By Amber Karnes
When I teach Making Peace With Your Body, we talk a lot about the sneaky ways that diet culture infiltrates our brains and our language.
One of diet culture’s most innocent-seeming yet insidious rituals is the tendency to bond over “fat talk”, diet talk, or body bashing.
You’ve probably heard this type of bonding happen a million times. Maybe you’ve participated in it. I sure have, literally hundreds of times throughout my life.
This public display of fault finding, body bashing, and self-criticism serves a couple of purposes in our culture.
First, participating in this type of talk is a public performance of fatphobia that lets the folks around us know that we're “on the right side of the issue.” It demonstrates that we're perfectly willing to uphold the status quo of diet culture and police the bodies around us (including our own).
It signals to others that we know fat is bad and thin is good, we know where we fall on that spectrum of morality, and we are always working to become “better.”
In a society where being in a larger body is seen as the worst kind of moral failure, where it’s legal to discriminate on the basis of body size almost everywhere in the world, where health is seen as a moral obligation and is connected to our worthiness, this performance of talking out loud about good foods, bad foods, cheat days, and faithful gym schedules allows us to show others that we are on the right side of the issue.
There are very real rewards for living in this culture in a smaller body (or for being a fat person who constantly apologizes and is publicly “working on their weight issue” all the time). And there are real consequences for choosing to accept a body that’s “not good enough” rather than constantly police and talk down to yourself.
Fat talk also serves as a macabre bonding ritual that we are socialized to perform as women. I don't really know if men do this, but I speak from my own experience as a woman. I’ve heard this conversation in grocery stores, Fortune 500 offices, yoga studios, gyms, nonprofits, fundraisers, coworking spaces, churches, the beach. I literally hear this conversation everywhere I go.
This diet talk appears to bond us together against a common “enemy”, but actually ends up degrading our own self-image and puts us in competition with one another. Not to mention that the “enemy” we are battling is our very own body. Think on that one for a second.
Beauty standards exist to keep us striving to assimilate into a body type that is only representative of a tiny fraction of the population. Beauty currency is awarded in our culture based on where we fit into a body hierarchy. This hierarchy is set up by the beauty standards which say that white, thin, young, non-disabled bodies are prized over all the other bodies. These standards ensure there are winners and losers when it comes to the type of body you live in.
But the truth is that no one wins when our bodies are reduced to objects to be gazed upon, where appearance is literally connected to value and worth that is not self-determined, but determined by those with the most power and privilege.
Capitalism sells us on beliefs of independence and individualism. This is the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality that sounds like "anyone can get rich, get skinny, be healthy, or protect themselves from violence if they only try hard enough." It ignores the very real systems of power, privilege and oppression that exist. Google "social determinants of health."
Capitalism would have us forget that we are in relationship to one another or that we need community at all. Our modern society has isolated us to serve the bottom line and turn us into good workers. So I believe that to survive, we snatch little bits of those primal needs wherever we can.
This bonding that happens over the perceived flaws in our perfectly human bodies is such a hollow ghost-shell of what true and real community looks and feels like.
Community is about seeing the whole person and saying, yeah, come on in, you belong here. You don’t have to leave parts of yourself outside the door to be here.
Community is about lifting one another up, not competing to see who was best at assimilating into dominant culture. Community is about understanding our humanity.
Community is cheering one another on while we do hard things on purpose, whether that’s wearing a bathing suit in public for the first time as an adult or learning to set boundaries in our relationships.
Community is hearing someone’s story that caused them shame, and saying, “yeah, me too,” and watching shame vanish in that instant, banished out of the room like shadows when you turn on a lightswitch.
Community is about seeing possibilities for yourself because you saw someone else do it first. It’s about realizing you find someone beautiful who actually looks a little bit like you. And could other people find you beautiful too? And then your brain breaks and you talk about it and everyone else nods and says, "OMG me too."
Community feels like every minute we’re together, we’re a little less alone, a little more okay.
I believe the journey of body acceptance fits so easily with the journey of yoga. Both are a personal practice that we do in community with others. This yoga is a journey of turning inward so we can remember the truth of who we really are. We can get in touch with our humanity, with our spirit, with the part of us that is unchanging. And we can from that place, be more compassionate toward others when we see that humanity in them. We can learn to relate to the parts of us that are always changing—our bodies, our circumstances, our lives—by remembering that we are not our bodies, our bank accounts, our relationships. That our worth is inherent and unchanging.
This unlearning and relearning happens in community.
Community is where we re-learn to see our humanity and where we can learn to be in relationship with our bodies, ourselves, our worth in a whole new way that’s based in freedom and personal power, not in hierarchy and assimilation.
If you've been longing for this type of community in your life, we're building one right now. Making Peace With Your Body is an online course (and a community) where we are working toward accepting our bodies, building unshakable confidence, and living our lives out loud. This course is a roadmap to body acceptance through the lens of yoga philosophy, mindful awareness, and social justice principles.
Amber Karnes, E-RYT-200, is a yoga teacher trainer, ruckus maker, the founder of Body Positive Yoga, and a lifelong student of her body. She trains yoga teachers and movement educators how to create accessible and equitable wellness spaces for liberation and belonging. She also creates community for folks who want to build unshakable confidence and learn to live without shame or apology in the bodies they have today.
Amber is the co-creator of Yoga For All Teacher Training and the Accessible Yoga Training School, an Accessible Yoga Association board member, and a sought-after contributor on the topics of accessibility, authentic marketing, culture-shifting, and community-building. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband Jimmy. You can find her at bodypositiveyoga.com.