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Body shape weighs heavily on women

By ZHAO RUINAN | China Daily | Updated: 2019-05-13 07:21

A group of woman receive professional yoga training in Binzhou, Shandong province, June 21, 2018.  [Photo/IC]

Topic an obsession at home and abroad

On a warm spring afternoon, 28-year-old Ye Xiaoxian keeps her eyes glued to her computer screen as she chats with female co-workers in an office in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.

Her concentration is only broken when a colleague offers a plate of snacks.

"I've already eaten a chicken drumstick, three pieces of turkey bacon, a handful of potato chips, half a bowl of white rice and some walnuts. My thighs will swell if I eat these snacks," Ye said, reluctantly pushing the plate away.

Her colleague, pinching Ye lightly on the forearm, replied: "Come on, you are not fat at all. I am the elephant in the room."

But Ye, popping a slice of pineapple into her mouth, responded, "No, I don't even feel like eating dinner tonight and I really should renew my gym membership."

Fretting about weight has become a common topic for discussion among Chinese women-and not just at the office. Such discussions can be heard everywhere, from high school classrooms to fitness studios, beauty salons and department stores.

But the issue is not just cause for concern in China. Obsessing over body shape has also emerged in Western countries over the past decade.

The term "fat talk" was coined by United States anthropologist Mimi Nichter and her team of researchers in 1994 after they observed the way girls in middle school spoke about their body shapes-unexpectedly revealing that they invariably focused on the negatives.

Since then, numerous studies have detailed how pervasive "fat talk" has become among women of all ages.

A study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly in 2011 found that an "overwhelming majority of women"-93 percent-admitted to discussing the issue, with one-third of them doing so frequently.

While it is reasonable to assume that women most concerned with their body shape are those who might be susceptible to obesity or other risks, studies indicate the vast majority of women who engage in "fat talk" can be ranked "average" and "healthy" when it comes to their weight.

Zhang Ran, 28, a senior consultant in the Beijing office of multinational professional services company Ernst & Young, said she was a "fat talker" when she was a college student.

"I felt comfortable when I discovered I was not the only one who was unhappy about my body shape. But then I began to understand that it has nothing to do with a woman's actual weight, but everything to do with how she sees herself," she said.

She added that sharing her fear of being fat with others could trigger feelings of emotional security and being part of a greater community. Even after she graduated and started a career, "fat talk"-and its related effects-did not stop.

"A woman gets it into her head that she can never be too thin," she said.

Zhang Xin, associate professor at the School of Psychological and Cognitive Science at Peking University in Beijing, believes "fat talk" may be a way of expressing that "we all share feelings of insecurity".

"Women are more likely than men to enjoy chatting with their peers about weight concerns and body issues, and this may release them from pressure over their weight and serve as a way to bond with their friends," he said.

But "fat talk" is a double-edged sword. While it may seem a harmless way to ease dissatisfaction over body shape by gaining reassurance within a peer group, it can also serve to reinforce negative feelings.

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