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Do I Look Fat? Don’t Ask. A Campaign to Ban ‘Fat Talk’

4 minute read
Bonnie Rochman

Coming soon to a college campus near you: a ban on “fat talk.” O.K., so the ban is voluntary — and temporary — but it’s designed to get students to think about the psychological effect of even seemingly innocuous comments like “Omigosh, you look so good — have you lost weight?”

Starting Oct. 18, thousands of young adults on at least 35 campuses will participate in Fat Talk Free Week, a national campaign to eliminate language that is damaging to students’ body image. The initiative’s motto: “Friends don’t let friends fat-talk.” Participants learn, for example, that when a gal pal asks if those jeans make her butt look big, the best answer may be to persuade her not to ask the question at all.

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The anti-fat-talk campaign is designed first to help people identify the “thin ideal” — essentially a pre-pubescent girl’s body, plus boobs — that is perpetuated by the media and pop culture, and then learn how to reject it in favor of a healthier, more realistic attitude.

But this is an uphill battle, coming at a time not only when more than one college is giving academic credit for weight-loss classes, but also when an alumna of Stephens College is offering to donate $1 million to the Missouri women’s school if its faculty and staff drop a total of 250 lb. by Jan. 1. “Body image right now is down the flusher for so many young people,” says Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, which estimates that nearly 10 million women in the U.S. suffer from anorexia or bulimia.

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The third annual Fat Talk Free Week is based on a program that was piloted at San Antonio’s Trinity University. Since 2008, the Reflections Body Image Program — developed by Carolyn Becker, an associate professor of psychology at Trinity, that school’s sororities and the national Delta Delta Delta fraternity — has been introduced on more than 50 campuses. Sample exercise: Stand in front of a mirror in as little clothing as you feel comfortable wearing. Then write down only positive things about yourself. “It’s really hard for women to do,” says Becker. “Women are used to standing in front of the mirror and trashing themselves.”

The program’s philosophy is based on research by Eric Stice, a clinical psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, who found the most effective way to prevent eating disorders is to enlist the theory of cognitive dissonance. As humans, we tend to align our beliefs and our actions; helping young women speak and act against the thin ideal creates an uncomfortable psychological state that leads to a change in beliefs. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Stice reported a 60% reduction in the risk of developing eating disorders for female high school and college students who spent just three hours critiquing the thin ideal; the risk in reduction persisted over a three-year follow-up.

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“It’s one thing to have nice ads that say, ‘Feel good about yourself,’ but what they’re doing at Reflections is really groundbreaking,” says Grefe.

After participating in the program, which consists of two two-hour sessions, a Rutgers sorority removed all the scales in its bathroom so women would stop hopping from one to the next to see which scale yielded the lowest weight. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign intends to implement the program at sororities campus-wide. And Tri Delta offers the curriculum to its 138 collegiate chapters in the U.S. and Canada, plus any sorority or campus women’s group that expresses interest.

A recent Reflections participant, Vanderbilt senior Julie Lucas has made a pact with her roommate to hold each other accountable for fat talk. “A lot of times I say, ‘I need to go on a run,’ and she says, ‘No, you want to go on a run,’ ” says Lucas. “It’s an attitude change.”

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