By: Cecelia Wilken a recent ASU Nutrition Student
It is well-known that media and societal norms place unrealistic expectations on how we look, what we should eat, and who we should compare ourselves too. You can see it in TV shows, in advertisements, almost everywhere. This constant bombardment of the “thin-ideal” or “perfect-body” ideal oozing through our society has been shown to damage body-images and cause self-objectification in adolescents. This primarily appearance-focused climate, coupled with the struggles of growing up can result in severe dietary consequences in adolescents. Mental illnesses like eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression, and anxiety can severely affect a child’s future and follow them into adulthood.
As a teenager, I struggled with a damaged body-image. I made unhealthy diet choices and constantly compared myself to others. As I grew up I watched my mother, my friends and female role models in my life experience the same struggles. Some of them would stand in front of the mirror and squeeze their stomachs making disgusted faces at the very healthy skin that they had pinched between fingers. Other times they would push away plates of food as their stomachs growled in hunger or obsess over their weight on the scale. While there were never any malicious intents or comments made towards me, the atmosphere of constantly judging oneself had a profound impact on me. If my family and friends (who were all beautiful, strong and healthy individuals) thought they were fat or over-weight, then what did that make me? Was I fat too? Did I need to be more concerned about my own appearance? Even once I made the decision to become a nutritionist and devoted myself to eating for health and wellness instead of appearance I still find myself finding faults in my body and comparing myself to others. Sometimes I think to myself… “If only I could lose those extra 5 pounds of baby weight… If only I worked out more. Maybe I shouldn’t eat that cookie…”
These sort of comments and thoughts are known as fat-talk. It’s not uncommon. You probably grew up surrounded by parents, friends, role models who innocently spouted phrases like.. “I can’t eat that, I’ll get fat.” or “I’ll never be as skinny as she is.” Maybe you’ve even made these comments yourself. Fat-talk is a specific form of negative body-talk. They are comments or conversations that are characterized by self-deprecating comments to one’s own body and can be verbal, making negative comments about weight or body-image or non-verbal, for example, restrictive eating or obsessing over weight. It is not limited to just females, males are also affected by fat-talk. It has been found in studies that when children witness their parents or caregivers engage in these behaviors that it can have a negative impact on that child’s own body image and eating behaviors. We do tend to learn our behaviors from our parents, right?
When I had my daughter, I vowed to help break this cycle of judgment and hope to help guide her towards appreciating her body and recognizing that her overall health is more important than fitting into a standardized “ideal”. Even if you don’t have children yourself, helping reduce your own “fat-talk” can help improve your own body-image and confidence!
Here are some tips for helping trim verbal and non-verbal “fat-talk” in your life:
- Ditch the scale.
A lot of times we become obsessed with losing weight and focus all our attention on where the dial lands on the scale. Every pound lost or gained becomes directly correlated with our own confidence. If you are truly concerned about your weight, consult with your doctor.
If you fall into a category where you might need to lose a few pounds, try to avoid weighing yourself daily. Weigh yourself once a week, on the same day, at the same time. This not only gives you a more realistic idea about your weight fluctuation, but you can see results clearer. Weight is affected by a lot of different things; hormones, medication, age, stress levels, and genetics can cause very natural fluctuations in day-to-day weight.
If you fall into normal, healthy weight categories for your height and age consider ditching the scale. Instead of focusing on weight, focus on how you feel and consider why you may be feeling that way. By fine-tuning your attention internally, you can begin to appreciate and respect your body’s natural fluctuations and responses. Introduce your own children to this way of thinking. Encourage them to focus internally and teach them that weight is affected by many different factors.
- Avoid “dieting” in front of your children.
Try avoiding making comments like “I need to go on a diet.” or “I can’t eat that, because I am on a diet.” Instead, focus on encouraging eating regular and balanced diets. Try to include variety and color into your dishes. Focus on using food to fuel and energize one’s mind and body. Pay attention to cues from your body; eat when you are hungry, stop when you’re full.
Do not shy away from indulging every so often. While eating treats all the time is not very healthy, it is still important to listen to your body. Guilt-ridden comments like “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” should also be avoided. Correlating any foods as “good” or “bad” places judgment and can cause guilt. Of course, eating candy all the time is not good for anyone, especially growing children. Instead, explain how important it is to fuel your body with healthy foods, and that treats are ok to eat on special occasions.
- Put health first!
In an appearance-based society, it is very easy to get into the habit of commenting on how “pretty” or “handsome” someone is. Instead, try commenting on other things that imply a healthy mind and body. For example, comment on how “sharp” someone’s mind is, how healthy their skin looks, how clear their eyes are, how kind and sweet they seem. With my own 3-year-old, I always try to encourage her to feel how much energy she has after a meal or feel how “strong” her bones are after drinking milk or point out that her hair must be so soft because of all the carrots she ate at dinner. In my household, we eat for health not for appearance.
If you are concerned about your child’s health and weight, consult with a pediatrician or dietician. Overweight children are especially vulnerable to developing depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Their journey towards healthier living starts with a strong support system at home.
- Beware: “Fit-spiration” is the new “Thin-spiration”
Maybe you’ve seen those motivational pictures on social media; an attractive, thin and fit model stands in the background. Words like “Suck it up now, so you don’t have to suck it in later” read in intimidating lettering across the picture. At first glance, these seem motivating, they seem like they are promoting health and wellness by losing weight and getting in shape. “Fitspiration” is a term coined to “inspire fitness”, but unfortunately the “Fitspiration” movement promotes guilt-ridden messages aimed at achieving “the perfect body” instead of a healthy one. The social media movement has been likened to another movement called “thinspiration” (inspiring weight loss to be thin) and studies have shown that both movements inspire action through guilt and focus on appearance instead of health.
These sorts of movements can help develop eating disorders and body-image problems in adolescents and should be addressed.
- Be body positive.
We all come in different shapes and sizes. Health varies from person to person and there is no “one-size fits all” health plan. A person should be judged on their character, not their appearance. Being body-positive means removing judgment from yourself and from judging others. That means avoiding making comments like “Wow, that person should really lose weight,” or “I should really go on a diet.”
Adults who grew up in a familial setting that encourages body-appreciation, value body-functionality, and focus on health over appearance are more likely to be more attuned to their own body cues and have more respect and appreciation for their bodies.
- Practice mindful eating.
Mindful eating is a practice that encourages a nonjudgmental approach to eat. Essentially mindful eaters eat what they want, when they are hungry and stop when they are full. By practicing this technique, individuals have been found to have higher levels of body positivity.
For more information on Mindful Eating check out these articles:
I’ve picked up a lot of habits from my parents; I twirl my hair around my index finger like my mom and I stand with my arms crossed like my dad. I’m sure my own daughter will pick up some of my quirks as she grows up (she already gets her sassiness from me), but hopefully, I can break the cycle of damaged body-image in my family and help her towards a health-conscious, body-positive future while working through some of my own negative body-image habits.
Eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression, and anxiety are serious mental illnesses that should be treated as such. If you or someone you know suffers from eating disorders, depression or anxiety please contact the National Eating Disorders helpline (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline) or National Suicide Hotline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/).
Cash, T. F. (2006). The influence of sociocultural factors on Body image: Searching for constructs. Clinical Psychology, 438-442.
Nitcher, M. (2001). Fat Talk : What Girls and Their Parents Say about Dieting. Harvard University Press.
Webb, J. B., Rogers, C. B., Etzel, L., & Pedro, M. (2018). “Mom, quit fat talking—I’m trying to eat (mindfully) here!”: Evaluating a sociocultural model of family fat talk, positive body image, and mindful eating in college women. Appetite, 169-175.