How to respond to fat talk
May 24, 2010 7:31 AM   Subscribe

What is the proper response to people who constantly make comments about how fat they are -- and they are normal weight? I am overweight.

I was tasked to do a project with some women. All of them are late twenties to mid-thirties. All of them are between 5'6" and 5'8" and I would guess 120-140 pounds, not obese or anything. Whenever we get together to work on this project it usually starts out with a discussion of how fat they are, how "bad" they are for eating this or that (I don't subscribe to the belief that food is a moral issue--unless you are withholding it from someone who is really starving.) Or how they're not exercising properly. Or a discussion/nutritional analysis of whatever snack whoever is hosting has put out.

A little about me. Because of hypothyroidism (I was treated with radioactive iodine twenty-some years back) and lithium maintenance therapy (at least in part) I am overweight. Not everyone who is hypothyroid or takes lithium struggles, and I'm not saying it's impossible to lose weight--harder for some than others, perhaps. I recently read here about a movement to be healthy at any weight and that's pretty much what I try and live. My blood pressure is 110/70, my cholesterol hovers around 180, I try to walk and swim several times a week. I went to a therapist to work on self-acceptance, but she just accused me of being a compulsive eater (she was overweight herself so I figure it was just projection on her part). I have friends who lost the last 20 pounds after going off the meds, but being insane is not an option in my world. I'm trying to say after twenty-some years I'm gradually coming to accept myself, in spite of society's pressures on women to be Barbie dolls.

Then I go and hear this!

This project will look great on my c.v. but I'm stumped as to what, if anything, to tell these women who are so insecure about their bodies.

I hope I picked the right category. I wanted to say Beauty.

mail to: 1divinest.sense1 (at) g mail dot com
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience, comments like this are often used to elicit responses like "Oh, you're not fat at all!" or somesuch. They're (unfortunately) part of the culture, and responding to them in that way just reinforces them.

When people around me make comments like that, I try to not respond, or to say something to indicate I'm listening ("Hmm") and then change the subject. I'll ask the person what their plans for the weekend are, or if they've seen any good movies lately or something. I try to take it back to some aspect of their lives that they are happy about. If I know their hobbies, I'll ask about them.

There is no right way to respond to "I'm so fat!" because, frankly, it's not something one should be saying (whether one is fat or not) in the first place.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:43 AM on May 24, 2010 [8 favorites]

There's a couple reasons for this, I think. One is, as ocherdraco says above, they are looking for acknowledgment and permisison to eat: "You're not fat at all! Go ahead and eat that cupcake!"

If they act this way with everyone, they are not even considering that you are heavier than they are; it's just a knee-jerk reaction for them that when they eat, they make apologies. Not, as you have noted, a healthy attitude to have.

But they also might be doing all of this in a misguided attempt to bond with you. They see you are overweight, and are trying to create a "we're all in this together, I struggle with food, too!" atmosphere.

If I were you, I'd think it was more charitable to go with the second reason. They may be bumbling and in fact patronizing, but they aren't intentionally trying to make you feel bad. If you want to talk to them about your hypothryoid issues (and I'm right there with you, taking the meds and trying to lose the weight and I agree it is a bear to do), then go ahead and use the moment for that.

But really, I think your attitude is a healthy one, and maybe just trying to ignore this and do what you need to do is the best approach to take.
posted by misha at 7:51 AM on May 24, 2010

I'm pretty fat, and I'm unapologetic about the fact. I'm also in nutrition, so I'm sure you can imagine how often I've run into scenarios like you describe. (And, as a sidenote, I'm a part of that healthy at every size thing you mention!)

This may not work for you, as I'm not sure how comfortable you are with discussing your own weight. However, my strategy has to kind of been to put the shoe on the other foot by shifting the discomfort to THEM rather than just taking it on myself as The Wages of Being Fat or whatever.

I most often do this, when people are talking about how they gained weight or need to lose weight, by mentioning casually that I gained 100 lbs after high school and that it was hard to get used to at first, but that I feel pretty good about it now.

This confuses or else embarrasses people by making them realize they are in the presence of a Really For Reals Overweight Person and that they are implicitly insulting my body by slagging on themselves.

If people mention dieting, I will sometimes make a mild-nose-wrinkly, "Ewww" kind of response, and mention that I dislike dieting, personally, and would much rather concern myself with other health indicators than weight.

If people get all moralistic about food, a simple, "How about if we just enjoy this, okay?" sometimes works.

What they are doing, while pretty much accepted everywhere as appropriate behaviour, is actually not. I'm sure they are not ill-intentioned, but it would be good for someone (maybe you!) to gently expose them to the possibility that airing their particular neuroses about food and weight can actually be insensitive to others in lots of ways (insulting, for one, but also possibly triggering for people who are recovering from disordered eating, or who have/need to gain weight for medical reasons.)

I went to a therapist to work on self-acceptance, but she just accused me of being a compulsive eater (she was overweight herself so I figure it was just projection on her part).

I've had a similar experience. Sorry to hear about yours. Memail me if you have any other questions or want to discuss.
posted by Ouisch at 8:03 AM on May 24, 2010 [15 favorites]

People can have eating/weight/guilt/esteem issues no matter what their external realities. It bugs me too at times to hear this kind of talk amongst women [and I can be guilty myself at times too] but I don't think it is necessarily a dig for compliments. Sometimes I think it is a systemic issue. I regard it as anthropologically interesting. [Also, why is this kind of conversation is only possible if the weight of concern is under, say, 10kgs?]

Bless your food, bless your body with it and try not to get wrapped up in what other women, also it seems to me, damaged by "society's pressures on women to be Barbie dolls." If this conversation comes up around me, I say ' Let's not have this conversation huh?'

If it's any consolation, sometimes one's physical size is irrelevant to how entitled one feels around food and all it symbolises.
posted by honey-barbara at 8:07 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lighthearted "Oh fuck you" should suffice.

But here's the thing: You have a condition that makes your weight nigh on impossible to control; these other women don't. Ipso facto, they should, theoretically, have control over their weight, and yet they don't. That can be a really frustrating condition to be stuck in.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:09 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Personally, I wouldn't say anything. Why? (Pseudo) game theory. Let me explain:

  • Disagreement: "Psh! You're not fat."
  • Disagreement + humor: "Heh, you're not fat -
  • trust me, I know" (or something along those lines.)
  • Semi-agreement/neutral: "Eh... you're not really fat..."
  • Agreement: "Yeah, you *could* do with a diet..."
  • Silence (or non-commital, non-verbal acknowledgement of statement, e.g. a brief exhale with a slight awkward smile, etc.)
Let's look at likely outcomes for the above:
  • Disagreement: They accept it as validation for what they wanted to do anyway (e.g. have a cupcake, feel less guilty about eating a second serving of chips, etc.) This is the desired outcome for them, and thus you have given them an indication that their technique was successful.
  • Disagreement / Disagreement + humor: They accept it as a compliment. This may improve their self esteem/self-image, but serves as positive reinforcement for their behavior. Humor may or may not land.
  • Disagreement + humor: Inwardly (or, outwardly if exceptionally rude), their comment causes them to agree with the joking portion, thus making them more aware of your weight. This may or may not matter to you (I am _not_ saying it should or it shouldn't, just trying to evaluate all the possible outcomes.)
  • Semi-agreement/neutral (best case): See first outcome for disagreement.
  • Semi-agreement/neutral (worst case): Interpreted as a polite way of acknowledging their statement (i.e. you are subtly agreeing with the claim that they are fat/overweight.)
  • Agreement (best case): Interpreted as humor. (See outcome for disagreement + humor.)
  • Agreement (worst case): Interpreted as insult or acknowledgement that they are indeed overweight. Has obvious effect on social relationship in either case.
  • Silence: No impact on opinion of you. Likely no impact on self-esteem. Does not provide positive re-inforcement for behavior.
Conclusion: stay neutral. :)
posted by -1 at 8:10 AM on May 24, 2010 [6 favorites]

In situations like this, I tend to think of the word "fat" as a feeling, not as a word that describes someone physically. I agree with the above poster who suggests not to give into the bait by saying "you're not fat," but instead I'd say something like, "I'm sorry you're feeling that way today! I've had days where I feel like that too" and then quickly change the subject.

It's worked well for me in those situations, and I'm ashamed to say that there are days where I do likewise "feel" fat, usually because of a couple days of poor exercise/eating habits and not because of a number on a scale or how I look in a mirror.

The whole "fat is a feeling" thing also reminds me not to compare weight with people. I've had semi-overweight friends make that comment in front of very overweight friends, and the overweight friends would get mad, as if the semi-overweight friend didn't know what they were talking about and had no right to say that, because they weren't as fat as them. Well, there will always be someone heavier and someone lighter than all of I don't think it's fair to deny anyone those occasional "I feel fat" notions. Keyword being "occasional" though....It sounds like you are having to address the "I'm fat" issue frequently with them and I hope you can find a solution that works to fizzle the topic quickly!
posted by Squee at 8:12 AM on May 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

I mentioned this line in a previous AskMe, and I think it applies to your situation:

"I'm sorry you think that. I've always believed we're as beautiful as we feel we are."

I also think it's worthwhile to subtly steer food/exercise conversations away from calories and weight. Like, "those cupcakes look good, but white carbs always make me sleepy" or "You're working out again? Neat. Do you prefer free weights or machines?"
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:16 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Once or twice, I just go along with it, but when people pull that act on me more than a few times and repeatedly start saying stuff like, "Oh, I'm so out of shape! I shouldn't be eating this!" I just reply in a sympathetic tone, "Yeah, you DO look like you've gained some weight recently."

The fishing for complements ends pretty fast.
posted by Menthol at 8:16 AM on May 24, 2010 [7 favorites]

Ouisch already sounds like Best Answer on how to respond, but let me point out that when these women (even if smaller than you) call themselves fat, there's probably little to no judgment of your own size implied there at all. Do not underestimate how self-absorbed people can be, particularly over something as fraught for young women as weight is. For all you know, they think YOU look fine, or even thinner then they perceive themselves to be.
posted by availablelight at 8:18 AM on May 24, 2010 [10 favorites]

My reactions to this kind of thing change a lot depending on where I'm at with my own weight, how much energy I have, and so on. I am very fat--about 290 pounds right now--so I get to hear these comments from women who literally weigh half as much as I do.

When I'm feeling strong and up to being an agent for change in the world, I do the kinds of things Ouisch does.

When I am not feeling strong and up to being an agent for change in the world, I roll my eyes inwardly and sigh.

When I am feeling really to be in-your-face about it, I will say things that call them on the behavior more directly. For instance, if somebody's doing that, "I really want the potato skins, but I should just have a salad... I was pretty good at lunch, so maybe the potato skins would be OK," thing, I tend to think they're looking for permission to eat what they want; there's this whole group check-in thing that women do when they're eating together. So once in awhile I'll say, "Eat what you want and enjoy. it You don't need my permission," or something like that, which shines a light on what they're doing and maybe makes them think. Or I'll say, when people are talking about resisting the plate of cookies on the table, "All I care about is that these taste really good!"

These things can be so tricky. About food and weight, the vexing thing is that women like you describe are both victims and perpetrators of our cultural fucked-up-ness. So I always want to call them on the behavior ("Hello! 300-pound woman sitting right here! Do you really think you're not talking about me right now?) but in a way that encourages them to take a tiny step toward releasing food guilt and feeling good about themselves. So I try to keep things as "I" statements.

For instance, I like Ouisch's comment about preferring other health indicators to weight, but I would probably personalize it more by saying something like, "I have found it so much more useful not to think about weight loss dieting, but to pay more attention to other measures of health."

My sympathy about the therapist. I once met with a therapist for completely unrelated issues and she immediately started talking about my weight, and seemed to assume that my weight alone was sufficient evidence for eating disorders and unrelated craziness. Such is the world we live in.
posted by not that girl at 8:23 AM on May 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm curious to know what the project is that inspires the comment. Can you turn it around to a data point? I'm reminded of the movie Brazil where you then casually make a mark on your clipboard — should they notice, it might make them more uncomfortable than you. Alternatively, ask them something about the comment that can turn it into a data point: e.g.: "Do you have a target ideal weight for yourself?"

Find an approach which demonstrates maturity above all else. Sounds like you have that and they certainly lack it at that moment of utterance. Find a way to make these poorly stated comments meaningful to them. They have nothing to do with you, after all.
posted by Dick Paris at 8:40 AM on May 24, 2010

I work in an office where I am the youngest and overweight. I am definitely heavy compared to a certain core of lower-level professionals that I deal with all the time. We got a new member - a woman in her early 50s, actually - who was so obsessed with how she had perceived herself as gaining five or ten pounds that I eventually pulled her aside. I said I was concerned with the way she had been talking about it. Not the food itself, but the way it seemed to be impacting her ability to work.

(I am the blunt, socially-inept one by reputation, which worked in my favor.)
posted by cobaltnine at 8:41 AM on May 24, 2010

You're not required to respond at all. Just ignore, and go on with whatever you're supposed to be doing.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:50 AM on May 24, 2010

Just a small note about your own weight relative to theirs; unless you're dealing with incredibly shallow narcissists who completely lack empathy (which is, admittedly, possible) they wouldn't be mentioning their own weight if they considered you so far into obese territory that it would offend you. So in their minds, they may very well see you as no fatter than themselves -- even if only because they look at you and accept you without judgement in a very positive way, but are simply unable to do the same for themselves.

In short, don't say anything, but note that they appear to be applying a double-standard to their own disadvantage, and it's okay for you to ignore it without fear of doing the wrong thing.

And yeah, I have yet to encounter a woman who talked about how fat she was, who wasn't also super-skinny. Obsessions are what they are.
posted by davejay at 9:11 AM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

You could just change the subject every time the weight talk comes up. That would send the "hey, this conversation is lame" message without having to explicitly say anything. You could also say something like, "I try to enjoy everything in moderation" if you want to address the topic directly.

I think a lot of times, women fretting to each other about their weight is just a bad habit. I've noticed it happens more frequently in the office too, where (a) there are so many occasions to eat in front of other people and (b) there are so many occasions for small talk, where people are looking for easy topics of common interest. In a way it's not that different from talking about sports or the latest episode of Lost -- though it is unfortunate that it's a topic some women gravitate toward.
posted by spinto at 9:13 AM on May 24, 2010

Whenever we get together to work on this project it usually starts out with a discussion of

The other members of your team are bonding over a topic that is, for them, a neutral area of discussion. For you, the topic is not a neutral area. While your desire to teach your teammates the deeper aspects of this topic is understandable, it's not going to be taken well (much in the same way that the one guy who is way inside baseball starts getting deep into stats analysis when everyone else is just chatting it up about last night's game).

The best way to handle this in a work setting is to discover a different topic that your teammates and you are all interested in and can share neutrally. You'll have to be outgoing about seeding the beginning of each meeting with this new topic. Separately, you can also work on casually talking about fat acceptance and societal pressures on women wrt appearance but for now that topic is unlikely to be the subject of the neutral chatter that lubricates the beginning of project meetings.
posted by jamaro at 9:31 AM on May 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'm a big fan of...

"whatever you say!"
posted by Cygnet at 9:36 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm overweight, and I generally react to skinny people worrying about their weight by making fun of them, in a way that confirms their bonyness -- such as saying something so exagerrated that it's obviously false, "Yes, you are humungous -- we could roll you down a hill like a beach ball!"

I wouldn't do this with friends who I knew had struggled with weight and eating, even if they are only minorly overweight -- generally, I do this with people (almost always women) who are doing that knee-jerk "I'm fat because I don't look like an airbrushed model" thing. It is a seriously annoying habit that usually has little to do with their actual weight.
posted by jb at 9:37 AM on May 24, 2010

It sad that the default mode of chit-chat among women is how everyone is feeling about the shape of their bodies. (See also use of generic "skinny" to mean "pretty.") The more you think about this, the more pervasive it seems, and I'm driven a little crazy by how rare it is for me to hear a conversation between women that does not include any bitching about the size of any body part whatsoever. (Whaat about your chubby toes? COME ON.)

It's hard to escape, though, because it is the de facto bonding chatter. I've caught myself doing it even though I rail against it. I was underweight until college and very slim until post-30s, and I got a lot of projected scorn about it. I'm ashamed to say that I was a little relieved when I could finally join the sort of water-cooler kvetching about my pants being a little tight. (I'm within the bounds of normal weight, but not as fit as I'd like to be for my health.)

That said, everyone has days where they're just not happy with their bodies or their looks, it's just extra-unfortunate that typical way of communicating this is to couch it in fatness. I try to NOT use size-based language to mean "not feeling confident/pretty today," and I'm annoyed and hurt when I'm told that my feelings are not permitted because I'm not fat enough. Jesus, it's not a contest, and I never said I was fat.

I think that you can gently prod people into being a little more mindful. Phrasing your complaint as a question is a good way to disarm a group from being defensive. "Huh, have you ever noticed that we talk about calories and the size of our hips at the beginning of every meeting? Sheesh, ladies, what is wrong with us?"

I think that if your rapport allows it, go ahead and share some personal stuff too. "Look, I'm on medication (no need to say which!) that makes it really medically difficult for me to not be overweight. I try to rock this size as best I can, but c'mon, you're killing me here. We're all smart and capable, I KNOW we can chat about something besides calories." (Note: have alternate subject ready.)
posted by desuetude at 10:13 AM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just as I would comment on anyone's weight:
"Long time no see! You've put on weight!"
...I wouldn't comment on anyone putting themselves down. I like the game theory approach. This is a no-win sitch, so sit it out with silence.
posted by kidelo at 10:43 AM on May 24, 2010

If you feel personally offended by the comments, you cannot go wrong with Miss Manners' favorite: the weak smile. I find a weak smile, when used judiciously and in conjunction with a spocked eyebrow, can often get people to stammer and backtrack without me having to say a word.
posted by KathrynT at 11:42 AM on May 24, 2010

I dated a girl who was definitely on the skinny side, but often referred to herself as fat, or chubby. I'd try and assure her that she wasn't, but I'm not sure it did much good. I'd ask her to point out people in a crowd who she thought were her size, and she'd always pick someone that I am guessing had a good 20lbs on her. She had been overweight in her early teens, so that may have had something to do with it.

It could be that these girls are just lumping you in with them, and I don't think you should take it personally.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:23 PM on May 24, 2010

One of the key things I've learned in therapy (with someone who's skilled in working with eating-disordered people) is that fat is not a feeling. "Fat" is the word we use to mask our feelings, because it's easier for certain groups of women to bond around "I feel fat" instead of "I feel angry" or "I feel frightened" or "I feel sad."

I've also learned, in my journey up to a size 28W and back down again, that most people - me included - have no idea what other people weigh. Even at 300 pounds, I sometimes got "oh, but I don't mean you when I'm talking about fat people! I mean actually fat people."
posted by catlet at 1:21 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Personally, I won't listen to or participate in discussions where healthy women complain about being fat or moralise about food. Sure, I'm pretty fat, but frankly, I'd feel just as exasperated by these conversations were I skinny, because I consider fishing for compliments/neurotic vanity/internalised misogyny/relentless self-criticism UNBELIEVABLY BORING. Seriously, ladies: get some other interests or real problems.

So here's how I suggest you respond: don't. If someone tells me, "Oh, I'm SO FAT", or describes food as "naughty", or whatever, I just glaze over until they've finished and then change the subject to a topic of mutual interest. It works great.

(Or, in the case of very close friends, I just tell them to shut the fuck up. No one takes offence, as we all read The Beauty Myth when we were eighteen years old and they know exactly what I'm talking about. YMMV.)
posted by hot soup girl at 2:19 PM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing hot soup girl. I'm fortunate that most of the people in my world do not talk about dieting or weight or "good" and bad" re food & body. But when it comes up, I will say, "I don't talk about dieting." Or, "I don't talk about weight." As in, that is my policy (which it is). Or: "I'm sorry, I have nothing to say to that." "That's a topic I do not discuss." If pressed re why (which doesn't happen much), I say something like, "I think such discussions are bad for the individual, bad for the other people in the conversation, and bad for the world."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:37 PM on May 24, 2010

I am a guy, happily married to a curvy woman I think is beautiful. She is about 5'7 and 200 lbs. and all my female friends from work have met her and know us and so forth.

And yet - I'll have lunch with this one female friend from work once every couple of weeks, and this woman is very attractive and fit. But she will say things like "I have to have just a salad because I went to a wedding this weekend and ate cake twice and I'm totally disgusting." She'll use that kind of language in reference to her weight or body and I want to sometimes say, "Um, you know that my wife is probably 60 or 70 lbs heavier than you, right? So if you think you're 'disgusting' than you must think she hardly deserves to walk around free."

But I don't. I have learned that this is not an issue for a guy to step into, other than to say, "Aw, come on, you're gorgeous!" or something. Anyway.

We have a two-year-old daughter I worry about having hang-ups about her body image. I feel for women with this issue, as it just seems to embed itself psychologically and never let go. I don't have any advice for you, I guess, except to say that, possibly, there is no advice about it. The culture machine and the sexual economy have burned this body-hate into every woman's mind and it's a tough, ferocious bastard of an idea.
posted by Philemon at 7:05 PM on May 24, 2010

Yeah, it's probably not a good move to just say that they're all fat because you have to keep working for them.

It's what I do around skinny/moderate weight people who claim they are fat. I just say yeah, you are fat. Because I don't want to hear them insult me by proxy as I am bigger than they are. Even though I don't care about my weight, it's a respect and thoughtfulness thing and reinforces the idea that women should have weird body issues and put themselves down. I don't like it one bit even if it is culturally ingrained and not indicative of them being bad people or anything.

Thinking about it though, my knee jerk reaction to be pissy at them is probably not the best.

If you're with them more individually, you can always do the sincere concern thing--"Hey, you know, I think you're beautiful." or "if you ever want to talk about body acceptance, I can send you some links." Those sound cheesy but you might be able to work them into a conversation.

You can also just pull one or two of them aside and say "hey, I know you have a good time talking about your weight (or whatever) but it kinda makes me uncomfortable because I am the size that I am." That might make them recognize that they are being inconsiderate (and dull).
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:01 PM on May 24, 2010

Sadly, I'm not sure there's anything yo can do. These women clearly have body issues. There's nothing you can say or do to cure them of their issues any more than they could say or do anything to cure you of your issues (whatever yours might be).

I dated a woman who was 5'7" and a size 4. Every time she tried on clothes, she always Always ALWAYS took a larger size into the dressing room to try on because she thought she was fat. EVERY SINGLE TIME!!! It drove me crazy... but she had body issues and try as I did to be supportive, there was nothing I could do... because her sister was a size 0 and her mother was obese. Her mother idolized the size 0 sister and made comments to my then girlfriend about being the heavier one. ARGH!!!!

People say the most ignorant things!
posted by 2oh1 at 9:27 PM on May 24, 2010

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