By Alena Thiem, Co-founder of AnyBody Deutschland
Photo via Flickr.com under a Creative Commons license, ©Daniela Brown
Our global campaign #FatIsNotAFeeling in which we asked Facebook to remove the ‘I feel fat’ emoticon has raised many interesting questions and issues among our followers and critics. One of these issues is the effect of negative body talk – or, as in many cases: fat talk – in society in general and in social media specifically.
In a culture that aims to teach us to feel uncomfortable in our own bodies by selling products which are supposed to ‘help’ overcome this state of disease, expressing dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance is quite common. This can land anywhere, from the shape of the nose, the structure of the hair, the size and shape of the body, the shade of skin color or the depth of the navel: No part of our bodies is safe of it’s owner’s criticism. The media, beauty and diet industries have ‘educated' us incessantly: women’s bodies, young women’s bodies are a problem waiting to be fixed.
Negative body talk is a social normality – but is it also norming our social life? Scientific studies have been examining the social effect of negative body talk for decades using a variety of approaches:
In a 1994 published survey among female middle school students, anthropologists Mimi Nichter and Nancy Vuckovic found that fat talk was being used productively to fit in and achieve conformity. Girls, who didn’t like their bodies or appearance and openly pointed out their own dissatisfaction within the group, were conceived as more likeable by their fellow class mates, than the girls who stuck out by expressing comfort with the way they look. This perception was supported by psychologist Denise Martz’s et al research among college students, published in 2007. Engaging in fat talk was being used as an ice breaker to start and take part in a conversation among female strangers making contact in a new environment. Martz and her fellow researchers pointed out that while the purpose of the use of fat talk seemed to be positive (i.e. making new friends), the psychological effect was quite concerning. Two years later, Martz and her fellow researchers examined the effect of negative body talk in direct comparison to the effect of positive body talk. They discovered that a woman was considered more likeable to outside observers when she talked positively about her looks in a group conversation. At the same time, the outside observers agreed that the woman was perceived as more likeable by other group members when she conformed to the group’s opinion on body image, though especially when the group shared a positive body image.
Although the focuses of these three studies vary, one main discovery is being shared: In a society where fat talk is common, those who participate are considered to be more likeable. Most of us strive to be part of groups and communities, most of us want to be accepted professionally or emotionally. This is the vicious circle we from Endangered Bodies and many more body positive activists are eager to break.
But how vicious is it really? How does negative body talk affect the person talking and/or listening? Is it maybe just something 'everybody does' – and that’s it? Unfortunately no, this is not how the psychological mind works, as studies prove. It is most likely that a woman who hears people criticizing their own bodies joins the conversation. And the more body hatred is happening in her social circle, the further her own levels of body dissatisfaction and guilt increase. Fat talk is dangerous. It can be a trigger for people who are in the process of recovering from an eating disorder to "forget" methods they have learnt recently regarding a more positive body image and fall back into self-destructive patterns. And it creates a toxic social environment in which people develop body dissatisfaction, body hatred and eating disorders. But fat talk does even more harm than nourishing the negative associations a person has towards her own body. It also supports and feeds a general feeling of 'not being good enough' and thus increases the risk of mental health problems such as depressions.
Therefore, fat talk is specifically targeted in prevention and recovery programs to reduce dissatisfaction and therefore potentially prevent eating disorders. In addition, health campaigns in general as well as interpersonal strategies can be very effective in contributing to a culture that accepts and embraces bodies in all shapes and sizes and doesn’t discriminate against skin color, gender/sex, age and disabilities.
The means of communication have been broadened and enhanced continuously since the beginning of humans interacting with each other. Today, social media cannot be perceived anymore as ‚something the young folks have fun with when they don’t want to go outside and meet real people’. Social media is a, if not: the place, where real people meet and talk. It is a place where communication happens and this communication is just as real as a conversation two people sitting across from each other at a table in a nice café are having. Social media is a part of our culture and society.We have to understand that it truly and ‘for real’ matters what is going on on Facebook and how we talk about ourselves and to each other there. It matters and its effect on society and individuals cannot be denied. Thus, we appreciate the social medias’ efforts of taking responsibility in the specific issue of negative body talk. Be it Instagram to ban harmful hashtags such as #thinspo (thinspo = thin + inspiration) or Facebook to delete the ‘I feel fat’ emoji.