The other day I heard myself saying, “I am feeling fat.” I wanted to follow it up with, “And I am not just saying that to draw attention to myself, we’re having a real discussion here and I am telling it like it is.” But I didn’t, because no conversation about weight is ever considered a conversation about facts; at least not between girls.
In her book about female aggression and bullying, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, Rachel Simmons brings up the issue of the “I’m so fat” phrase and the subtext behind its use. She notes that, generally, the phrase is used by girls who are not fat. In the first instance, the phrase is used to seek compliments from friends and thereby reinforce bonds between girls. No true friend would ever agree with you. In another instance, the girl might be trying to draw attention to the girls around her, who might be “inferior” in looks, sometimes because they are not stick-thin. In this way, she is asserting her dominance in the group and actually using subtle aggression to undermine the confidence of others. Girls might also use the phrase to show a general unhappiness about something else in their lives. They use it to reach out to their friends, to start conversations, or reinforce bonds or acknowledge friendships – but never really say what the problem is.
And as Simmons acknowledges, it is neither respectful to people who are overweight and further, it is not directly acknowledging the reasons for your unhappiness.
I can honestly say that none of those scenarios were taking place in my mind. The conversation actually started off with me describing my exercise routine and mentioning that I am sticking to it quite rigidly for various reasons, including the fact that I feel fat these days. And compared to what I looked like a year ago, I have every right to say that. However, the women around me all came out in solidarity with me saying that, of course, I am not fat. It made me feel very frustrated.
I am not in high school anymore, but it seems that the phrase has stuck around into my late twenties, with all the negative connotations. I really just wanted to have a healthy, factual conversation about my weight and not feel guilty about its immature pretext. It seems we cannot escape our socialisation.
Talking of socialisation, Odd Girl Out was a huge eye-opener for me. It made me think about my days in high school and how girls treated one another. I know many women who say they prefer the company of men, because men are more honest and open about their feelings. Women, on the other hand, are underhanded, malicious and untruthful. According to the book, this is the way we have been raised and it is very harmful to all of us. Girls are brought up to believe that they need to embody those feminine traits of fragility and quietness, they must be well-mannered and considerate of others, they must not show aggression or anger. But what this means is that our anger and aggression, normal human feelings, are expressed in other ways – in sly, underhand and hurtful gossip for instance, or through phrases like “I am so fat”.
This has also resulted in the subversion of normal, healthy conversations, whether they are about weight or anything else (and I think conversations about sex also suffer). We carry the pretext into our adulthood and it disrupts our ability to be truthful to one another and to talk freely of ourselves with being seen as arrogant, masculine or “not playing within the rules of the game”. It also makes us look like we cannot be mature and truthful about our weight – and that we still harbour those insecurities about how we look. What a sad reality.
Odd Girl Out encourages parents to socialise their girls in such a way that they are encouraged to express anger in a direct way which is not harmful. We should not dismiss their real concerns about how they feel and how they look. Let’s start talking and let’s start channelling our normal human emotions into healthy activities, one adult to another.