When was the last time you received a compliment about something other than your appearance? When was the last time you gave such a compliment? If you're a woman, chances are you can barely remember.
This week, October 19-23, is Fat Talk Free Week. A nationwide campaign led by the sorority Tri Delta, Fat Talk Free Week is designed to call attention to how much time and energy women spend on worrying about their bodies, and aims to highlight the negative impact of those concerns on women's lives. For one week, participants in FTFW pledge not to talk negatively about their own bodies or about the bodies of others. No more talking about how you need to lose 10 pounds or about how those jeans make you look chunky. No more snickering about Jessica Simpson's weight or gossiping about which celebrities have gone under the knife. The goal of FTFW is to reshape the way women speak, and hopefully the way we think, about women's bodies.
A reshaping is certainly in order. According to the CDC, at any given moment more than 60% of adolescent girls in America are trying to lose weight, and according to another study, 81% of American 8-year-olds are afraid of being fat. Tri Delta is right in calling for an examination of how we talk and think about our bodies and about the bodies of women around us. A new generation of girls is being raised to believe that to be fat is to be a failure, and that thinness is an ideal to which they should aspire above all else. The lesson has been taught well: According to one 2007 study, over two-thirds of American women aged 18-25 would rather be mean or stupid than be fat.
Clearly, our priorities are out of whack, and Fat Talk Free Week aims to demonstrate just how often we think and talk about the physical, when we really ought to be focusing our energies elsewhere.
Fat Talk Free Week is harder than it sounds. When I signed the pledge last year, I had already been an eating disorders educator for a year, and had already eliminated fat talk from my life. It wasn't unreasonable, then, to imagine myself going a whole week without speaking negatively about my own body or about other women's bodies. The second part of the pledge, which was about eliminating positive Fat Talk (e.g., "That dress makes you look so skinny!" and other compliments focusing on one's appearance), was more of a challenge. Until I started to pay attention to the kinds of compliments I was hearing around me, I hadn't realized just how rare it is for a woman to compliment another woman on anything other than her looks. When was the last time you complimented a female friend on her character, or her intelligence, or her sense of humor? And even if you can recall the exact date and time of that compliment, odds are that it was a rare occurrence compared to the far more common "you look great" or "I like your hair."
In a culture where the majority of women would sacrifice kindness or intelligence to be thin, it's hardly surprising that a compliment about your appearance is far more flattering than a compliment about your personality. In truth, thinness and beauty have long functioned as stand-ins for personality traits. We make assumptions—some of them valid, some of them not—about women based on their weight and their level of attractiveness. When we see a thin, beautiful woman, we assume all sorts of things about her. The education we've received from movies, television and other pop culture outlets might lead us to believe that she's bitchy or stupid, although one study of Disney films found that the association between thinness and goodness has been a present in more than 100 of Disney's female characters. In reality, we have good reason to assume that a thin, beautiful woman is also successful and wealthy: on average, thin women earn more than overweight women. It's clear, then, that when we compliment a woman's weight or appearance, we're actually commenting on a great deal more than her looks.
Fat Talk Free Week challenges women to stop critiquing the physical and to focus their time and energy on the things that really matter. The time and energy women spend on beauty and thinness is staggering, and too often, that time and energy is channeled into life-endangering behavior like eating disorders and compulsive over-exercise. But women spend another valuable resource on their appearances: they spend money, and lots of it. According to a study reported in Newsweek, the average woman spends over $65,000 on her appearance before her thirtieth birthday—and that study, which focused on beauty products, didn't even take into account gym membership, diet meals or other forms of "body maintenance." Over the course of her lifetime, the average woman's total expenditure on beauty products is almost half a million dollars.
Imagine what you could do with all that money, time and energy. This week, imagine a world where women spent their resources in a better way, and then, I challenge you to begin to create that world. Start by going a week without criticizing another woman's body or bemoaning your "need" to lose 10 pounds. Then spend a week complimenting your female friends on the things that really matter-on their kindness and wit and talent. With small adjustments to how we talk and think, we can create the kind of world women deserve: a world in which women appreciate themselves, and each other, for the content of their character instead of for the curvature of their hips.