Proud2Bme | Dear KJ: How Can I Respond to Diet Talk?

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Dear KJ: How Can I Respond to Diet Talk?

"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

What are good responses to diet talk at school and at your job?

“Diet talk” is a form of “fat talk,” which happens to be one of my areas of research (I’ve written about it on my own blog). So, first, a quick review of what fat talk is, and why it matters. Then I’ll describe some strategies I myself use to manage these situations.

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 and men’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. Examples of fat talk may include: "I'm so fat," "Do I look fat wearing 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, such as "You look great! Have you lost weight?" or “I just read about this great new diet—want to do it together?”

Why should we care about fat and diet 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. 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, including many thinner women who spend their whole lives dieting and under-eating (miserably!) because they’re terrified to gain weight. The politics of fat talk and diet hurt everyone.

I’ve written about handling fat talk when it happens between friends, but at school or in the workplace the social context it a bit different. Here are the strategies that I use:

First, be proactive rather than reactive. I prominently post a flyer near my desk that announces:

This flyer was designed by Marilyn Wann, a renowned body image and fat-positivity activist and author of the fabulous book Fat!So?. I imagine that this flyer alone prevents people from bringing up diets and fat talk in my office. If I DO hear anyone engaging in that kind of talk, all I have to do is politely interrupt and point out the sign. Sometimes people automatically apologize and change the subject, which is great.

If the response is one of confusion, I take it as an opportunity to educate folks a bit on how fat talk is problematic, which is why I keep my own space a fat-talk-free zone. Occasionally I’ve had more defensive responses, in which cases I sometimes engage in a longer conversation (if it feels productive and healthy for ME!), but sometimes I just say, “I’m not telling you not to have this conversation at all, but it’s not one I can be part of. Sorry!”

Because I have my own desk area, it’s easy for me to post this notice prominently. When I’m not at my desk, I keep an image of the flyer copied into my phone so I can whip it out if the occasion demands it! I also know a few people who will post this kind of information bumper-sticker-style on their notebooks or even on their laptop cases so it’s always around. Sometimes the best defense is a good offense! 

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

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