel self-confident in and of themselves, there are specific behaviors and societal norms that encourage women to only find this confidence and approval from outside sources, rather than from within themselves.
When the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty released its now-infamous ad a few months ago, there was immediate praise and just as immediate backlash against the video, and rightly so. The video is problematic for a whole host of reasons, including the ways in which it reinforces social norms around women, bodies, self-confidence, and appearance. Here, again, there is an underlying message that women are at their most beautiful when they don’t realize it (as One Direction would also have you believe), and it is good when other people perceive their beauty at a greater level than women themselves do. While there is a growing amount of messaging that encourages women to feel good about themselves and their bodies, very little of this media and messaging suggests that this self-esteem comes from within.
That 93% of women engage in “fat talk” is not surprising. I don’t expect this number to significantly decrease in the coming years, especially if the current messaging around women’s bodies stays the same. Beyond the narrow definition of beauty American culture puts forth, there is little work being done in the public sphere to really address women and their worth. Instead women are told that while they themselves should always feel imperfect and that they don’t measure up, it is OK if others do perceive their beauty, and this outside praise is presented as the best tool to increase women’s self-esteem. This is perfectly reflected in the practice of “fat talk,” in which women incessantly criticize their own bodies while receiving praise from those around them.
While this might seem like a system that still alleviates negative body image, it does not actually force women to engage with themselves and their bodies on a deeper level, and find sources of confidence and self-worth from within. Ultimately “fat talk” not only means that women are still experiencing and expressing high levels of low self-esteem, it also means that women are still looking outward for reassurance and self-esteem, something that can really only be found within. If we want a world where women feel good about themselves, we not only need to challenge the media’s narrow image of beauty, we also need to challenge the idea that it is not OK for women to publicly and openly love themselves, and can best find self-esteem from someone outside themselves.