Proud2Bme | Dear KJ: Do Fat and Skinny-Shaming Cause Major Body Concerns?

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Dear KJ: Do Fat and Skinny-Shaming Cause Major Body Concerns?

"Dear KJ" is a weekly advice column by Dr. Kjerstin "KJ" Gruys, sociologist, author and body image activist.  She holds a Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on the politics of appearance and is the author of Mirror Mirror Off the Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body By Not Looking at It for a Year (Avery Press, 2012). Her work and writing have been featured by Good Morning America, 20/20The Colbert Report, USA Today, People, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NPR's "Tell Me More," and "On Air with Ryan Seacrest," among others. Find her at kjerstingruys.com.

To what extent do you think “fat-shaming” and “skinny-shaming” affect body image issues around the country?

Here’s my quick answer: “fat-shaming” and “skinny-shaming” play a HUGE role in body image issues around the country.

Here’s the longer answer:

Fat-shaming and skinny-shaming are flip sides of the same coin, which is our culture’s extreme focus on women’s appearance, and body size in particular. Whether we judge women for being “too big” or “too small,” the bottom line is that we, as a society, care WAY too much about body size, and the way we talk about it tends to be quite harmful, both for individuals and for broader society.

Body shaming frequently takes the form of “fat talk,” which happens to be one of my areas of research. I’ve written about it on my own blog, which I’m drawing from here:

What is "fat talk?"  I like the following definition:

Fat talk describes all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin-ideal standard of female beauty and contribute to women's dissatisfaction with their bodies. Examples of fat talk may include: "I'm so fat," "Do I look fat in this?" "I need to lose 10 pounds" and "She's too fat to be wearing that swimsuit." Statements that are considered fat talk don't necessarily have to be negative; they can seem positive yet also reinforce the need to be thin—"You look great! Have you lost weight?"

Why should you care about fat talk? Well, for one thing, almost all of us do it, and it's not good for anyone. Fat talk reinforces the idea that thinness is the same as goodness, or that thinner people are better people than fatter people are. We may think we're just complaining about our thighs, or even bonding with a friend over a shared angst. These things may be true, but—ultimately—when we engage in fat talk we're also buying into hierarchies about body size and shape that ultimately harm all women, even many thinner women who spend their whole lives dieting and under-eating (miserable!) because they’re terrified to gain weight. The politics of fat talk hurt everyone.

Here's one suggestion: make a bargain with your friends that any time anyone engages in negative body talk, the guilty person has to list five things they LIKE about their bodies for any one thing they complained about. This is a version of an activity I do in my classroom: my students and I use colored pencils to draw pictures of ourselves, and we list one thing about our looks that we're self-conscious about, along with an INFINITE list of things we are proud of. The stunning beauty of this exercise happens when everybody shares their pictures and lists with the rest of the class. 

Imagine hearing 20+ diverse young women describe dozens of different things they love about their bodies:

"I love my straight hair!"  

"I love my curly hair!"  

"The gap between my teeth makes my smile stand out!"

"I love my small boobs!"  

"I love my big boobs!" 

 "My body is kind of soft... perfect for hugging my kids!"

"I like being petite!"  

"I like being tall!"  

"My eyes remind me of my grandma."

"The blonde fuzz on my legs sparkles in the sun like those beautiful vampires from the Twilight series!"  

Yeah, we all get to share one hang-up, which is kind of fat-talk-ish, but I think it's actually pretty important for the exercise: for one thing, the last thing I want is for my students (or you!) to feel guilty for not having perfect body image. Also, starting off with one hang-up seems to help my students feel less self-conscious (vain?) about sharing all the things they like about their bodies. Isn't it so backwards-but-true that we feel uncomfortable—even unlikeable—when we speak proudly about our looks? Anyway, by the end of the class we're all glowing from the positive stuff, and feeling downright bonded. It knocks my socks off every time. So, what's on your list?

Have questions for Dr. KJ? Post them in the comments below!
 

More by Dr. KJ:

Dear KJ: How Can I Take Care of My Body Without Depriving Myself?

Dear KJ: How Can I Overcome Emotional Eating?

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