Once, at 10 a.m. in the morning, a female coworker offered me a piece of birthday cake. I don’t like cake, so I declined.
“Oh thanks, but I’ll pass,” I said.
“You don’t want any cake?” A female coworker asked.
“Nope, I’m just not a huge fan of cake, actually,” I said with a laugh, thinking, Wait for it . . .
She looked me up and down.
“Just a small piece? Or can you not have any?”
“. . . Um, I just don’t really like cake, plus I already ate breakfast?” I replied, the sense of confrontation causing me to talk in upspeak. “I mean, give me cookies or brownies or straight up chocolate any day and I’m all over it, but I’m just indifferent to cake, mostly because of the texture . . .” Rattled, I blabbed on.
She glanced at the other women in the group, with a clear Judgy McJudger face. The topic changed to our coworker’s birthday, I felt relieved, and the conversation moved on.
But just as the mini-party wrapped up, I heard, “Here, take a piece of cake!”
A flare of annoyance shot up within me. “I’m good, thanks.”
“That must be why you’re so skinny.”
My grandma asks for help setting up her very first home computer.
“I was trying to connect to the Internet here, and see, the guy on the phone told me that you enter this password thing in this box, but it keeps telling me it’s wrong.” Grandma laughs, flustered, and waves her hand around while reaching for her daily allowance of a glass of Coke.
“Oh, ok, did you make sure these letters were uppercase?” I ask. “The password has to be exactly as it’s written down.”
I type it in slowly. It works. Google pops up.
“There you go!” I say. “You’re all set. Now you can email me, or I can send you pictures, or you can look line for any—”
“God, I’m so stupid,” she interrupts. “I don’t know anything about computers. I’m stupid like that.”
“. . . No, Grandma, you’re not. You don’t use computers a lot, so how would you know what to do the first time?”
She sighs. I sigh.
The teenage girl next to me in hot yoga tells to her friend after class, “Whew, what a workout!”
The friend nods, sipping from her water bottle.
“Do you think my hips are slimmer?” She asks.
I’m on vacation with a group of people, some I know well, some I don’t.
The first day, we walk down to the beach, grab some chairs, and settle in with our books and magazines and colorful, tropical drinks.
Girl I just met: “So, do you work out like, all the time?”
Me: “Oh. Hey. Not . . . all the time. Just a regular amount.”
“Not every day. Most days.”
“I would never work out every day. God.”
Awkward pause. Am I supposed to keep talking?
“Well, I just like to be active, I guess.”
“If I were as thin as you, I would never work out.”
I’m shopping with a close friend and we pause for lunch. I haven’t seen her in ages, and I’m delighted that our schedules allowed us to spend time together. We start chatting, having a great time. The waitress comes over, and we both order our food.
“Ugh, I was so bad this weekend. I should have ordered a salad,” she exclaims. “My thighs are huge, I’m not even going to fit into any dresses later.”
I say nothing, trying to keep a non-weird expression on my face.
Because I basically have two options: follow suit with some variation of ridiculous fat talk: “Oh, me too, I had dessert both days and I didn’t even work out, I shouldn’t even wear a swimsuit this summer.” Or dive into the pep-talk realm with: “Oh my gosh, you are so beautiful, stop being ridiculous.”
Here’s the thing—I’m slender and I like to work out and I enjoy eating healthy. I’m tired of feeling bad about this. I’m tired of tiptoeing around the complexes of other women. At the same time, I get why those complexes exist, because I used to have them and I still fall prey to them from time to you and I get it. You know, the ones that say we all have to be skinny but yet not too skinny, strong but not too bulky, short but still petite, tall but not taller than our men, self-deprecating but still confident, funny but easygoing, smart but not snobby, beautiful but natural, eat whatever you want but not gain an ounce . . . the list, quite literally, goes on and on and on and on.
As far as women have come in terms of body acceptance, with “strong is the new skinny” slogans and yoga studios popping up everywhere and plus-size models and Man Repelling outfits, we still tear down our bodies. We’ve got Operation Beautiful sharing love one post-it at a time, and Girls on the Run promoting health and exercise to young women, and Dove campaigns celebrating all sizes, and #iwokeuplikethis #nofilter #nomakeup selfies on Instagram, and even the First Lady doing yoga on the White House front lawn — but women of all ages still participate in this “fat talk.”
And as far as we have come in terms of self-acceptance, of “Hey, It’s OK” magazine lists and #treatyoself and getting rid of the too-small jeans and actually asking for raises we deserve and being a Girlboss and starting companies and so on, we still talk a lot of shit about ourselves and other women.
I am so tired of these conversations. I am tired of not knowing what to say. I am tired of fighting passive-aggressive battles during small talk conversations. I am tired of feeling like I should be defensive about healthy habits. I am tired of the judgement from other women. I am tired of the obsession around skinny bodies and knowing everything and having it all and I am tired of the fat talk.
If you’re a woman, you know what “fat talk” is without an official, Merriam-Webster definition — it’s when you talk bad about your body, the way it looks and the size of your parts, to yourself or to other people. It’s when you look in the mirror and think, “I hate my ____.” It’s when you try on dresses at the store and leave in a bad mood, swearing to only eat salad from now on. It’s when you refuse to wear a bathing suit at the beach and then sit on a towel and talk shit about every woman in a two-piece who walks by.
And you know that as a woman, you’re expected to participate in this conversation. If another woman eats cake, you should eat cake, so that she, I guess, doesn’t have to eat alone or feel bad about eating the damn cake. If your friend dislikes her thighs, how could you be happy with yours? Not that cake is bad, of course; not that liking your body is wrong, duh. But we’re all in this together!
Right, we are, and that’s a problem. A weird sense of bonding occurs when you point out that your flaws are the worst in comparison to that of other females. It’s an unspoken rule: chime in to belong, or outcast yourself as the stuck-up, overly confident friend who thinks too highly of herself.
Lots of women also participate in what I like to call “smack talk,” the kind of chatter about not being smart enough or good enough or talented enough to get what you want—basically, the fact that we are constantly putting ourselves down. We are always trying to be the Cool Girl, the very best at work, the one who always smiles, the nice one, the one who doesn’t ruffle feathers, the one who makes it look easy, the one with a perfect home and a perfect outfit and the perfect one-liner and the full checkbook and the love-filled relationship and the time to fill bento boxes with perfect, healthy food for perfect children. The one who says, “I’m sorry” for asking a question and for taking up space at all. The one who says “no problem!” when it actually was a problem. The one who bends over backwards to respond to a phone call or text. The one who lives to serve. The one who points out her faults before anyone else can, who says “I just feel like . . .”
I don’t mean to be disheartening. I just want to point out that there’s still a ways to go.
I know plenty of confident, capable women who don’t respond to or engage in fat talk or smack talk, who like themselves and their bodies and their choices. Who are proud of their efforts and learn from their mistakes and forgive their failings and rise up in the face of incredible adversity. Who call out other women for being rude, mean and petty. Who support the creative endeavors of all women, yet know constructive criticism is part of the game. Who find themselves beautiful and eat what they want when they want it and wear red lipstick and prefer rad sneakers over heels and enjoy lifting weights and feel perfectly fine not working out, ever.
I wish all women felt confident and capable to be exactly who they are, however it happens to be, but I know it’s not true. Not yet.
I know this because I see it, and I hear it, and I’m susceptible to it just like you are. We as women say that we can stop, we can control it, we’re just kidding around—but the truth is, we remain focused on appearances. We strive to create lives that look good instead of relish living in a way that feels good. We base our worthiness on looks and success, and we rate others in the same fashion. And unless we start making change at home, in our communities, in our families, with our friends, this pattern of negativity continues.
Why are women, in particular, so good at talking smack?
Part of it is relational. Part of it has to do with groupthink, with the psychology of belonging. Part of it is entertaining. Part of it makes us feel necessary and important. I don’t have a great answer to that question. All I know is that almost every day, I witness women doing it. For example, all the stories above come from my own, limited experience, but I had plenty more to choose from.
Worst of all, sometimes I still participate in this behavior, without even thinking about it, which is the really scary part — it’s almost automatic, the default attitude. Every so often, my brain thinks,
- “Oh, she’s so fun, but really loud and kind of exhausting to be around.”
- “She’s a smart girl, but she is such a bitch sometimes.”
- “I love her style, even though she could stand to lose a little weight.”
- “Yeah, but she’s not that great of a writer.”
Just to name a few. I try to be a kind, genuine, respectful woman, and at the same time, I pull this attitude more often than admittable. I always think I’m not that kind of girl. Its embarrassing to call myself out, but at the same time, I know that I’m not alone.
So how do we shut it off, the negative, critical tape that’s always running in our minds? And how do we deal with other women who seem to enjoy pressing play?
One solution is to stop striving for likability all the damn time. This takes practice.
Maybe we’ve concerned with likability because it makes us feel safe. I mean, as women we learn from a very early age that we better not brag. We better not be too smart, or too pretty or too much of anything at all, because that threatens other men and women. We know those tropes down that road, but we still tiptoe around it. And on our careful quest for perfection, we talk smack to keep ourselves and other women in “their place,” lest we . . . I don’t know, get too big for our britches. So those bitches don’t take “our” spot on the throne, or steal our good looks, or flirt with our husbands, or seem like better mothers, or show us up in any way! Amiright, ladies?
All of this is kind of a pointless use of energy, don’t you think?
The thing is, every time we talk smack about another women or talk shit to ourselves, it’s a window into our deepest desires, what we covet. I know if I feel the desire to gossip about a coworker’s promotion, it’s because I wish my accomplishments were noticed in the same way. If I want to comment on a friend’s purchasing habits, it’s because I am feeling stressed about my own finances. If I start remarking upon my sister’s makeup choices, it’s because I worry that her beauty will outshine my own And so on.
Whenever I start talking shit, I remind myself that I’m just envious. And I try to remember that there’s enough to go around for everyone, that other people’s experiences aren’t the same as my own, and that I should examine where I can work harder or perhaps be a better person.
That sort of introspection helps, but you know what else seems to always work? Remembering that life is really fucking short. Anne Lamott writes about how one time, she was complaining to her friend with cancer about the size of her legs, and her friend replied, “You don’t have that kind of time.”
Yeah. You don’t. We don’t.
On your deathbed, I'm guessing you won't wish you had more time to talk shit about yourself and other women. You'll wish you had more time to laugh, to kiss, to cry, to hug, to eat, to drink, to dance, to move, to shout, to whisper, to lay, to create, to run.
Recognizing the shortness of life is a helpful tool in many ways, but it’s hard to respond to a friend overanalyzing her body with a “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be dead soon! Haha!” Which means that the best advice I can give, when it comes to dealing with women who seem to enjoy talking shit about themselves and other women, is to call them out, and walk away.
I’m serious. I know it’s uncomfortable and a little awkward. Do it anyway.
First, remember it’s not about you. It’s really not. Other people’s issues are not your issues. People can’t “make” you feel bad—you get to be in control of your feelings and how you respond to situations.
Second, remember you don’t have to be rude or cruel or holier-than-thou. It can be as simple as, “That’s actually pretty critical.” Or, “Hmm, I consider that more of a personal issue than something up for discussion.”
Third, let it go. Walk away. Change the subject of the conversation.
I mean, in the above anecdotes, I could have done a lot differently.
I could have told my Grandma that I look up to her as a role model, and I hate it when she speaks badly about herself and her abilities.
I could have said to the girl on vacation, “I really like my exercise routine, and I enjoy healthy food. If you ever want some suggestions, let me know.” (*This reads bitchy in print, but I promise it isn’t, if said with a smile. One of my friends does this when she feels randomly attacked, and it’s effective as hell.)
I could have asked my friend at lunch why she thought she was “bad” for eating what she wanted, or that it makes me sad and uncomfortable when she disses her body.
The young girl at yoga? God, I don’t know how to fix that one without totally mom-ing her and leaning over to be like, You’re beautiful just the way you are!
But the cake situation at work? I could have replied, “I don’t like cake. Thanks! The end.
But I didn’t because I felt awkward and unsure. I kept quiet because I didn’t want to create unnecessary conflict. But my silence didn’t change anything.
So women, listen up. Be the change.
Stop thinking you aren’t allowed to be confident. Stop thinking a size zero equals health. Stop thinking knowledge is a limited resource. Stop thinking you’re stupid just because you’re new at something. Stop thinking you’re ugly because you don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model. Stop apologizing for who you are and what you want.
Stop defending the fact that you don’t like cake.
Stop forgetting that you’re lucky to be alive with a body that works and a heart and a mind and soul.
Instead, be your biggest advocate. Be a little unlikable, if you must. Own what you like and what you don’t. Respect what you can do and give yourself time and space to do more. Appreciate your unique beauty. If other women want to stress about your choices and preferences, let them. If you keep feeling the need to obsess about what other women are doing and saying and wearing and thinking, remember, as Auntie Anne says, you don’t have that kind of time.
Stop talking shit about yourself and other women. Go live your one wild and precious life instead.