When Renee Engeln, psychology, first started teaching college undergraduates, she was shocked to overhear their hallway conversations. Instead of discussing coursework or weekend plans, her female students stood around talking about their weight.
“These young women were so accomplished, so funny, so great,” Engeln recalls. “But they would have long conversations about how fat they were.”
These experiences inspired Engeln to study women’s relationships with their bodies. When she joined Northwestern eight years ago, she started the Body and Media Lab, which explores body image and beauty sickness. The lab’s eventual goal is to find interventions that encourage women to have healthy relationships with their bodies.
“From all different angles, we ask what science can do to help,” Engeln says. “How we can help explain what’s going on and determine why it’s going on.”
“Fat talk” is a major focus of Engeln’s lab. As demonstrated by her first college students, fat talk is when groups of women talk to each other about how fat they feel. “I’m fat,” one person says. “No, I’m fat,” the next person responds. The conversations continue with statements such as “I’m way fatter.” “My butt looks so big in these jeans” and “I’m too gross to even go outside.” While seeking support usually helps people cope with stress, fat talk actually makes everyone feel worse. The people engaging in the conversations —as well as people who overhear the conversations — end up feeling even more negative about their bodies.
Fat talk starts at age eight or nine and continues in women of all ages. But Engeln — who serves as faculty-in-residence at Allison Residential Community — has found that it is particularly pronounced in college-age women.
“About 93 percent of college women say they do it,” she says. “It’s possible that the other 7 percent were lying.”
College women feel harsh pressures to maintain perfect appearances. They are at an age where they date often and seek partners. And they are also in a place where they are trying to form identities and figure out what’s important to them. Many say they learned fat talk from their mothers.
But Engeln assumes they did not learn it from their grandmothers. “I think it’s a relatively new phenomenon,” she says. “I don’t think our grandmothers did it.”
While society has always placed value on women’s appearances, older generations were not dealing with today’s fashions. Clothing nowadays leaves little to the imagination. “Over
100 years ago, nobody knew what was going on under that skirt,” Engeln says. “There wasn’t a public discussion of cellulite because cellulite wasn’t a public thing. Things that used to be considered pornographic are mainstream now.”
Social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, have further blurred the lines between public and private. Women emerge from dressing rooms and talk to the stranger in the next stall about their thighs. On television and in magazines, it’s become fair game to evaluate each other’s bodies.
Engeln is particularly concerned about media influences. She says that media tend to do two things: remind women over and over that appearance is the only thing that matters, and urge people to compare themselves to each other to see how they measure up.
When it comes to evaluating appearance, women look around at other women. Images of women in the media tend to be vastly unrealistic — unusually thin with flawless skin and perfect hair.
“If you compare yourself with a media image,” Engeln says, “you’re almost always going to fall short.” While being fat does not seem as major a concern for men, they engage in something Engeln calls “body talk.”