Movement aims to end fat talk, spread body acceptance

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After nearly four years battling anorexia, University of Florida senior Brittany Rouille has helped create the Body Acceptance Movement student organization. The group's 11 founding members, along with faculty adviser Shannon Kirkpatrick, are part of a grassroots effort to spread awareness that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, reduce fat talk and encourage women to love themselves, flaws and all.(Video and photos by Danielle Hipps)

By Danielle Hipps

"Friends don't let friends fat talk."

That's the message one new University of Florida group, the Body Acceptance Movement, hopes to spread.

Fat talk is made up of the statements we make in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women's dissatisfaction with their bodies, according to Shannon Kirkpatrick, a GatorWell health promotion specialist and the group's faculty adviser.

"I need to lose 10 pounds," and "She's too heavy to be wearing that swimsuit," are examples of the latent negativity the group is working to reduce.

Champions of the cause use various channels including lectures, art and blogs to advance the idea that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, she says. The group was integral to organizing Embrace Your Body Week, a frenzy of on-campus panels, discussions and outreach activities from February 21-27.

"For many of us, it's become so much the norm that we're not even realizing what we're saying to ourselves and how that affects our mood throughout the day," Kirkpatrick says. "If you ever said any of these comments to your friends, they would be really hurt by that – but we don't think about how we're hurting ourselves."

Even well-meaning inquiries about weight loss reinforce the notion that being thin is superior, she adds.

Women first encounter fat talk in early childhood, and from that point on it is ever-present, says UF sociology Ph.D. candidate Katie Nutter.

"The other day, I went to the mall with my mom and I saw one of those tube top dresses, and I said, 'If I wore that, I'd look like a sausage,' and she laughed," Nutter says. "But that's a form of fat talk."

This "thin" ideal is damaging to the self-esteem and can ultimately lead to poorer academic and professional performance, Kirkpatrick says. Twenty percent of UF students reported that feeling fat interferes with their everyday life, Kirkpatrick's office found in a 2010 Healthy Gators survey.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, girls aged 15 to 19 comprise 40 percent of newly identified cases of anorexia, a number that has been on the rise since 1930.

But some critics of the movement ask: Why doesn't it take male concerns into account?

Sociological research shows that parents while tend to be more concerned with their daughters' appearance, they are more preoccupied with their sons' behavioral issues, Nutter says. Children are also being introduced to the image ideals and social standards that lead to fat talk at increasingly younger ages.

"You can watch 'Toddlers in Tiaras' and find that the 3- and 4-year-olds think that they're fat," she adds.

Often, this form of socialization begins at home. Many young girls watch their mothers obsess over problem areas or hear them talk about their own image struggles, and they internalize what they are witnessing, she says. Sometimes, family members are a direct cause of negative body issues.

Nutter recalls a time during her undergraduate experience when an overweight friend 's mother made a negative weight comment during a group dinner.

"She said to her daughter, 'Are you sure you really need to get mashed potatoes?" she says. "I thought it was a very inappropriate way for a parent to speak to her child, especially in front of others."

Another sociologist, Ph.D. candidate Daniel Fernandez-Baca, says there are more social factors to blame for our desire to be thin.

"From a family perspective, they're coming from an age where they had different social norms, so to them, weight is a social class issue, a demonstration of your monetary influence," he says. "And it used to be, the fact that you were skinny meant that you weren't doing any manual labor."

Today, being skinny is still perceived as an indicator of success, he says. Society still associates obesity with lower socioeconomic classes because they often lack financial resources to invest in healthier lifestyles or the time to devote to consistent exercise.

"The discourse says that if you're overweight, then you're not in control of your body," Fernandez-Baca says. People also assume that those who are overweight are impulsive and incapable of self-discipline, another reason that our mainstream culture is obsessed with being thin, he adds.

While the movement is a critical step in helping to reduce numbers of eating disorders among both sexes, Fernandez-Baca says that even people who espouse body acceptance are likely to face some form of discrimination at a social level in the future.

But Kirkpatrick believes that stopping fat talk at the individual level may lead to its demise on a social one, she says. If people are aware of their deprecating comments, they may avoid making them and become empowered to challenge the ones that others make, as well.

And Nutter agrees. The cause is a necessary step to open the door for conversation about years of self-esteem issues perpetuated throughout society, she says.

"We live in our bodies all the time, and we interact with them so much, that we almost think we don't need to talk about it," Nutter says. "We're just waiting for the awareness that this is an issue."