Talking About Body Image

My half marathon is officially very close – I ran the first run of my “taper” week this morning. Hopefully it is less humid this Saturday – when I ran this morning it was only in the 60s and I ran at a pace that is typically pretty normal for me for 3 miles (~ 8:30/mile), but I was having trouble breathing near the end and sweat was dripping down into my eyes and stinging them. The culprit: 89% humidity, at least according to my Weather Underground app (the Weather Channel claims the humidity is ONLY 74%).

But today’s post isn’t really about my half marathon or the weather. It is inspired by a couple of articles that I read lately. The first was in the New York Times Well blog, and the second  was some random article I saw linked on Reddit last night. Both discuss women discussing body image with each other and the social impact of that, and that is what I’d like to talk about today.

The NYT one was about “fat talk” among women. It basically talks about how women often bond by shaming their own bodies while at the same time assuring other women that their own bodies are fine (or at least flawed at a similar level). An example from the article:

First friend: “I can’t believe I ate that brownie. I am so fat!”

Second friend: “You must be joking — you are so not fat. Just look at my thighs.”

One of the things they point out is that women often say not what they actually think about their own bodies but what they think they are expected to think about their own bodies. This really hit home for me because I do this A LOT. As an adult, I have had very positive body image (I did struggle in high school when many of the other girls on my soccer team were very waif-like, and I didn’t realize I simply had a different body shape than them, and instead thought they were just more fit than me). Most women, however, don’t have very positive body image (or are perhaps in the same trap as me). This leads to very awkward conversations.

For example, I will say, in a factual sense, something like “oh, I have trouble finding slacks and boots because my legs are sort of big for the rest of my body size.” I don’t say these things to make negative comments about my body – I say them to make negative comments about availability of clothing! Still, the usual response isn’t something like “I know, I hate that – I can never find cute blazers because my shoulders are sort of broad! Why can’t they just make a few different cuts of clothing!” but rather something like “Oh, no, Chelsea! Your legs aren’t big! Look at how muscular and shapely they are! I would looooooove to have legs like yours!” Ok, well you are correct that my legs are pretty awesome – running miles and miles will do that to them. But that is also exactly why they are so big! Big and nice looking are not mutually exclusive, and I don’t need you to reassure me when I’m not even putting myself down.

I don’t blame these other women for making these comments, however, because honestly I usually respond in the same way as well. I am never sure when another woman says to me “I wish that they would make more [insert hard to find clothing item here] because of [idiosyncracy of my body]” what sort of response she is looking for, so I almost always go for reassurance about her body, just because I feel it is the safest route – what if she was feeling down about herself and I failed to reassure her? I would be a terrible friend! So I go with the better safe than sorry route.

I sometimes also feel pressure to put down my own body because of this phenomenon. This happens most when I am talking about my weight loss to people. People often assume that I thought I was “ugly” before and that I must feel like I look so much “better” now. Usually, I do not bother correcting them.

I make a very conscious effort to never bring up anything negative about my former body without being prompted – I did not dislike that body and I still don’t. I was never embarrassed to be  in pictures, wear bathing suits, or wear other revealing clothing. I honestly felt beautiful and still think I was beautiful. I do slightly prefer how I look now, but honestly the body I liked best was when I was about medium sized and curvy (and still overweight). My body type is very straight now and I have no idea how to dress it. Also, at that point I hadn’t really lost enough weight for the loose skin to set in yet. I now for the first time in my life feel like I need to cover up – I was never concerned about people seeing stretch marks or cellulite (honestly I’m sure most people don’t notice it on others), but now my skin literally flops around and hangs strangely and looks sort of deformed and I am self conscious of it. It’s improving vastly as I gain muscle and time rejuvenates my skin, but I can honestly say that this is not the most beautiful I have felt in my life (don’t worry guys, I still know I’m hot – just not the hottest!). Still, others expect me to feel most beautiful now, because thin=beautiful and now I am very thin. I said before I don’t correct them. Can you imagine with the culture of “fat talk” trying to explain to most people that I thought I was hot when I was 240 lbs? I’m sure they would just think there was something wrong with me.

Note that I do have to tread a fine line with this thinking I am awesome looking now, though – I would never talk as positively about my body in person as I am here on my blog, for fear of appearing like I was bragging or making the other person feel like I don’t think that they are pretty/hot/beautiful whatever because of some perceived difference between us. From what I can tell, women tend to perceive their own bodies inaccurately and judge them more negatively than a stranger would. Yesterday, a friend was feeling down about her body because she has gained weight as she has become older.  This friend began insisting that I was thinner than her and weighed less even though I am 100% certain that we are the same size – we seriously wear the EXACT SAME clothing size down to shoe size and are the same height! Because she perceives that she is fatter than me and therefore uglier than me, saying something positive about myself in front of her might offend her because she would see that as “well Chelsea thinks she looks good with her legs the way they are, but my legs are fatter so she must think my legs look bad” even though I have no freaking clue what her legs really look like because I have never really paid attention. I would like to think that these perceived offenses aren’t just things I have made up in my head – I have felt them before! I understand, now, however, that comments on one’s own body rarely apply to the other person in the conversation – they are usually relative to some past body or ideal body that the individual has in mind for themselves, and they are not even paying attention to the offendee’s body.

The reason that the second article inspired me to write this post is that it provides a link to perhaps how we could stop this “fat talk” from occurring. The article is about the mind blowing experience of a little girl hearing her mother refer to herself as “fat, horrible and ugly” for the first time. I don’t remember the first time my mother did this, but I know that she does it. And I’m sure that most mothers do. And I also know that this is incredibly inappropriate behavior that only perpetuates the cycle of “fat talk:” if you teach little girls that it is normal to talk about your body image in a negative manner, then they will think that is how you communicate to other girls and women!

I don’t blame mothers for doing this, as it is so normalized (it probably does not occur to most people that saying such things to their daughters shapes them – they have been engaging in fat talk for so long that they probably don’t realize that their daughters would have to learn about it to engage in it). I have long been a person that has thought about how I will try my hardest to not transmit certain ideas to my children, normalization of negative body image discussion being among them (another example would be accidental gender role transmission). I know I won’t be perfect, but I want to make a conscious effort – one of my biggest fears is that by focusing too much on fitness and calorie counting that I will cause one of my children (of any gender) to develop an eating disorder, regardless of how hard I try to teach them body positivity. Even without reading these articles, I know how painful it is as an adult child to listen to your own mother say such horrible things about herself and feel helpless to change her mind (my mom frequently calls me to talk about how awful and bad she is even though she is only slightly overweight and exercises near daily). As an adult only child who is quite close in age to my mom (she is only a few years older than some of my actual friends), I try my best to remember she means it as a friend and not as a mother and that I am there to support and reassure her, not necessarily to be her daughter, which makes it more appropriate. Still, I would never want to put an actual child child in such a position!

The take home point here: try your hardest not to engage in this destructive fat talk and not to contribute to perpetuation of the cycle. I don’t expect you to be perfect (I admit right in this blog that I struggle with it!), but remember the impact of your words, and remember that we all have positive and negative aspects of our bodies – try to dwell on the positive 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Talking About Body Image

  1. Slightly tangential, there’s also the whole sub-trend of associating muscle/tonality with non-femininity. As if to say women can’t have muscle or tone, otherwise they’re “too bulky” and “dyke-ish.” I dunno if you’ve ever encountered that, dear, but it’s something I worry about you for, as I know you’re getting more toned and chiseled with your workout regimen. But part of that “fat talk” is automatically associating larger size with excess fat- which, as you know, isn’t true. So yeah, when you say, “My legs are big,” instinct from someone else is to *hear* “My legs are fat.” And that’s unfair, to both you and the listener.

    I’ll stop preaching to the choir, but if you ever do catch me fat shaming you because I’m falling into that rhetoric, call me out, okay? I’m sorry if I’ve done it in the past before- because I’m pretty sure I have. ::hug::

  2. I was trying to type a reply, but WordPress like closed it, and the gist of it was no, you aren’t the problem (I’m sure you can spot the people who are). Like everyone in the world (including me), you participate in this phenomenon, but you are actually pretty good at reflecting on it in society and talking about how there is variation in the way that women are and how the problem is more the society than the fat, horrible, women (because according to society, we are all fat and horrible, because there is a pair of jeans that doesn’t fit all of us out there somewhere). Anyway, I also agree with the muscle thing and I am going to do a separate post on that sometime – basically, my frustration is that the anti-muscle people want us to look weak and feminine to appeal to the menz and the pro-muscle people want us to look like Victoria’s Secret models to appeal to the menz (and only the menz, because heteronormativity).

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