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‘nobody likes a fat-talker’: are women causing other women’s eating disorders?

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To add a healthy dollop of guilt to our days, women are now being told we’re responsible for other women’s body image issues, maybe even their eating disorders.

This week, researchers at the University of Notre Dame’s Body Image and Eating Disorder Lab revealed just how distasteful women are who dare to share their insecurities about their bodies with their friends.

Basically, researchers showed participants a series of images of women reflecting on their bodies. Some were bigger women; some were smaller women. Some were saying positive stuff about themselves and their bits; others were saying negative stuff about themselves and their bits.

Participants were then asked to rate how likeable the women in these images were. And it turns out the least likeable of the bunch were those that were perceived to be skinny and complaining about their weight.

If you like, you can read about the study on the uni’s wesbite here. It’s a pleasant article titled ‘Nobody likes a fat-talker.’

Fat-talk, according to researchers, ‘… is strongly associated with, and can even cause, body dissatisfaction, which is a known risk factor for the development of eating disorders’.

My initial reaction to this study was to grieve for a state of affairs that leaves most of us anxious about how we look. Yet, this quickly morphed into an angry questioning of how and why something as sad as eating disorders was being used as yet another way to turn women against each other.

I’m not denying that there have been times in my life when the insecurities of some of my slim friends have made me want to head for the inner sanctum of the Ashy Bines Bikini Body Challenge club. And I certainly don’t want to invalidate the feelings of those who’ve shared this experience. The old question ‘If she thinks she’s fat then what the heck does she make of me?’ ain’t no stranger.

But here’s the thing about friendship.

Mostly when a friend is opening up to you about something that worries them about themselves, it’s actually not about you.  And, for better or worse, we’re generally much harsher critics of ourselves than of others – so even if your friend is a size zero or whatever and you’re not, there’s still a pretty good chance she thinks you’re a stunner and she’s a troll.

At the end of the day, I’m not just there for my friends to be a good-time-gal. If they’re feeling crappy about something, I’d like to think they could share it with me. And a lot of young women feel crappy about their weight/appearance/other sometimes, so it’s likely to come up.

Similarly, it irks the heck out of me when my crazy-smart, competent friends question themselves in their jobs. Or when my kind, compassionate friends question themselves in relationships with jerks. It’s not always about weight. But weight seems to be all we can focus on.

This study does little other than reflect our obsession with women’s weight. And the relationship between a woman’s weight and her worth.

The whole premise of the research rests on the well-worn assumption that women exist to be liked, to be palatable. To absorb all the messages they see every minute of every day about how they should be thin and beautiful and perfect and wonderful and if they’re not, they should be carefree and humble enough not to worry about it. Certainly not vain enough to voice any insecurities they might have about not being able to measure up to unattainable benchmarks.

The study also revealed that the women most liked by the participants in the study, were those who were categorised as being larger but who, nonetheless, had positive things to say about their bodies.

This is a good thing. Obviously.

We like people who are comfortable with themselves. They often help us to feel more comfortable with ourselves. They’re often nonthreatening and just generally positive and nice to be with.

But what about overweight people, or underweight people, or average weight people, or short people, or tall people, or people with fine hair, or people with frizzy hair, or people with pimples, or people with crooked teeth, who, despite their efforts to remain positive, sometimes question themselves?

This study kind of tells us we can never voice these doubts, never let our guards down a wee bit with the ones we love, because it will make them like us less.

22 years ago, Naomi Wolfe’s, The Beauty Myth helped a lot of people realise how strongly the status quo of patriarchy relied on women remaining insecure about their bodies and their beauty.

Why then, in 2013, is body image and eating disorder research pointing a lazy finger of blame at women as the cause of other women’s eating disorders, rather than at the plethora of underlying social reasons women have to feel apprehensive about their weight? (Read; fashion, pornography, media, airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, advertising, etc. You know the drill).

In an ideal world we’d be having conversations with our friends about how we were proud of ourselves, and each other, for who we were, what we’d achieved and how we moved through the world. That wouldn’t often be linked to how we looked but when it was, we’d celebrate diverse beauties and bodies. Eating disorders would be a thing of the past and we’d be no longer bound by this beauty myth.

But until that day, let’s stop shaming women for the insecurities that are drummed into them from childhood. And maybe stop threatening them with giving their friends eating disorders while we’re at it.

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