Fat Talk: How Did Your Parents Affect Your Body Image?

Ahhh, fat talk. It is, at best, the murderer of intelligent, relevant conversation, and at worst, completely self-destructive.
Publish date:
December 14, 2013
health, body image, fat talk, self esteem

In one of my earliest memories, a 3-year-old me has wrapped my entire body around my mother's tube-sock-and-spandex clad ankle, wailing as she tries to wiggle out the door for a step aerobics class. A decade or so later, a 14-year-old me sits with one of my girlfriends on the floor of a gym locker room, devouring a box of CheezIts while my mom takes a spin class.

Recently, I stumbled upon the book “Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say About Dieting” at a used bookstore, which got me all sorts of excited. The book talked about several studies that concluded that the way mothers view and discuss their own bodies will directly affect their daughters.

It's no shocker that the way our parents interact with us when we're youngins will affect how we turn out; for the many years before we have friends and teachers to traumatize us outside of the home, our parents and family are all we've got. Parents not only affect the way we see the world, but the way we see ourselves. Countless studies that I promise I am not making up have shown well-adjusted parents are more likely to have well-adjusted offspring, and for women especially, our mother's relationship with her body will often affect our own.

It makes sense –- a lot of us actually physically resemble our parents, so if our mother spends our entire childhood complaining about her many chins or chubby arms, we may follow suit. And if a mother is partial to being overly critical about her body, she may end up criticizing her daughter's as well. Whether she's projecting or genuinely concerned, it will undoubtedly teach her daughter that this behavior is acceptable.

Let's cut back to the gym locker-room floor. Growing up, my mother was super-sporty. She flitted from one activity to another -- marathons, hundred mile bike rides, she even took up capoeira for a while. From what I gathered, she viewed her body as a tool for doing –- running, biking, race walking through a crowded mall as I cowered behind her pretending we weren't related. Although she often talked about proper nutrition and sports medicine, she had nothing negative to say about her bod, or if she did, she was careful never to let me hear it. So as I neared puberty, I had no negative thoughts about my body, or at least nothing large enough to verbalize.

Ahhh, fat talk. It is, at best, the murderer of intelligent, relevant conversation, and at worst, completely self-destructive. Alarmingly, it's often seen as “common ground,” a tool women use for connecting, a safe zone for conversation. Fat talk has developed not only into an outlet for shining a spotlight on our insecurities, but as an actual bonding mechanism. If we complain about our body, and then our friend complains about her body, we automatically feel better, and closer. Remember that scene from "Mean Girls" where Lindsay Lohan offers up her bad breath as prime proof of her imperfection?

Like many, my self-esteem took a nose dive as puberty made a grand entrance, and when my friends started fat talking, I followed suit: “I really wanna lose 3 pounds...” I felt out of control of my body, I went through a pretty promiscuous stage, and in general acted like a bat-shit crazy teenager. Eventually, my hormones chilled a bit, and so did the fat talking. 

So while I did not completely escape fat talk ― I'm not sure if you can escape it with our culture being so saturated with physical scrutiny -- I did outgrow it, and I'm pretty convinced my mom's positive body image helped to shape my own relatively stable view of self.

Of course, mothers aren't the only parent who can impact our self esteem and body image. “Fat Talk” had a bunch of interesting information regarding fathers' impact on their daughters' body image. My father never commented on my body at all, save for one time in college after I gained the stereotypical freshman fifteen. I still remember that stinger... I'd be interested to read about studies having to do with kids who come from families with only one present parent. Girls raised by their fathers, etc. What is their relationship with fat talk?

Now, as a quasi-adult, or at least someone who changes their sheets on a semi-regular basis, I no longer fat talk. Actually, I try to refrain from any sort of friend-to-friend body commentary unless it's positive fangirly “damn lady, you look slammin'” type of talk. This is how my mom always spoke to me about my body, and it feels pretty natural. Well, okay, she never used the word “slammin'” per se.

Fat talk puts emphasis on our physical attributes and downplays our intellectual ones. As women, we get enough of that from the rest of society, we don't need to percolate that notion ourselves. If I ever have a lady child, I will try my hardest never to do anything but praise her healthy little bod. Actually, no, I will praise her healthy brain so that when she leaves the nest she will hopefully be more likely to talk about art and science and music than her thighs. If we could somehow start a generation of women who like to connect over common interests instead of a common fear of “fat,” the world would be a better place, or at least one with a better cultural commentary.

You hear that, Fat Talk? You can't sit with us!

So tell me, how did your parents affect your body image? Where did you learn to fat talk? Was it from your mom? Can we all blame our parents for all of our issues?

Zoe is not fat-talking over on Twitter or Instagram.