I remember hearing it all the time in my all-girls high school. "I'm so fat." "My _____s are huge." "I can't believe I ate that. I'm disgusting." I remember hearing it even more in my own head.
Then a strange thing happened when I went to college. I didn't hear it anymore from the women around me, I only heard my own internal voice. I thought other women's silence might have to do with the fact that my university was co-ed, and the general rule was that you didn't talk about how much you hated your body around guys. But it didn't happen at all-female gatherings, either. As I've gone on to work mostly with women, I've rarely heard a female colleague make a negative comment about her weight or appearance. It just isn't done.
A new study offers a possible reason why. The research team, led by psychology professor Alexandra Corning, who heads Notre Dame's Body Image and Eating Disorder Lab, asked 139 undergraduates, mostly freshman, all with average BMIs, to look at photos of both "noticeably thin" and overweight women captioned with quotes ostensibly from the women expressing either positive thoughts about their bodies or negative thoughts -- "fat talk." Questions followed each photo and quote, including one that asked how likeable the woman in the photo was on a scale of 1 (not at all likeable) to 7 (very likeable). Every participant saw eight photos total, including every possible combination of overweight or thin photo and positive or negative quote.
The findings, presented at the Midwestern Psychological Association's 85th annual conference last weekend, indicated that participants liked the women who said positive things about their bodies much more than those who engaged in fat talk, and they liked the overweight women who said good things about their bodies most of all. Both thin and overweight women who engaged in fat talk were less liked. And even though overweight women were liked more overall than thin women, participants liked thin women who were positive about their bodies better than overweight women who spoke negatively about their bodies.
The researchers said that the undergrads preferred the overweight women who made positive statements because, "These women's statements may be less threatening to another woman's body satisfaction than thin women making these statements." They also guessed that seeing overweight women make positive comments about their bodies "may encourage others to accept their own bodies as well."
A 2011 study involving a similar number of undergrads demonstrated how easily college-age women are able to slip into fat talk (perhaps my university or group of friends was anomalous?) and showed that while women say negative things about their bodies to be reassured that they are not as overweight as they fear, friends' responses don't actually reassure them.
While Rachel Salk, the lead author of that study, told Today that there is evidence that fat talk wanes with age, a February 2013 study found that women tend to replace fat talk with "old talk" -- negative statements about how they are aging -- as the years go by.
Corning said in a press release that the results of the new study are important "because they raise awareness about how women actually are being perceived when they engage in this self-abasing kind of talk."
I think many women were already wise to how socially unacceptable fat talk has become, but it helps to have the research to back it up.
Now we just need to work on the fat talk in our heads that we don't speak aloud.
Each person has unique nutritional requirements, so when experts say "eat whole wheat" or "dairy is good for you," it's a generalization - one person's food may be another's poison. It takes great personal attention to determine what type of lifestyle changes and diet regimen is best for you, and it'll be based on your age, activity level, genetic heritage, and personal preferences. So instead of trying to fit into a cookie-cutter eating plan, remember to be true to yourself. Learn how to eat a well-balanced diet-and one that's based on your specific needs.
Think about it - you'll never come across an overweight deer or a bird that's had too many seeds. Animals in the wild know when, what, and how much to eat - and it's not because they read the latest diet books, it's because they trust their inner needs. If you depend on external sources to tell you what to eat, it becomes impossible to trust your body. Try replacing advice and opinions from others on what feels right to you. Tune in closely to your body before, during, and after every meal, snack, or beverage. You'll begin to recognize how certain foods change the way you feel, and you'll learn that your body already knows exactly what it needs to thrive.
Many diet plans significantly reduce - or even eliminate - foods high in nutritional value. Whether it's low-carb, low-fat, or low-calorie, a diet lacking essential nutrients can cause your body to crave non-nutritional forms of energy. Plus, your body's ideal state is balance, so eating too much or not enough of a food will cause you to crave its opposite. For example, eating too much meat can cause cravings for sugar or alcohol. In order to form healthy, life-long eating habits without the cravings produced by diets, it's important to couple listening to what's right for your body with a well-balanced diet of whole foods.
Diet plans sound promising at first: Eat this, not that, and you'll lose weight and feel great. Problem is, no one likes to be told what to do - and that includes your body. You'll always want more of whatever it is you "can't" have. That's why it's critical to learn practical tools for making healthy food choices without the strict guidelines of a diet. You'll avoid the feelings of deprivation and submission, plus you'll prepare yourself for a lifetime of nutritious eating.
Worrying about what you can and can't eat puts your body in a constant state of stress. And, since your body can't distinguish real danger (an attacker) from that which you've created ("I shouldn't have eaten that!"), your brain produces the same "flight or flight" survival response. This causes the brain to trigger the stress hormone cortisol, which boosts insulin, a hormone that signals the body to stop building muscle and store more fat. So even if you follow a diet perfectly, stressing about food can create a metabolic environment within your body that actually prohibits you from losing weight. On the other hand, by learning how to be mindful of and happy with the food you consume, you're creating a more relaxed body, one that's conducive to maintaining a healthy weight.
Diets promise to help you lose weight, be healthy, and find happiness. However, eating isn't always just about food - it's often used as a substitute for entertainment or to fill a void we feel in other areas of life. Dissatisfaction with a relationship or job, a poor exercise regimen (too much, too little, or the wrong type), boredom, or stress may all cause you to make poor nutritional choices. So, take a step back and think about whether there are other aspects of your life worth paying attention to. You might find that there are ways to nourish your body, mind, and soul that will help you live a healthier life much more quickly than dieting.