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Leah Berkenwald Headshot

Are Selfies a Digital Vehicle for Fat Talk?

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The Internet is aflutter with talk of the selfie , recently named Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year. Some folks are arguing the selfie is bad for women, while others see it as a tool of female empowerment. As I digested both arguments, I began to draw some loose connections between one way the selfie can be used and "fat talk," a scientifically documented phenomenon of negative self-talk about bodies, eating, and exercise.

Here's what we know about fat talk:

  1. Fat talk is a way to gain affirmation from our peers. The most common type of fat talk is the typical exchange where one person says, "I look so fat" and the second person responds with "You're not fat! You're beautiful. I'm the one who's fat." And so on.
  2. Fat talk is a form of impression management. Women do it to fit in with the perceived social norm, and to let other women know that they are not vain or conceited. In effect, self-denigration through fat talk is our way of saying "I don't think I'm better than anyone else."
  3. Fat talk is a way to assuage guilt. Another common type of fat talk is apologizing or making excuses for eating certain foods or failing to exercise. ("I'm sorry but I haven't eaten all day and I'm going to inhale these fries," or "I skipped the gym today because I'm such a fatass.")
  4. Fat talk is deceptive. In studies, most women report that hearing fat talk made them feel better or reassured. People find it helpful to be reminded that they are not the only ones struggling with body image or weight management. Unfortunately, fat talk is associated with greater body image dissatisfaction and thin-ideal internalization, or a stronger belief in the idea that thin is beautiful. While you may think it helps, it isn't actually good for you to constantly hear that your normal or underweight friends consider themselves fat. Because if they're fat, then what does that make you?
  5. Fat talk is harmful to society at large because it reinforces and perpetuates the normalization of body image dissatisfaction, and it may actually silence those with positive body image.
  6. Fat talk has also been recognized as a risk factor for eating disorders. People who have eating pathology are more likely to take fat talk seriously, and may use it as a way to legitimize their pathological beliefs about weight and body shape.

Selfies are extremely popular among young women and growing more so among young men. Like fat talk, selfies are used as a form of impression management. The typical selfie is the result of a photoshoot in which only one photo of many is shared publicly. The photo chosen is the one that captures the subject in the best light or at the best angle. It is a very carefully and deliberately curated representation of ourselves -- the version of ourself that we feel is most acceptable or desirable for public viewing.

There is something eerily similar about the way some women use selfies to gain affirmation and fat talk. A common pattern is for one of those carefully curated selfies to be posted with the caption like "LOL so ugly" or "I'm gross." If you visit Tumblr and search the tags #selfie and #ugly, you will find plenty of selfies tagged #ew #ihatemyface #sougly #weird, etc. This is the prompt for friends and strangers to respond with typical fat talk like "omg shut up ur so pretty! <3" I think the food photos on Instagram and other sites function to assuage guilt, as they often mimic fat talk with captions apologizing or making excuses for eating fattening foods.

Most selfies are taken from a downwards angle in order to make the subject appear thinner. Filters are used to alter (or lighten) skin colors as well as to blur marks or blemishes. Women often pose in a sexy or pouty manner pleasing to the male gaze. Therefore, a selfie taken at a "less flattering" (or so we are conditioned to call it) angle with #nofilter or #nomakeup that doesn't pander to the male gaze challenges the Western beauty paradigm and thin-ideal, especially if it's tagged as #beautiful.

Some selfies purposefully subvert the fat talk runaround with radical self-love and body pride. (Try searching #selfie and #awesome.) Even the simple act of viewing selfies of people not commonly seen in the media is subversive. For example, @xoDrVenture tweeted: "Before the internet/selfies, I legitimately didn't know that dark skinned, natural haired black women could be beautiful." Selfies are being used similarly by the LGBTQ community to bring visibility to gender non-conforming people.

However, those who use selfies to put their "most acceptable" face forward in order to gain affirmation from the world at large may be falling into the same deception trap experienced by fat talkers. While they may believe the process to be reassuring and helpful, it may actually be harmful to see their peers denigrate themselves in selfies (because if they're ugly, what does that make you?), or to rely on others' affirmations for the permission to see yourself as beautiful.

Selfies are not the problem. The problem is how they're used. While some use selfies to subvert dominant paradigms, many young women are using selfies in a manner that, like fat talk, extols the thin-ideal and Western beauty paradigm, continues the normalization of body image dissatisfaction, and reinforces the idea that you must self-denigrate in order to fit in and receive positive affirmations from your friends. The women doing this, I must clarify, are not at fault. They must not be vilified for trying to conform to the extensive demands made of them by the patriarchy.

Instead we must celebrate the subversive use of selfies to challenge the status quo and support each other in expressing radical body satisfaction and self-love. And, most importantly, we must do the same in our conversations face-to-face by breaking our fat talk habit and teaching through example that it's okay to feel good about yourself.