CHANGE THE conversation
It’s Friday and another clothing delivery has come for one of the girls in Peninsula Living's office at Brookvale. Most of the team gather around to check out her latest purchase, and soon the conversation turns from fashion to fat talk.
"Does this make me look fat?" the avid online shopper asks her colleagues.
Soon, others chime in with their own body concerns. "I could never wear that because my thighs/butt/hips are too big."
According to the Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders, these examples of 'fat talk' may seem harmless, but they are powerful statements that reinforce negative body image and, when left unchallenged, can have a damaging impact on an individual.
"With there being such a strong emphasis and focus on how we look within our society, this type of talk has now unfortunately become an accepted means of communication to ourselves and among our friendship and peer groups," says Butterfly Foundation CEO Christine Morgan.
"This can be a means of enabling people to share and normalise negative feelings they have about their body and it can be used as a way to help another person feel better about their body by highlighting all the 'terrible' things about their own shape, size or appearance."
Research shows that just a few minutes of listening to or engaging in fat talk can lead some women to feel bad about their appearance.
Ms Morgan says, "People experiencing body dissatisfaction can become fixated on trying to change their body shape, which can lead to unhealthy practices with food and exercise. These practices don't usually achieve the desired outcome and can result in intense feelings of disappointment, shame and guilt and, ultimately, increase the risk of developing an eating disorder."
Plus, it isn't just women who engage in fat talk. For males, the rate of body dissatisfaction is rapidly approaching that of females; however body dissatisfaction is more commonly manifested in the pursuit of a muscular, lean physique rather than a lower body weight.
And, according to the foundation, more and more adolescents are starting to engage in this type of negative conversation. Ms Morgan says, "Recent studies have shown that children as young as three can develop a negative body image simply by picking up on messages from parents and siblings referring to body weight and appearance. Positive language, attitudes, and actions about body image by parents, extended family, and friends can play a crucial role in a child's healthy attitude to their body.
"Parents need to be alert to the signs of poor body image, such as constant focus by the young person on their size and shape, dieting, use of weight control pills and excessive exercise.”
Body image is frequently shaped during late childhood and adolescence, but body dissatisfaction can affect people of all ages and is as prevalent in midlife as young adulthood, Ms Morgan adds.
Australia's longest and largest national youth survey, Mission Australia, listed body image as one of the top three areas of concern. Past research studies have also found that 75 per cent of high school girls feel ‘fat’ and want to lose weight, with 90 per cent of 12 to 17 year old girls on a diet of some type. A quarter of people with body image and eating disorder issues are males, however the levels of stigma associated with boys with an eating disorder may mean that the number is much higher.
To escalate the issue, it seems for every one fad diet that falls out of favour, two more crop up. Atkins, Mediterranean, South Beach, paleo, raw food, the 5:2 - each of these diets have enjoyed a certain amount of popularity in recent times. Then there is the growing trend to eat food that is gluten-free, sugar-free, fat-free and low GI.
But parents need to be aware that this increasing emphasis on restrictive diets has an effect on kids’ perception of healthy eating, Ms Morgan says.
"Everyone, especially children, need to have a well-balanced diet. Excluding food groups or putting your body through any sort of nutritional deprivation can cause harm,” she says.
"It is important to note that most diets don’t work long term, and can actually lead to weight gain. Dieting is one of the greatest risk factors in developing disordered eating or a clinical eating disorder. This constant dieting mindset can cause people to develop unhealthy relationships with food, eating and their body and is dangerous for one's physical and mental weilbeing."
So how can we change the conversation?
The Butterfly Foundation suggests prioritising health over appearance and using Fat Talk Free February as an opportunity to become aware of how we speak about our bodies, and also make a commitment to support positive body image for the community.
Other ways you can encourage a more positive body image include: avoid looking in the mirror and making negative comments about the way you look, stop comparing yourself to others, and practice self-acceptance.
And maybe this Valentine’s Day, be your own Valentine and love yourself and the way you look a little more.