Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Yes, fat talk is a problem... and no, this is not the solution

This morning, I stumbled across this extremely unhelpful headline on a Web site called Medical Daily:

"Girl, Shut It!" Study Finds People Don't Like Women Who 'Fat Talk'


The piece itself describes the same study detailed here in the NYT, which examined how undergraduate college students perceived speakers of fat talk, and specifically the speaker's body shape / size might affect their perception. Here is how the NYT described it:

As an online experiment, Dr. Corning showed 139 undergraduates photos of two thin and two overweight women, each making either a positive or negative remark about her body.
Because of the stigma against heavier people, Dr. Corning expected that the most popular option would be a thin woman who made positive comments about her body. But she found that wasn’t the case.
The most likable woman chosen by the students was overweight and quoted as saying: “I know I’m not perfect, but I love the way I look. I know how to work with what I’ve got, and that’s all that matters.”
Here is how Medical Daily described it:

Over 100 female undergrads were shown a series of photos of thin or overweight women participating in fat talk. The women in the photos who engaged in fat talk were rated as significantly less likeable, regardless of whether or not they were overweight.

"The take-home message is that if women engage in fat talk in the hope of enhancing their social bonds, their attempts may have the effect of backfiring," said Corning.
The NYT unpacks how and why fat talk can be such a problem among girls and women:

But putting a stop to fat talk is difficult. Dr. Corning said, in part because it feels airless and scripted and seems to offer the responder no avenue to change the dynamic without threatening the relationship. She gave an example:
First friend: “I can’t believe I ate that brownie. I am so fat!”
Second friend: “You must be joking — you are so not fat. Just look at my thighs.”
The second friend’s reply, an “empathetic” self-deprecating retort to maintain the friendship on equal standing, includes reflexive praise of the first friend’s body, supposedly feeding the first friend’s hungry cry for affirmation, Dr. Corning said. But to do so, the second friend has eviscerated herself, a toxic tear-down by comparison.

Medical Daily treats fat talk as a problem of likeability: "A new study from Notre Dame suggests that "fat talk," or those everyday statements that voice dissatisfaction about bodily appearance, eating, and exercise, is very unpopular among college-aged women."

As a parent and a former journalist, I think it is interesting to read the two pieces and important to think about the different messages that they send, not only about the study itself, but also how to read and interpret research. There is a lot reported these days that is relevant to practice and policy concerning the health and well being of girls and women. We need to understand what it means.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Putting the anthropology into parenting: Milk


This image appeared at

As a second generation Korean-American, I have had a hate-love relationship with milk. My own parents, especially my pediatrician mother, prescribed it to the three of us kids so that we would have strong bones and, in particular, be tall like other American kids. However, my parents could not stomach it particularly well, not to mention that they did not especially care for its taste. The same on both counts for me, too. I regularly balked at having to take my dose unless it was laced liberally with sugar or Quik. Yet, none of us ever questioned the importance and necessity of drinking milk for our health and growth. Now, as a parent, I sometimes catch myself repeating the same mantras to my own kids, for whom we regularly pour a glass of milk to have at breakfast and / or dinner.

So, when a friend shared this link on Facebook, it caught my eye. It reports on a movement to block FDA approval to allow milk producers to use anysafe and suitable sweetener as an optional ingredient” in (cow’s) milk and other dairy products.

The idea apparently is to add sweeteners like aspartame to milk – on the one hand, to encourage its consumption in U.S. schools, where children are opting for juice or water over milk, and on the other hand, to use sweeteners that will add no or low calories, which is a concern when Americans are only too aware of the problem of obesity.

This has placed nutritionists in the interesting position of defending the sugar in chocolate and strawberry milk, which they say not only does not contribute to obesity, but seems to encourage more consumption of milk.

The NPR notes that a group opposing the milk producers calls them out on "turn[ing] the wholesome drink (milk) into another artificial flavor-laden sweet snack."

All of which got this parent thinking like an anthropologist.

Milk is as much a product of culture as of nature, and the conditions in which it is consumed (as well as the effects and consequences for human biology) might best be understood in biocultural perspective, as medical anthropologist Andrea S. Wiley has demonstrated. Wiley has conducted studies on cow’s milk consumption, documenting how it might be linked with differences in height and BMI and age at menarche.

In her 2007 article, “Transforming Milk in a Global Economy,” Wiley asks the question that I think we might be asking ourselves now: “[H]ow has milk, often viewed as the most ‘natural’ of foods, been technologically transformed to take on new roles, reflecting other social, cultural, and economic trends” (666-667).

Leaving aside the questions one might have about the safety of the sweeteners, why the milk producers have sparked ire and outrage seems to be rooted in our perception that they are committing adulteration on at least two fronts. First, the addition of artificial substances to natural substances, especially milk, with its association as pure nourishment, looks to us like pollution. (Note that one of the consistent refrains about aspartame is that it is a natural sweetener.)

Second, the transformation of milk into a sweet snack contaminates what has been understood popularly to be a wholesome drink with the taste of the market. In fact, milk long has been a commodity and its production an industry that has been not only regulated by government, but also promoted, supported, and subsidized by it. In recent years, milk consumption in the U.S. has been in decline, so there is no doubt that milk producers would be interested in remaking milk to compete with other beverages in the market.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Six days until six years!

"Now We Are Six"

When I was one,
I had just begun.
When I was two,
I was nearly new.
When I was three,
I was hardly me.
When I was four,
I was not much more.
When I was five,
I was just alive.
But now I am six,
I'm as clever as clever.
So I think I'll be six
now and forever. 

A.A. Milne