Fat women, self-denigration and social rituals

Sady at Tiger Beatdown has an interesting discussion about how female self-promotion (or lack of it) and the social practice of self-denigration (including Fat Talk) interplay with each other.

I have to wonder how these social rules intersect with the bullying and shaming of fat kids (and adults). Is it because we are too confident (not shamed enough) in our fat bodies? How does the social requirement to engage in the “naughty me, I want cheeseburger” request for permission ritual work for fat people? We certainly don’t get the conspiratorial “Go on. I will if you will” as often – and are more likely to feel pressured to have a salad or forego the cheeseburger. So if we have the cheeseburger without the socially condoned permission, are we then giving our women friends the big FUCK YOU?


But I will say that I have, recently, been reading a book called Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons. One passage in this, which grabbed me and blew my mind and suddenly made about a thousand troubling incidents way more easy to understand, was about how female bullies pick their victims. The author interviewed a whole bunch of girls about this, and she came up with a really good, really obvious answer. So, do you want to know how they pick their victims?

They pick the girl who seems the most confident. [My emphasis]

Yes, that’s really it! In the particular seething cauldron of insecurity, unhappiness, and fear that is female adolescence, girls tend to feel shitty about themselves for about a million reasons, and to think that they need outside approval – from friends, from boys, from the culture at large – in order to be worthwhile. But if a girl seems not reliant enough on outside approval – if she doesn’t hate her body enough, if she’s too successful at getting guys to like her, if she’s not interested enough in getting guys to like her, if she thinks she’s smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty (or if she just is smart or cool or worthwhile or pretty, and it’s pronounced enough for the people around her to take notice) – then the wolves start circling. [My emphasis] Because they’ve all been bullied, too; they’ve all been undermined; they’ve all made the mistake of standing out, at one point or another, and they’ve been punished for it. And now, because they feel like shit about themselves, you have to feel like shit, too. A girl who doesn’t feel like shit is a threat to the entire social order, the extensively complicated and crappy system whereby women have to earn their way into a pretense of self-esteem by getting enough approval from other girls or from other outside sources in general.


Or: the Fat Talk. You know about the Fat Talk, right? Lots of people have written about the Fat Talk already. For years, I thought this was some grody stereotype that you only found in male stand-up comedians’ routines about how women are awful. But then I met women who actually did it: the thing where, before ordering dinner at a restaurant, you all talk about how you should order this and you absolutely cannot order that, because you are so disgusting and you cannot stick to your diet and eating a cheeseburger will literally send you right straight to hell, and if you are the girl who straight-up says she wants some nachos so covered in cheese and guacamole and various meats that they might as well not even have any chips involved – just a big mess of meats and milk fat and squished-up avocados, that is the experience for which you are aiming, and also it would help if the entire thing had sour cream all over it – well, you just might have earned yourself a Complinsult about how brave you are with your dietary habits, young lady.

The weird thing is that, in this scenario, it seems not to ultimately matter whether you get the cheeseburger or the nachos or whatever: what matters is the extensive ritual of saying bad things about yourself, and contradicting other ladies about the bad things they have said about themselves, and giving each other permission to order the nachos, before they’re ordered. And if you don’t get permission to order the nachos, if you’re the one girl at the table who doesn’t get contradicted when she says she’s fat and shouldn’t be allowed to eat what she wants, then you know something is up. You know someone at the table, or maybe everyone at the table, has a problem with you. Which is why you don’t place your order without doing it: for a long time, I thought I was just demonstrating my good body image by ordering a cheeseburger and not participating in the Fat Talk, and then I sort of figured out that I was straight-up declaring that I was so hot I got to do whatever I wanted and was too insensitive to appease the body insecurities of my friends, who were (my actions declared) less hot than myself. [My emphasis] I still think the Fat Talk is destructive and body-hating and stupid, and I don’t want to do it, but the way I get around it is to talk with the girls I have lunch with about why I think it’s destructive and body-hating. Not to just bypass it. Because that’s how self-esteem, and self-promotion, and social status, tend to work with girls: it’s a series of very subtle interactions in which you say you’re not good enough so that other girls can tell you that you are. [My emphasis]


8 Responses to “Fat women, self-denigration and social rituals”

  1. 1 buffPuff Friday, 29 January 2010 at 1:50 am

    I so agree with this. It accounts for why so many ex-fat women are so disgustingly vitriolic to FA advocates. They hated themselves when they were fat; people made their life a misery when they were fat – so where the hell do we get off having the nerve to accept ourselves the way we are?(Never mind freeing ourselves from the social obligation to diet and/or bond over mutual body hatred. That makes them positively incandescent).

    I recently met an online friend in real life for the first time. We’re both 50 and short, however, she is a UK size 12 to my size 22 and she used to be incredibly tiny as a young girl – a model, no less. We get on really well in most respects but she thinks of herself as fat and did have a go about her “big fat ugly stomach” at one point (either during shopping or eating) and I winced and said nothing.

    We met through a fashion/personal style group on flickr so we knew what the other looked like before we met. When she referred to herself as fat during a telephone conversation, I said, “You aren’t fat; I am fat” – before going on to discuss the parlous state of plus-size fashion options, of which she is aware and very sympathetic. While I was simply stating a fact, reading this entry has made me realise that to any woman mired in the shared-self-loathing-bonding-ritual, (and let’s face it, most women outside of FA are), the statement would be interpreted very differently.

    Since we do get on so well I’m sure, at some stage, the subject will come up again. So, hopefully I’ll get the chance to share some of my shockingly radical ideas on giving one’s body a break.

    • 2 Fatadelic Friday, 29 January 2010 at 6:15 pm

      Yeah. And as I think of it, this dynamic is not restricted to women; I have a similar thing happening with a good gay friend of mine. He constantly engages in the “I’m a fat pig” talk and of course there isn’t an ounce of actual fat on his gym-junky, carb-conscious arse. My reassuring and body positive talk is taken by him as part of the social dance, but the missing step is the part where I am supposed to reciprocate with self-denigration – even more so since I am actually honest-to-goodness FAT.

  2. 3 Elizebeth Turnquist Friday, 29 January 2010 at 2:39 am

    Wow. That bit about bullies picking on confident girls really rang true for me.

    Maybe that’s why I don’t get along with most women I meet. I’ve always been oddly self-confident. And I don’t like putting up with people that insist on putting me down or try to make me feel bad about myself with their constant censure.

    I’ve been accused MANY TIMES of being “full of myself,” which I think is the funniest insult. I mean, and I really supposed to be “less of myself?”

    Do I have to hate myself to fit in? If that’s the only option, then of course I choose not to fit in.

    I suppose this all means I choose not to have female friends. Because I don’t want to play the game of talking down about myself so that they can pump me up.

    I buy into the idea that what you think and say eventually become your truth. Even if it starts out as a lie.

    Which is a great way to find self-affirmation…but, in this context, if I bow to the pressures of female culture, then I’m opening myself to self-hate.

    Like I said…wow…This was a very enlightening.

    Thank you for re-posting the text.

    • 4 Fatadelic Friday, 29 January 2010 at 6:30 pm

      Do I have to hate myself to fit in? If that’s the only option, then of course I choose not to fit in.

      Looking back to when I was at school, I never quite understood fitting-in-as-female rules. I recall countless teenaged social interactions where friends were engaging in the “I’m fat and ugly” ritual – and I simply couldn’t understand why anyone would have so little self-respect to say that aloud – and so I stayed silent.

      Of course, the irony here is that in my head I was thought I was the fattest, ugliest, most worthless creature on the face of the planet (Yay, depression!). But I wasn’t going to say that out loud to anyone.

      Perhaps I came across as WAY more confident than I was. Of course, at the time, I thought the bullies smelt my weakness like a pack of hunting hyenas (sorry for the florid metaphor). But the research above suggests that the bullies thought I needed to be taken down a peg or two – that I was too confident, too whatever.

      If I had understood the social requirement to hate myself and spoken my actual self-hate aloud, would it have made a difference to my teen years? Who knows.

  3. 5 Synna Saturday, 30 January 2010 at 2:49 pm

    Holy hell, the bullying part rings so true for me!

    And I worked in a place once where all the women (mainly <30yrs old) were totally into the fat talk. I (the fattest employee) never engaged in their diet talk/fat talk, but it did make me feel oddly ashamed of myself. Needless to say, I didn't make any good girl friends there.

  4. 6 sleepydumpling Saturday, 30 January 2010 at 11:04 pm

    It’s interesting that you bring up the phenomena of the confident girls being the target of female teenage bullies.

    Not that long ago, I was the target of a particularly vicious workplace bully. Being the librarian that I am, I borrowed a whole pile of books on workplace bullying, and one of the real lightbulb moments for me was reading in almost all of the books that the most common targets for bullying are confident, competent, outgoing/extroverted, single females!

    The reason for this? A) The bully is threatened by confidence and competency, and feels the need to “bring them down a few pegs. B) Bullies pick extroverts because they can be seen to be changing that person’s behaviour. Introverts internalise and avoid, extroverts express. Bullies gain satisfaction from seeing that pain expressed. C) Bullies choose single females because often these females have nobody at home to positively reinforce them. They’ve not got a partner to talk to about the problem, and to reassure them. So the bully’s tactics are not being undone or diluted.

    It’s bloody EVIL, isn’t it?

  5. 7 Ashlee Sunday, 31 January 2010 at 11:59 am

    Wow I’ve just stumbled upon your blog and have to say it’s great :)

    I think this is interesting. I was fat as a teen (still am) and bullied quite a lot, but I didn’t really think that it was a result of confidence… but I guess I was a geek at school, maybe that was part of what started it, so maybe being just academically confident was enough. However, I actually think I was teased and bullied more by boys than girls, so I guess that’s a different kettle of fish entirely.

    I eventually worked up enough ‘tude to tell the bullies to f-off and weirdly enough, the boys seemed to respect me more when I started to question the size of their appendages and what not. What a strange world we live in.

    But I certainly never fought back as much against girl bullies, but thankfully people seemed to chill out once they hit 17-ish… or at least they just got better at backstabbing, so I didn’t have to hear as much of their nonsense.

    But some of the girls that confidently fought back against the female bullies did seem to face an even harder time, so this theory seems to fit.

  1. 1 Fabulous Friends « Fat Heffalump Trackback on Sunday, 31 January 2010 at 12:29 am

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