Friday, September 17, 2010

"Fat Talk" Campaign and Yom Kippur: Watch What You Say

"Fat Talk" is just one destructive manifestation of our culture's imposed obsession with food and size.  And its approving amusement with unrestrained mouthing-off.

In today's mail was a magazine sent by my daughter's sorority.  She graduated in June and her dad and I decided to give her the gift of a "lifelong" membership. So the Delta Delta Delta Trident publication arrives in our mailbox monthly, and when I finally give it to her, usually becomes instant recycling.  Today I flipped through the pages, as I often do, regretting that I'd never even considered joining a sorority at UCLA, because in the tumultuous years I was an undergrad, such things were eschewed as "too establishment" and "materialistic." And then something caught my eye.

I'm working on a book dealing with how our society causes obesity, and the mag touted a whole campaign called "Fat Talk Free Week," upcoming on October 18.  A peel-and-stick reading "Friends don't let Friends Fat talk" was on a postcard inserted in the binding, with a pledge to eliminate fat talk from conversations and "focus on health, not weight or size." "Fat Talk Free Week," explained the card, "is an international, 5-day body activism campaign to draw attention to body image issues and the damaging impact of the 'thin ideal' on women in society."

To that I say:  Brava.

Certainly pressure to match some unrealistic thin ideal oppresses women and leads not only to eating disorders, depression and self-loathing, but it's also a fundamental reason why men and women override their bodies' natural hunger and satiation cues, eat all manner of weird diets, and ultimately increase their likelihood of obesity.  Equally damaging is the lowering of discourse, the increase in rudeness and insensitivity; the decline of kindness--both publicly and privately.

But it may not be a coincidence that I happened to see this article today, just hours before the self-reflective Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.  On that most solemn and elevated day in the entire calendar, serious Jews take a frank look at their transgressions and repent.  During services, congregants repeat a laundry list of sins, admitting to their shortcomings.  Perhaps the most-mentioned type of error, described in many permutations, is the misuse of speech; mostly for disrespect.

We strike our chests with our fists, confessing to God, "For the sin we've sinned against you with the utterance of the lips..." including "with harsh speech," "through insincere confession of the mouth,""through foolish speech of the mouth," "through defilement of the lips," "through talk that is evil," "with the speech of our lips without thought," "by gossip-mongering," and a bunch of others that imply improper blabbing.  "Fat talk" is, I'm sure, included.

Now, what exactly is "fat talk"?  "Fat Talk describes all of the statements made in everyday conversation that reinforce the thin ideal and contribute to women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies," explains the campaign's Facebook page. "Examples of fat talk include: 'I’m so fat,' 'Do I look fat in this?' 'I need to lose 10 pounds' and 'She’s too fat to be wearing that swimsuit.'” It continues, "Statements that are considered fat talk don’t necessarily have to be negative; they can seem positive yet reinforce the need to be thin. E.g., 'You look great! Have you lost weight?'"

In other words, anything that references fat, that suggests that thin is better.

Getting sorority girls to refrain from mentioning fat for five days is sure to be...impossible.  But it's a worthy effort.  Anything that increases consciousness about one's words and their potential impact can improve not only the kindness climate, but mind-sets internally, as each speaker assesses--even for a split second--her own relationship to those words.

And I suppose that's why Yom Kippur is such a revered and awesome (truly!) holiday.  It's no fun; actually, I (unwisely) dread it: no food or drink, long stretches of standing in synagogue, seemingly endless recitations, and focus on stuff I'd rather avoid.  Even the melodies for chanting the verses sound dirge-like, reminding us that God is really keeping track of our misdeeds, even though we prefer to think of Him as that merciful guy who knows that in our hearts, we mean well.  We may, but we still chose to do what was easy, what was self-serving, rather than what was right and proper.

The Jewish term for unacceptable speech is "lushon ha ra," Hebrew for "evil language," but actually pertaining to anything negative spoken about other people, even if true.  (There's a harsher term for untrue chatter.)  We see the power of speech constantly; and indeed man is defined as above animals by virtue of his power to speak, to shape sounds into intelligible communication that can convey abstracts, plans, history.  No wonder our greatest vulnerability comes in what we say.

As a therapist, I've often told clients that there are three levels of significance for ideas.  If we merely imagine them in our minds, they exist but have no substance.  When we utter them to another, we bring them into our world, we transfer them via sound waves that are a level higher than our mental cognition.  When we write them, however, our ideas become concrete; they can exist permanently.  That's why writing a note has more consequence than merely saying something.  And speaking has more weight than just a thought.

All three cases, though, involve words giving form to a desire, a feeling, a creative essence.  Fat talk is bad; it affects others even if unintentionally.  Fat-thinking, too, has an impact.  As does any kind of negative formulation, any kind of criticism of another person.

To my Jewish friends, may you be sealed for a good year.  To everyone, may we all become a little more conscious of our words, be they any size.


  1. I work for Tri Delta Executive Office and with this campaign!
    We can not thank you enough for assisting us in spreading this message.
    Thank you for both caring enough to write about it and for sending followers to our FB page. We are truly appreciative to have members and their families engage in the programs that we are doing.

  2. Sarah, Thanks for monitoring and your comment. I'd be interested in the results of your campaign!