How does it make you feel when someone close to you tells you they feel fat?

As one of a group of women from around the world who recently joined with Endangered Bodies to ask Facebook to remove the body shaming ‘I feel fat’ and ‘I feel ugly’ status options and emoticons from all versions of Facebook, I am thrilled to be able to report that communicating that you ‘feel fat’ is no longer encouraged on Facebook! After gaining more than 16,000 signatures on our petition in less than two weeks, Facebook has responded and removed the ‘fat’ emoticon from status updates. While this victory is a small one on the path to a culture of body-positivity, it emphasises the important fact that if we rally together to stand up to the harmful body-shaming messages promoted through so many channels in our society today, our voices can and will be heard.

While the “Fat is not a feeling” campaign (see the full petition here: www.change.org/fatisnotafeelingau) highlighted the fact that since 2013, Facebook has allowed its users to choose ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ emoticons as part of the ‘feelings’ feature of their status updates, this is only one part of a more far-reaching problem. Using these word choices, not only on social media but in our everyday language completely normalises using derogatory descriptive terms in the place of real feelings. How can a person feel ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ when these aren’t actually feelings? ‘Fat’ and ‘ugly’ are adjectives – they describe physical characteristics, not feelings. What’s worse is that these adjectives are judgements imposed on us by society to make women and girls (and increasingly men and boys) feel negatively about their otherwise healthy bodies. When someone says “I feel fat” what they’re really communicating is that they feel unattractive, unhappy, embarrassed and insecure about their body. Most often, these feelings are a response to the unrealistic, culturally promoted ideals of thinness and beauty that are forced upon us every single day.

One of the biggest concerns with normalising this kind of language (commonly known as ‘fat talk’) is the effect it is having on young people. Body image is consistently rated as one of the biggest issues of concern for young Australians generally (Youth Survey Mission Australia, 2014), and there is a huge amount of research that tells us that this kind of ‘fat talk’ actually increases body shame. We are constantly bombarded with an idealisation of thinness in our society, which leads to an intense fear of being fat and a culture full of stigma around weight. This can have a major impact on the millions of young people already dealing with negative body image, with body shaming and weight stigma being linked to lower self-esteem and disordered eating – risk factors for developing a clinical eating disorder (Tylka et al. 2014). The research also suggests Facebook use is associated with increased risk of developing an eating disorder along with other risk factors including worrying about weight and anxiety (Fardouly, Diedrichs, Vartanian & Halliwell, 2015).

Working as a counsellor in the field of eating disorders, I see first-hand the effect using this kind of language can have. Too often, ‘fat talk’, body-shaming and weight stigma are highlighted as key factors that have played a role in the development of eating disorders, disordered eating and body image concerns in the clients I see. It’s important we teach young people to love and appreciate their bodies, and to express themselves and their real feelings in healthy ways.

Rebecca Guzelian is an Intern Psychologist at BodyMatters Australasia.

References

Fardouly, J., Diedrichs, P.C., Vartanian, L.R. & Halliwell, E. (2015). Social comparisons on social media: The impact of Facebook on young women’s body image concerns and mood. Body Image, 13, 38-45.

Mission Australia (2012). Mission Australia Youth Survey. Tylka, T.L., Annunziato, R. A., Burgard, D., Daníelsdóttir , S., Shuman, E., Davis, C. & Calogero, R.M. (2014). The Weight-Inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity, vol. Article ID 983495. doi:10.1155/2014/983495