It was surprising to see a health column in the New York Times about the risks of women engaging in "fat talk." For years this weekly section has been a soapbox for over-exercising and supposed healthy eating, and, in the journalist Jane Brody’s column, the weekly standard of the section, at times leaning even towards unethical. The increasing attention to topics such as treatment of chronic running injuries in middle age has been worrisome. But perhaps the growing media shift away from body and weight finally caught the paper’s eye.
The article raises awareness and provides evidence for the risks of women who bond over body and weight concerns. The desire for connectedness among women, unsurprisingly in today's world, often includes discussion of weight and body obsession, the current defining piece of a woman's identity. This "fat talk," as the article points out, only worsens a woman's self-image and confidence by validating weight and body as central to a woman's self-worth. The take-away message is clear: fat talk has to go.
The news in the article isn't the headline but the paper it appears in. It's truly notable that a newspaper that touts a journalist like Jane Brody would make this shift on women and body image. The article also presents a true problem for women today: how can "fat talk" become taboo?
As a clinician treating people with eating disorders, I believe a larger transformation in women’s thinking would ease treatment greatly. And if a journalist like Jane Brody could be convinced that food and body, under the guise of better health, aren't the only virtues to aspire to, there is hope for the community at large.
One recurrent disagreement for people in recovery is whether women's behavior and beliefs about food and weight just normalizes eating disordered thinking. Many women with eating disorders feel like everyone is concerned with weight so why are they so different. Clinicians try to point out how personally destructive eating disorders are but can be thwarted by the media attention to food and weight. Until now, columns like Jane Brody's certainly don't make it any easier. If a woman so distorted in her thinking about food and weight can write for the Times, then patients feel justified to hang onto many eating disorder beliefs as normal, healthy thoughts.
True recovery from an eating disorder or freedom from the tyranny of disordered, obsessive eating needs a real transformation in thought process. Just altering eating habits and exercise without ending the waste of mental and emotional energy on the pursuit of a diet or body shape is ineffective and pointless. But it's a hard sell to women to reevaluate their self-image and satisfaction and consider other criteria. It's one thing to help someone recover and another to ask them to be a pioneer in a new world where women are free from the constant scrutiny of shape and weight.
Perhaps this is only the first step in this column’s transformation. It's significant for the paper to recognize and write about the dangers of fat talk. One hopes the editorial staff realizes that years of articles displaying public obsession with running and food could bolster many women's distorted thinking and behavior. One article that implies there must be an alternate way women can connect is important but only the beginning of a more complete message I hope the paper can embrace.
That's the step this column has yet to take. For a woman like Jane Brody, whose identity centers on eating disordered activities and as the major health writer at the Times, she faces a monumental task to reassess her sense of herself and acknowledge the time lost to a fruitless goal. Some attention to food choice and regular exercise clearly has benefits, but the limited evidence points to the obvious: don't subsist on fast food and don't sit on the couch all day. The rest, a large part of her years of work, is myth and hearsay.
A much braver step for such a respected science and health newspaper section would be to question the value of spending so much time and energy on dietary choice and exercise. For a paper with such a platform, the story of a personal transformation could model a change in philosophy unknown in any public domain. The behavior of this longstanding journalist has outwitted the Times' editorial staff for many years. However, the process of a public, personal awakening to her own struggle with fat talk and fat thoughts, even behind the facade of a science writer, would have a significant impact in these changing times.