-- *Trigger warning* for social media comments about body size and idealizing thinness.
It’s that time of the year again.
As temperatures rise and we become restless in our dorm rooms and lecture halls waiting for summer, college students flock to beaches and lakes to take advantage of spring break and sunny afternoons. And with these excursions comes – as one would expect in our social media-obsessed generation – a flurry of Instagrams, Snapchats, and Facebook posts that often put our bodies in the spotlight.
These photos aren’t the problem, however. As a photojournalism student, I know the importance of documenting your life – and there should be no shame in sharing your vacation photos whether you were in a swimsuit, a parka, or anything in between.
The real problem is an unfortunate little companion that often tags along with these photos…
It’s one of the topics we at Embody Carolina talk about a lot at events and trainings because yes, it’s that important – and that big of a problem. We define fat talk as any kind of comment that conveys a negative message about weight. But what do these comments really look like? And what do they do to us?
Some of the examples we give are pretty straightforward:
- “Does this make me look fat?”
- “She does not have the body to wear that dress…”
- “Man, he really needs to bulk up.”
But there are other types of fat talk that are less obvious.
“Wait a second,” you might be thinking. “Those comments aren’t conveying a negative message – they’re compliments!”
Let me explain.
Even if our intentions are harmless when we tell our friend they’re a “skinny mini,” the messages we’re sending are still very harmful.
When we say, “You’re so skinny, you’re perfect,” we’re saying that “skinny” equals “perfection,” and all other body types are somehow less desirable or right because they do not fit into that ideal.
When we say, “Give me your bod plz,” we’re sparking body competition rather than celebration within our peer group.
When we say, “Eat some McDonald’s,” we’re suggesting that there is something wrong with the way a person’s body looks and telling them to change it, while also making assumptions about someone else’s eating habits.
And in general, when we make any of these comments that focus on appearance, weight, or bodies, we’re sending our friends the message that they are valued only for their appearance, weight, or bodies.
The one-time harmful message isn’t the only side effect from fat talk, however. A recent New York Times article discussed studies and surveys that showed that the more your peer group participates in fat talk, the more likely you are, too…and it doesn’t make you feel good.
Lead by example and try these tips for cultivating a more positive online environment for both you and your friends and followers:
1. Before posting on social media, THINK and go through the National Eating Disorder Information Centre’s mental list:
T – is it TRUE?
H – is it HELPFUL?
I – is it INSPIRING?
N – is it NECESSARY?
K – is it KIND?
2. Ask yourself: “Why am I posting this?” Comments like, “This is so unflattering of me but I still love you” and “Tan af skinny af” serve no positive purpose – they don’t feel good to write, and they may not feel good to read, either. If your purpose is to compliment your friend, try complimenting them on something not related to their body or weight (or appearance in general).
For example, on a picture of your friend in a swimsuit, instead of making a comment about their body, try, “You look so happy! You definitely deserve this vacation, and I can’t wait to hear all about it and catch up when you get back!”
3. Don’t be afraid to unfollow negative accounts or people online. Your mental health is important! We’re often quick to get drop people or habits that affect our physical health -- would you keep being hanging out with a friend that never let you wear a seatbelt in the car? – but tend to overlook those that are negatively affecting our mental health. If your friend’s fat talk habit is clouding up your newsfeed, don’t feel guilty about unfollowing, hiding, or muting them.
4. Remember to whom you’re writing. Statistics suggest that up to 1 in 5 college students could be struggling with an eating disorder. Chances are, you’re interacting with more than a couple on social media without realizing it. Not only can fat talk be triggering for someone who has struggled or is struggling with an eating disorder, but it can reinforce negative self-talk even in those who haven’t struggled. Strive to create a safe and positive social media experience both for friends who are struggling and those who aren’t, as we could all use a little positivity in our lives!