Meet the Mind: Renee Engeln-Maddox

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 TalkEnter 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.

EXPLORE RENEE’S KEY STUDIES

From the way thin models affect our moods to why thin women fat talk, read about the psychology of body image.Thin Models Are Mood-KillersWomen Think Thinness Equals SuccessFat Talk is ContagiousThin Women Fat Talk

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.”MORE: Learn All About “Fat Talk” 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.”QUIZ: Do You Fat Talk ? Find Out for a Better Body Image.Teaching a New Way of TalkingEngeln-Maddox grew up in Peoria, in Central Illinois, and got her B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1997. Two years later, she graduated from Miami University in Ohio with an M.A. in clinical psychology, and earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Loyola University Chicago in 2004. For the past five years, she’s been a lecturer at Northwestern, where she lives in a dorm as faculty-in-residence with her husband and a big German Shepherd.In one of the classes she teaches at Northwestern, Englen-Maddox has her students document how much time and money they spend on their appearances. The number is substantially higher for women than men. “They’re shocked, and the women are jealous,” Engeln-Maddox says. She tells her female students: “That’s seven hours a week you’re spending on your appearance. Take some of that back.”

EXPLORE RENEE’S KEY STUDIES

From the way thin models affect our moods to why thin women fat talk, read about the psychology of body image.Thin Models Are Mood-KillersWomen Think Thinness Equals SuccessFat Talk is ContagiousThin Women Fat Talk

MORE: Body Snarking is BullyingEngeln-Maddox subscribes to objectification theory, which proposes that women are evaluated based on their appearances much more often than men are, and tend to internalize the message that their bodies are of paramount importance—that they are essentially ‘objects’ meant to be looked at. Instead of looking out at the world, Engeln-Maddox says, many women focus on how the world sees them: they develop a “third-person” or “observer’s” perspective—or, to put it technically, they participate in “self-objectification.” That perspective, objectification theory holds, may help explain why women have much higher rates of eating disorders, depression, and sexual dysfunction than men.To counter this mentality, Engeln-Maddox says we should ask ourselves the kinds of questions that get lost when we over-focus on our appearances: “What kind of person do I want to be?” or “What kind of human being do I want to become?”“If you spend time thinking about who you want to be instead of what you want to look like, I think that shifts your perspective on the world,” she says. Looking in the mirror is not an activity that’s bound to make you happier, but focusing on work, learning a new language, volunteering, taking up a new hobby, working on your relationships: “These are things that actually improve wellbeing.RESEARCH: Do Good, Feel HappierAnother recommendation: think of your body as a machine, not something that exists for other people to evaluate. Think of what it is capable of doing, rather than what it looks like. Go to the gym to be healthy, strong and flexible, not to be skinny.There are smaller-scale remedies, too. “A totally reasonable coping mechanism when you start feeling bad about your body is: go do something else,” Englen-Maddox says. Read, call a friend, “whatever it is that makes you happy, just go do that.”And, when your friends fat talk, stop them! “I do think that it’s okay to say, ‘I’m really sorry you’re feeling bad. But I’m worried about us, about women, that we spend so much time thinking about this,’” Engeln-Maddox says.

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