By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
“I can’t believe I let myself go again. I’m such a big fat failure. I feel like a large lumpy, undisciplined loser. My mother was right when she told me no one will ever love a fat woman.”
These words poured out of the mouth of a 45-year-old, highly accomplished professional and mother of two. This was a bad day for her, having been passed up for a key project by a younger more attractive colleague. She blamed it all on her weight and spent the next 5 minutes disparaging herself.
Truth be told, it wasn’t her weight. The colleague was the boss’s niece and it was all an inside job. But, already fragile about her appearance, this episode sent her from zero to an all-out shaming, blaming and self-bashing tirade.
When she stopped to take a breath, I looked at her, smiled, and gently said “That’ll be one dollar, please”. Puzzled, she asked why. I simply said, “Any negative self-talk is fined one dollar. It goes right here into the ‘negative-speak’ piggy bank.” Her eyes widened and she nodded. “Oh my. I didn’t realize I was doing that to myself.”
Indeed, most people don’t. I didn’t collect the money, but gave her fair warning that next time I will. She ended up buying her own piggy bank and monitored her mouth at home. It was an eye-opening experience.
Berating yourself about your weight in public is common to both men and women, but the genders do it differently. Men more often use guy-humor —”Man, I’m a lardo and as big as a house — your house!” Women tend to be more deeply affected emotionally as their self-esteem is so much more tied up in appearance.
People put themselves down by berating their appearance, how they look in clothing (“I never look good”), or what they ate (“I’m such a pig”) with what appear to be innocuous statements.
At the end of the day, these verbal darts are eroding self-worth. This is what has been referred to as Fat Talk and frankly it needs to be cut from your daily diet!
Fat Talk goes both ways. You do it to yourself, and others can do it to you. My patient’s mom, though well-intentioned, left an indelible mental scar when she associated love with the quantity of fat you carry on your body.
And Fat Talk is used by people of all sizes. How many times do you feel like smacking down a rail-thin woman who, after eating lettuce and tuna for lunch, despairs that she feels “so fat that I’m just popping out of my jeans?”
It’s really important to cease and desist with Fat Talk because if you don’t, you’re left with a poor body image and self-loathing. This leads to self-destructive behaviors like overeating and withdrawing from social engagements and going to the gym.
Here are some ground rules you can use to combat your own Fat Talk and that of others:
1) Hang out with the right folks. Fat Talk is contagious. Prioritize who you spend your time with. It’s terrific to be with people who have a healthy sense of self-esteem — “I’m proud of myself for doing my first 5K. Although I wasn’t the fastest or the most athletic looking, I did my best and feel terrific.” Say that, not “I wasn’t perfect looking in my shorts and felt rotten for the whole race.” Positivity is powerful!
2) Teach others how to talk to you. When someone is constantly saying things to you about your weight and appearance, you can either eliminate this person from your network, or if that’s not feasible, have a frank discussion with them, saying, “Hey, when we’re together, I would appreciate it if you would not make any references to my personal appearance” and leave it at that. There’s no need for a lengthy discussion. Enough said. If they persist, then you need to reassess this relationship.
3) Get the compliments flowing. Compliments are contagious as well. Fight the tendency to drown in Fat Talk. Just dole out the compliments. Start with yourself. Look in the mirror and say something nice about yourself, like “My legs were awesome in my indoor cycling class today.” Commit to doing this at least several times a day.
Then turn your attention to others. “Wow, killer scarf. You look terrific.” You never know when that kind remark will help to quell someone else’s own self-derisive Fat Talk. So say that, not “Didn’t that pizza slice make you feel awful?” Let’s buck the Fat Talk trend and start a more positive progressive way to interact with one another. Friends don’t let friends Fat Talk.
4) Make money with positive self-talk. The piggy bank trick works. So many of you have been engaging in Fat Talk for so long, it’s become a knee jerk response. Buy that piggy bank and go from mindless to mindful by fining yourself some arbitrary amount (a dollar works!) whenever you hear any Fat Talk spilling forth from your lips. Just say, “Busted!” and lay that dollar down. It’ll make you smile and start to rewire your brain to be on red alert for any negative self-speak in your vocabulary.
Say, “I’m working it and feeling good today” and not “I’ll never drop the weight and will always look like a loser”. For that matter, let’s turn this around and pay yourself one dollar every single time you compliment yourself, from appearance to accomplishments. Then take that money and buy something to celebrate your newfound self-appreciation and love.
5) Pick a powerful role model. Think about the men and women who inspire us to do great things with our own lives. Funny how it’s not their appearance, but their wisdom, accomplishments, brilliance, and passion that touch our hearts. Think of YoYo Ma, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jane Goodall. Like these extraordinary people, concentrate on your own innate gifts and get off the Fat Talk train. Say, “I have achieved a lot as a teacher and am proud of the kids whose lives I’ve touched” and not, “So long as I can’t get this weight off, I’m a complete failure.”
6) Be a role model. Your kids, family members, and friends listen to what comes out of your mouth. If it’s mostly self-disparaging, this affects them as well. You’re setting a norm and giving people permission, especially the young ones, to rate their value in life on appearance alone. Fat Talk is insidious and as it creeps into your daily conversations, it not only whittles away at your own self of self-worth, but becomes your kid’s self-speak to him/herself as well as to others.
So say, “I’m feeling great after my walk and I’m getting so much healthier. Wow, I’m lovin’ life!” and not “Man, I can’t believe after spending all of that money on this outfit, I still look like crap. I’ll never look good.” Spread positive, hopeful love and support, not negative vibes. Let self-support go viral!
7) Quit making everything about your weight. Focus on what gives you meaning in life. Look at what kinds of goals and objectives get you all fired up with the passion to achieve. Don’t keep making everything about dropping weight. You’ll drop excess body fat and get fitter if you adopt a healthy lifestyle and keep busy striving to achieve what gives you an awesome feeling of pride in your accomplishment.
Say, “I wrote my first book and those daily walk in the park kept me focused and creative. What a win-win!” and not “I wake up every day dreading another fat failure. I’ll never bring this weight under control.” Don’t be a POW — prisoner of weight! Take control today. Drop the Fat Talk. Start a new dialogue filled with hope, self-compassion, and love. You can do this!