Conversations that focus on weight are forbidden in my house. If a guest starts talking about a new diet or about how he/she needs to lose weight, we will quickly change the topic. I don’t want my anorexic daughter or her sisters listening to these conversations; and truthfully, I don’t want to hear them either.
We were looking through some photo albums the other day with old friends who came to visit. My friend was flipping through an album with pictures from 20 years ago and her daughters were looking over her shoulder so they could see what their parents looked like way back when. When she saw old photos of herself, my friend nearly wailed in a voice filled with lament “look how thin I was!” While I don’t condone “fat talk” in front of one’s children under any circumstances, I could understand this exclamation if my friend was currently overweight; however, she’s not.
So the way that I see it, her teenaged daughters who were privy to this utterance can only come to one conclusion. Their mother is no longer stick figure thin and therefore she considers herself less attractive. And how do you think that translates to a teenager’s own body image?
“Fat talk”, or negative body talk, is rampant. It seems to have become some type of female bonding ritual where women engage in self disparaging, body denigrating conversation for kicks. It may seem harmless, but it’s not. Some women engage in fat talk for reassurance. You proclaim “OMG I’m so fat” so that your friends rush to tell you how you are so NOT fat and you look great. For other women, it has become such a strong habit that they have no idea that they are doing it.
Fat talk is detrimental for both the person talking the talk plus the people around her (or him, let’s not be sexist—I’ve heard men do it too). Low body image can be extremely damaging. It’s bad enough when a parent has one, but a million times worse when he/she passes it on to his/her children.
Have you ever shared a meal with someone who has eaten far less than you and makes a grand proclamation that that he/she is “stuffed” and can’t believe how much he/she ate? It makes you feel like an absolute glutton for eating more than he/she did and it precludes you from taking more food, even if you want to. Along those same lines, parents who constantly make proclamations about being stuffed are sending a (quite possibly unintended) message to their children that they are eating too much.
A person who regularly agonizes over what he/she eats and frequently announces “I shouldn’t have eaten that” or “Now that I ate that I will have to do a double run tomorrow” is projecting that food causes anxiety and stress. It also insinuates that exercise is a punishment and implies that someone who indulges in food that gives them pleasure deserves to be punished. Is this really the attitude toward food and exercise that parents want to impart upon their children?
Whenever I hear someone make self disparaging body image comments or talk about needing to lose weight in front of her kids, I cringe. Worse of course is when parents comment on their child’s weight in the presence of said child. There is a time and place for weight related conversations. The time is variable, but the place is NEVER in front of your kids. Don’t make negative comments about your body in their presence and obviously never, ever make them feel negative about their own bodies. Learn to use the word “healthy” instead of fat, thin, and diet. The focus should be on health, not size.
Does fat talk cause eating disorders? No, I don’t think that it does. I believe that the cause of eating disorders is biological. However, fat talk can still play a role in eating disorders as a contributing factor or a trigger. However you slice it, there is nothing positive about fat talk.
I think that we can all benefit by paying a little more attention to the messages that we send to our kids about food and body image, and maybe we can learn to love our own bodies, imperfections and all. The first step is to watch what we say, especially in front of our daughters and sons.
A little restraint can go a long way.