Today’s New York Times Well Blog carries an article about “Fat Talk,” that pernicious conversation that most women in my demographic have been schooled in since we were teenagers.
Here are the rules of this incredibly destructive sort of conversation, carried on all day long among otherwise sane and competent women:
1. If you are female, you must have several things you hate about your body, your own personal list of body flaws.
2. Whenever you are trying on clothing, talking about your appearance, ordering at a restaurant, or even just walking down the street and catching your reflection in a shop window, mention one or more of the things you hate about your body. If you are alone, just scrunching up your nose in self-disgust is fine.
3. In conversation with female friends, if any fellow female mentions her body, exercise, food, clothing, or any other topic, mention your real/imaginary body flaw.
4. (Most important) Whenever a friend complains about her body, bring up your own body flaw in a horribly misguided gesture of empathy and sisterhood. Imagine that this brings you closer to your sisters and friends.
It is astonishing how closely many women follow these rules, despite the fact that nobody has ever really written them down. And despite the fact that these practices are soul-killing and demeaning — not only to us individually, but to women in general.
The article points out one reason why we may follow these rules, even if our bodies are perfectly serviceable. As Jan Hoffman, the article’s author reports, “Renee Engeln, who directs the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University, cautioned that ‘we have complicated reactions to confident women in general, and particularly to women who are confident about their bodies. Women sometimes see them as arrogant.’”
OK, so that’s just great. What do you want to choose, little girl: ugly or arrogant?
I usually write here about all the things I worry about as a mom: all the ways in which I struggle to parent my girls. But today’s article reminded me of just one thing DH and I have gotten right: our family rule about how we talk about ourselves and others.
The rule is simple: ”Don’t say mean things about people’s bodies, hair, intelligence, or personality. Including your sister’s or your own.”
Like most rules, this one gets broken now and again at our house. But I am heartened by the number of times my girls have called me on this rule, and how relieved they are when I call them on it. Instead of following the four rules about body flaws, we follow our one rule and talk about feeling strong, feeling sturdy, feeling lucky, and even on occasion, feeling beautiful.
I wouldn’t call us arrogant on questions of appearance (although I am still sure Carly Simon wrote that song about me.) But at least I can say that our house participates in drastically less mean-spirited conversation because of our family rule.
It also heartens me when my girls notice anti-female messages floating around the culture in the form of ads and entertainment. I have to think that we are doing something right when they notice, independently of their parents, the endemic racism, sexism, ableism, and irrational obsession with appearance that we’re all drowning in.
But we still have a long way to go, and sometimes I find examples of girls and women ahead of us on the path. Not long ago, an exchange on Reddit.com went viral when one Reddit user posted a photo of a young Sikh woman. The Reddit user was attempting to shame her (and, by extension, all other women) but the young woman’s reply, invoking her deepest beliefs and unshakeable self-confidence, schooled him and thousands of those who read it. When I want to be really inspired by a young woman, and remember what is important in parenting girls, I’m going to go back and re-read this.