At the beginning of her career, Renee Engeln-Maddox, Ph.D., noticed tons of bright, interesting college women spending a lot of time thinking and talking about their bodies. She was in clinical psychology at the time—a field focused on the individual—but became increasingly concerned with social context, or what she calls “sick world: things in our culture and things around us that I thought were toxic to people’s psychology.”
She approached one of her professors with her interest in studying “the forces in the environment that lead women to feel so badly about their bodies, so often.” He dismissed her: “Smart women know better,” she remembers him saying.
Engeln-Maddox has spent the last decade proving him wrong.
Even Smart Women Fat Talk
Enter any dressing room or restaurant and comments like “I’m getting so fat” are everywhere. “This really public way of disparaging the amount of fat on your body is something new,” Engeln-Maddox says, speaking to YouBeauty over the phone, from her “ridiculously messy office” in Northwestern University’s psychology department.
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A large focus of Engeln-Maddox’s research is “fat talk.” By that she means “women making disparaging comments about their body but in a social setting, in conversation with other people. So it’s not the same as standing in front of a mirror and saying, ‘Oh, I feel fat.’ It’s an interactive process, an interpersonal process, that a lot of women engage in.” And the focus on women is crucial: “If you saw men talking that way, it would be hysterical.”
Fat talk may not be something our grandmothers do, but it’s something our moms do—and something we do, too. Of course, women have focused on their appearances for centuries, but Engeln-Maddox sees several reasons for the generational shift toward an obsession with thinness.
For one thing, the clothes we wear now are much more revealing than they used to be. Fat talk, in particular, is tied to a “shift in the culture between public and private space: people share a lot more than they used to.” And, most strikingly, media images often feature a beauty ideal that “has gotten thinner and thinner and thinner,” Engeln-Maddox says. “If you compare your self to that sort of ideal, you’re going to fall short.”
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