Chub Chat: Shedding an old reflex

Spring's tiptoeing in on little rainboots here in Montréal. You'll see women's bodies again, not just a head above a muffler and puffy parka.

When I meet Paula without my winter gear, she says, "You look terrific! Have you lost weight?"  I reply, "Paula, I've been the same for five, six years." This ritual is such a sure thing that I'd bet $500 on it.

Paula cycles up or down a size or two, depending on whether she takes daily walks or burrows into her business. She's a conscious eater, but an unconscious Chub Chatter.  She means well, but there's something in it that, uh, eats at me.

Chub Chat is either self-initiated criticism, e.g., "I'm an elephant in this skirt!", or a call-and-response, the compliment ("That top looks fabulous on you!)" answered by deprecation: "Yeah, but look at my back fat."

A paper published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, and reported on, studied university women and found that "nearly all women engaged in fat talk with their friends, and over a third did so frequently". (The article did not define 'frequently'.)

Over-50s have not left Chub Chat behind like a tattered poster on the dorm wall.  We just smoosh it together with Old Talk, so now we say, "Oh god, I can't wear shorts anymore, my butt is the size of Cleveland".

But it's not just us, it's also

  • The salesperson who tells you that dress makes you look slim—and even if you like the other dress better, guess which one you're going to buy?
  • The friend who mentions her weight every time you see her, so you automatically mention yours—even though you'd rather not
  • Your sister: sees every ounce and will tell you so
  • The bloggers who posts their OOTD and wonder, Does my (fill in body part) look big in this?  I have only once read a commenter who had the candor to say, So what if it does?

Is that chat really about weight? For mature women, I believe the focus on the number (scale or hang tag) is a diversion. We evade the examination of losses more troubling than our waistline: the shift of our identities as our work selves step off the stage, the infirmity of parents or beloved elders, or our own health concerns unrelated to body size, and a lot scarier.

Chub Chat is the woman's "How about those Canadiens?", a conversational gambit called "passtiming". And it's reflexive. I watched a film awards broadcast this winter and heard myself saying that Elizabeth Moss looked chunky in her red-carpet dress. Guilty!

I want to change. I'm not gonna snipe about someone (famous or not) who's bigger than she used to be, or envy the star who has remained sleek as a seal for forty years primarily for her stunning figure. (You're right, that's Helen Mirren.) Not gonna make self-deprecating remarks about my size or shape, the Girl Guide badge of Chub Chat. We learn early to put ourselves down.

In 1993 I read an essay, originally published in Harper's by Sallie Tisdale, "A Weight Women Carry" that changed my life, but obviously in a more minor way that I wished. Near the end, Tisdale writes, "The pursuit of another, elusive a terrible distraction, a sidetracking that might have lasted my whole life long."

That's why I'm dumping Chub Chat: there is not all that much time left. Why be co-opted into anxiety about the precious, glorious, and inescapably imperfect human body?


Excellent! I've always avoided all of those essentially meaningless topics of conversation: hair, makeup, weight... Let's talk about issues of substance, that can change the world and make lives better!
Susan said…
I agree with Janice. I don't like to talk about weight and weight loss even though I privately work hard at it. The worst comment I ever heard was a close friend saying that she used to weigh X and looked like a horse---knowing full well that I must weigh more than X and we are the same height. I would like to think that I am more thoughtful than to make such a comment. But you are so right---chub chat is waste of time and an unfortunate conversation filler.
Madame Là-bas said…
Chub chat is boring and immature. As women with many interesting conversational topics to choose from, why should choose
self-destructive chatter?
Duchesse said…
Janice: Wait, makeup is meaningless? (LOL). But- to talk about makeup and hair is different, because there is not usually shame attached. I appreciate the "girly" conversation about hair, makeup or clothes, having raised two sons, and been immersed in a male world. There were times I was so longing for women's things that I would go to a large dept. store and just sit in the lingerie dept.

Susan: It is an awkward moment when a friend finds her weight unacceptable, and you, the same proportion, are heavier. What if the heavier person is fine with it? It's only when we accept another' standards that the remark disturbs. It's tactless, but it points out how easily we are influenced by others' standards.

A friend was a costumer in the film industry. Two famous actresses had leads. One came for her fitting and felt great. Then the second one came, and took a smaller size. The first actress insisted on having her costumes altered to create more slimming effects; she was tiny, but could not stand to be seen as heavier by comparison.

The opposite applies too; I catch myself feeling pleased when my friend asks "Have you lost weight?" till I realize it's about her, not me.

Like Susan, I have a friend who is always fretting about her weight and a bit food-obsessed. She is a "gamine" type and a few years older than I am. Actually I was very pleased to have lost some weight I put on at the menopause, but it was more about feeling better (I have a bit of arthritis) and retaining mobility - I do hate chub talk, because it is either putting ourselves down, or passive-aggressive language targeting friends or relatives.

However sometimes I very much enjoy discussing clothing because of the colours, the tailoring, the fabric. My mother was an excellent seamstress who even re-upholstered furniture, and made her own tailored suits. One fun aspect of living in Italy was that Italian men discuss clothing, tailoring and fashion as much as the women do!
sgillie said…
Last summer I was diagnosed with 4th stage lymphoma. After grueling therapy in which I neither wanted or could eat much, I lost 25 lbs. My first thought was, "wow, if I could lose 25 lbs., I could lose another 15 and be at my "ideal" weight" according to the BMI measurement scale. Fortunately, I was sane enough to realize I need to focus on nutrition and exercise in order to recover and be able to participate[a in living.
It's embarrassing to think at the age of 69, I still care about an arbitrary number.
I have fought (and mostly lost to) fat all my life - and yet - when I look back at photos from my teens, 20's and 30's I see that it really was ridiculous - I look fine! A doctor started me on diet pills when I was 15, well meaning parents who restricted me to 1000 calories a day at a time when I really needed more nutrition. I walked 3 miles total back and forth to school each day for 7 years, had gym or swimming 4 days out of 5 & I was on every sports team going - and good at almost everything - but it never seemed to be enough. I know now that it was growing 6 inches in less than 18 months (4'8" to 5'2") and hitting puberty that threw everything out of whack but I can say in all honesty that I have dieted my way up to my current weight - which I'm too embarrassed to state. It has affected many aspects of my life and is now a health concern so it must be reduced, slowly, no pills, and under doctor's supervision - but it is difficult as we must eat. I do all the right things, cook from scratch, eat lots of fruit & veg, scale back the carbs drastically, eat smaller portions (1200 calories a day), never drank pop, never ate junk food - but it is an extremely slow process.
And through all this I've listened to women - tiny things go on about their hips or how they never eat fries etc. etc. - I found it insensitive - but I also understood how much pressure even they were under. That is my main observation - women have always been valued for their beauty - and as women entered more and more male dominated professions there had to be a way to "keep them in their place" and women always seem to be most vulnerable when it comes to their looks. So, celebration of the size 0 - photoshopped magazine covers, and the sexualization of even pre-teens. I want women to reject all this and recognize it for what it is but I also understand why they succumb.
I do think that we need to be healthy and that a lot of extra weight (not a bit more which may actually protect us) is unhealthy. But that should be something discussed with your doctor - not the Twitter world. We need to support and celebrate all our accomplishments - both personal and collective - and not bully or disparage other women, especially for their looks or specifically their weight. It's that old adage, you never know what tomorrow may bring, an accident, illness, pregnancy or menopause can all affect our physical appearance in ways we never imagined so we have to be more than that outer shell.
I love a good girly conversation as much as the next one and enjoy looking at new trends and colours (even though most won't come in my size) and I enjoy having my hair and nails done - but things like that shouldn't be the only thing that I think about or can converse about. We need to celebrate more female scientists and writers and educators and politicians and hold them up as role models, no matter what their size or appearance. If we don't stop disparaging each other (even in tiny ways) then why should any male out there value us for more than our bodies.
I resolve to keep my weight and accompanying struggles to myself, compliment other women on their promotion, or new style of dressing, or smile and to do my best to support and applaud the accomplishments of woman all around this world. I resolve to enjoy my food and not make it my enemy and I resolve to move a bit more every day simply because it makes me feel better and keeps me mobile - not because I MUST make those 10,000 steps or I've failed!
Thank you again for such a timely topic.
materfamilias said…
I have come to this realization before, as have you (Tisdale's article), and especially when my daughters were adolescent, worked to avoid this kind of talk, but it's a resolution that occasionally falters in the face of everyday conversation. As you say, there are just so many situations when talking about our weight is a default social small talk. So thank you for the reminder to at least stop voicing the thoughts, in the hopes that someday they may be reframed, if not erased.
Jane said…
At some point, while raising boys, I made the conscious decision not to mention appearances. Hence, Rita is artistic. Kristi is hard-working. Rachel is enthusiastic. And Sandy may be bossy, but she will never be busty from my mouth. Of course, I have had to bite my tongue. It's not easy. It's very sad, this obsession with a number on the scale.
Duchesse said…
Mme Là-bas: You ask, "Why choose that topic?" I think the choice is often unconscious. It may spring from a discussion of current styles, or the weird size inconsistency among brands. It may be habit. When the topic is a conscious choice, it is because it matters to some women, who are focused on their weight or clothing size. Cultural norms are sometimes hard to buck. I was at a dinner party where a woman said to me, "Well, you know •what a problem• food is!" (She had been fasting to wear same size dress as her teenage daughter.) If I had not been the guest, if she and I were alone, I'd have said, No, it's not food that's the problem here.

lagatta: Sometimes a woman's focus on the topic has no relationship to her actual size or shape! Other women, I think, really enjoy the confirmation that they are fitting within the cultural idea.

sgillie: Sane enough, indeed! I am grateful you put your recovery first.

MargiefromToronto: I still read articles on nutrition and weight, typically in the New York Times, and there is still little consensus but many persons commenting that their way is the only effective, healthy, longevity-ensuring, or weight-maintaining diet. What I have seen is that for some persons, weight loss is more difficult and for everyone, slower going as we get older. But because being in the obese category is generally detrimental to mobility, I am all for plugging away to have a healthy weight (which I agree may be more for older adults) so we can move and participate in the activities we enjoy.

materfamilias: Not having had daughters, I was less conscientious than you were, but I was also surprised how many boys were very focused on being thin. I do not think the culture has become more accepting of diverse sizes in the decades since then.

Jane: I hope I did that, but mostly, I recall not wanting them to buy into the model/movie star aesthetic. Fortunately they were in a school with a diverse population so they saw (and admired) girls from many ethnicities, not all of whom were thin- in fact quite a few were voluptuous.

Pamela said…
Last year I was diagnosed with a Stage IV colon cancer. After losing weight during my treatment (chemo, surgery, more chemo, more surgery) I was told by unsuspecting acquaintances (people that I chose not to share my diagnosis with) how good I looked! Even in the midst of treatment with wan skin and thinning hair all they saw was the weight loss.
I used to exclaim under my breath...well, Cancer looks good on me.
Duchesse said…
Pamela: A friend who had the same "compliments" from women replied, "Well, I don't recommend the diet!"
Duchesse said…
Pamela: Just to add, she did not always share the dx but would say "I have had a health issue."
Leslie said…
I found Pamela's comment very interesting. I had the opposite experience that she and sgillie had. I lost 30 pounds over 5 or 6 months with Weight Watchers. A librarian at our public library asked me if I was okay. They thought my weight loss might be because I had cancer! At the time I thought" Great, I look like I've been having chemo." It hadn't occurred to me that all they were seeing was the weight loss.
Pamela, I hope you are better now!!!
LauraH said…
This post stirred up a lot of thoughts. Briefly, I have struggled with extra weight all my life and at one period was significantly heavier than today. With the help of a sensible structured program, I finally settled down to a fairly stable level about 15? years ago, give or take the odd 5-10 pounds up and down. So coming from that background I find chub chat pretty boring and I hate the implicit self put downs. However, I do tend to be critical of myself if I put on weight and I am critical of others about weight as well. I know this is all a reflection of how I was raised and I have worked hard to stop these thoughts but it ain't easy. Thanks for the reminder and encouragement.

Beth said…
Excellent post, and I hope it will serve as a reminder to me if and when a conversation slips into that territory. Sobering comments, too. Thank you.
Adele said…
Ditto. To every one of the comments here. And thanks, because I sometimes feel like I'm the only one who is sensitive to these issues.

"Chub Chat" (I love the moniker!) has been a source of discomfort for me since my college days. For the most part, I just won't engage in in or encourage conversation that revolves around weight, needing to diet, needing to lose, the way we look, etc. I do have a very close friend who gets it, and with whom we can share our frustrations about staying in shape after a certain age, but the focus is on strength, balance, flexibility. And we do share our frustrations over the natural set point of our bodies inching up to a weight we're not thrilled about, but then we go right back to chat about books we've read and travel plans. And also why it's so hard to find comfortable, supportive yet attractive shoes at an affordable price :~).

I'm glad I recognized early on that Chub Chat was toxic for me, and I limit my time spent with women who love to indulge in it. And I am also glad that I've found such a wonderful group of virtual friends here, and through their own blogs, with whom I share similar outlooks!
Mardel said…
Thank you for the reminder. I try to avoid "Chub Chat" but fall prey to it more than I'd like to acknowledge, probably due to overwhelming social conditioning. I don't think we will ever get past it completely until we can start seeing women fully as people, apart from the need to be beautiful objects. But it is a goal worth working on. I remember when I was shopping with a couple of girlfriends in my 30s when chose a dress that she loved, and we told her the other one looked better. She challenged us, demanding that she was the arbiter of what looked best on her body. I've been much more conscious of cultural expectations and hidden desires since. My friend's sister, who fought with her weight all her life, refused to accept it, but I could see how the chosen dress suited my friends personality and shape. I also saw how my late husband's constant criticism of his daughter's weight did not help the situation and poisoned that relationship for years. Yes, one can site statistics about obesity and health, but that is not really what "chub chat" is about and thinner is not necessarily healthier, as many have pointed out, and which I know firsthand.

Talking about clothes and makeup and girly things is different, and everyone, no matter what size, can look good in clothes. It is all about fit and proportion and color, and having fun
Duchesse said…
Leslie: When a woman drops considerable weight at 30, few persons think that, but at mid life or later, they wonder. Has happened to me, too. And sometimes when the person who has lost weight can look markedly different.

LauraH; I have a WW Lifetime Member card so old it is practically disintegrating. So, I am always aware of what I weigh, and weigh myself weekly. But what I've found in the last 10-15 yrs, is that my weight can stay constant but my body proportions change. I've lost an inch of height, and the distribution of weight has changed. I'd heard about that, but still it was a minor surprise.

Beth: Seems to me like you and other commenters know the difference between a discussion that is primarily about health and one that is self-castigating about weight. Still, I found myself in a kind of time-warp, co-opted into that conversation. Old pattern.

Adele: I notice I can cut it short when speaking to one person but sometimes actually •talk to myself• that way, and then wonder, Jeez, where did that come from? My mother and sister were not weight-obsessed, but they did feel entirely fine about assessing whether someone else had "packed on a few".

Mardel: Parental disapproval can really mess with a relationship. It sounds like they healed that rift? I hope so. I agree with your last sentence. If a woman feels shame or inadequacy because of her body, "having fun" evaporates, which is sad. This is what the size-acceptance movement has tried to change.
Gretchen said…
Agree with so many commenters, and with your original thoughts, Duchesse. Here's another thought: I wonder if my comments about my own weight (and perhaps other women do this too) are less a judgment about the weight, per se, but an inferred cry that I'm not taking care of myself, not doing what I know will make me feel better. Sure, I dislike having to buy new clothes because my post-menopause body has shifted, and I'm not exactly keen on how I'm less muscle, more fat. But I know my choices haven't been self-supporting and I know my mental state hasn't been as good as it could be. Physically, I feel better than I did when I "looked great" but was extremely sick. However, I'm not exercising, drinking more, and feel like a zombie. Friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances don't actually want to hear the "I'm lonely, work is unfulfilling, my kids are playing at adulthood but stressing me out" and so I say "Ugh, I've put on weight." I know the things that will make me feel better, but don't really care enough to do them. I will, just not right now, but complaining I feel like a potato isn't helpful personally or for others. We all owe it to ourselves to say what we mean, and to really LISTEN to what others say to us.
Duchesse said…
Gretchen: You have put heart-filled detail into what I meant when I wrote, " Is this really about weight?" Somehow, "I'm so dumpy in this" is safer than, "I can't stand to be in the same room with that boss", or "I think my daughter might not be telling me something really serious."

While we can exhaust our friends with our problems-especially if they are chronic- I hope (with intensity, because I need it) they will not fade if we say, "This is towing me under". And, that we be a friend to our selves.

And if they can't be present for us, we should say, "Who else? How else? What else?" A woman told me that in a crisis, she turned to members of her faith community, but, she said, "Everyone is so busy." In desperation, she called a hot line and they put her in touch with emergency mental health care. I was sad to hear it came to that, but also relieved she found some support.
Gretchen said…
Oh, and to add to my above - I recently saw an Instagram account (silverdisobedience) that writes/posts some incredibly thought-provoking topics. I'm following her, and getting back into my meditation and yoga practice since other exercise just doesn't interest me right now. Her reminders to plant seeds (self thoughts) that you want to see grow is an instrumental lesson for me these days.

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