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Chewing the fat: Understanding how we talk about our bodies

April 22, 2019

Cindi SturtzSreetharan was driving her daughter home from school when her daughter asked, “Do you think my thighs look fat?” The child was 9 years old.

Some moms would have found this interaction heart-wrenching and disconcerting. This was not the case for SturtzSreetharan. As a linguistic anthropologist at Arizona State University, she studies the ways people use language to construct culture and meaning. She knew that questions like, “Do I look fat?” are a common conversation engagement strategy called “fat talk.”

Her daughter could have picked it up anywhere. Here sat not an insecure fourth-grader, but a representation of a cultural norm.

SturtzSreetharan’s research in ASU’s Center for Global Health aims to understand how body weight influences our physical, emotional, cultural and social lives. Findings from her latest study were published in the Journal of Sociolinguistics on April 11.

Worries about bodies and weight affect people of every gender, race, class and age in the U.S. How people engage in fat talk and other conversations about weight could significantly impact how they respond and participate in their own social lives, neighborhoods and communities.

What is fat talk?

Fat talk is defined as self-deprecating talk about one’s body to others. Mimi Nichter, a sociocultural anthropologist from the University of Arizona, coined the term in the 1990s.

“Does this make me look fat?” shows up in conversation much like “How are you?” Both questions have a seemingly preprogrammed cultural response, in that there are set ways to respond that people just know. If someone asks you how you are, you are most likely to say, “Fine.” If someone asks whether an outfit makes them look fat, you are inclined to say “No,” regardless of what you are thinking.

SturtzSreetharan’s latest publication focuses on fat talk in Arizona, specifically the Tempe community. However, the research team also collected data from around the world, finding that fat talk exchanges occur throughout America and across the globe.

How — and how often — this exchange occurs without conscious thought is both fascinating and potentially alarming.

Line drawing of men in swim trunks

Line drawing of men with BMI 25 outside at a pool party in swim trunks. Line drawing courtesy of Cindi SturtzSreetharan

Words and culture

Culture and language are connected — they are in constant dialogue with one another. Linguistic anthropology is the study of the interactions, motivations and intentions associated with language and their effects on culture and society.

The field originated in North America, where many experts remain concentrated. Initially, linguistic anthropologists studied indigenous languages in the U.S. to highlight that studying a culture without knowing its language would yield a less accurate understanding of the human condition and human behavior.

“Linguistic anthropology is important because language is a resource humans have that they think that they completely understand and control,” SturtzSreetharan said. “They think they know what they’re doing. From my perspective, language is like a hot potato that is actually very difficult to control across receivers, across audiences and even across producers.”

Learning to appreciate the nuances of language can help inspire compassion, SturtzSreetharan said. These linguistic exchanges can allow us to dive deeper into culture and enhance our understanding of how humans interact.

Translating fat talk

SturtzSreetharan is the only linguistic anthropologist in ASU’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change. She was drawn to ASU by its interdisciplinary approach, which provides a unique space to discuss how we talk about weight and obesity, combining the perspectives of health science, linguistics and cultural studies.

“It struck me that the ways stigma is felt and expressed with regard to issues of weight and large bodies mimics the ways in which people feel and express stigma with regard to language,” she said.

ASU students work with the researchers, collecting and processing data from within the U.S. and abroad. Brian Suchowierski, an undergraduate student working on global fat talk, says he gained a new perspective.

“People often say that everyone shares insecurities across the board no matter who they are, what they are, how old they are, and I think (this research) kind of shines light on that. It might happen less frequently at certain ages, but everyone shares these same anxieties and issues, and they all talk about it in similar ways,” he says.

Hayley Trickey, another undergraduate student involved in the project, says she enjoyed working with community members. She says higher education can be inaccessible to some people. Going into the community and involving them in projects allows people to see what ASU brings to the state.

Line drawing of women in fitting room

The ASU research team asked women to fill in the speech balloons in a fitting-room conversation. Line drawing courtesy of Cindi SturtzSreetharan

Two women walk into a fitting room

The team began their research by surveying adult women in Arizona about a line drawing of women trying on bathing suits in a fitting room. The drawing used the Stunkard figuring scale, a scale of people's body sizes correlated to a body mass index (BMI).

The women were drawn to illustrate a BMI of 25. A doctor would encourage a patient at this BMI to remain the same weight, but not gain any more.

In the survey, there are speech bubbles for both women. The first says “Does this make me look fat?” and the other is blank to prompt the respondent to enter an answer. Then the same two women appear in a second frame, allowing for another interaction.

The most common response was, “You look fine.” If there was a negative response, it was commonly stated as “Maybe you should try a different color.” American women seemed to share an understanding that they were not supposed to say the other woman looked fat.

The researchers also surveyed men with a male line drawing and a similar prompt. They found that while denial was the most common response among women, advice and validation were more common among men.

They piloted this study in Arizona, then sent it to Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Guatemala, Iceland and Paraguay.

“What we learned by this was in some ways not surprising. We learned that the normative script overwhelmingly is to say, ‘No, you don’t look fat — you look fine’ or something like that everywhere around the world,” SturtzSreetharan said.

“It’s fascinating but also potentially concerning that fat talk is globalizing. There’s a lot of literature that suggests that fat talk is potentially psychologically damaging. But we really don’t know if that applies outside of the U.S.,” said Alexandra Brewis Slade, a President’s Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and a collaborator on the project.

She notes that the increasingly globalized fat talk seems to align with a growing lack of empathy toward large bodies and an expectation for everyone to look acceptably thin. She explains that the response to people asking if they look fat is automatically “no” because socially, the answer cannot be “yes” without being hurtful.

Most experts say that fat talk is bad because it lowers self-esteem and body satisfaction. But SturtzSreetharan believes that fat talk is more complicated than that.

“On some level that may be how we gain support and build our networks, and that may be how we make sure we feel comfort with the people we’re around. So, I think it's also this balance where these conversations don't necessarily have to be shut down, but the awareness that these kinds of conversations are everywhere is important,” she said.

Indeed, she and her colleagues find that in the U.S., people show keen sensitivity to the other speaker’s feelings when engaging in fat talk.

Understanding fat talk

The importance for SturtzSreetharan lies not in changing this cultural norm, but in understanding the interaction. 

SturtzSreetharan says if you don’t talk about baseball, the weather or politics, you can just talk about fat and bodies.

“On some level, I’m not rejecting the literature that finds that it can make somebody's body satisfaction plummet or decrease, but I also think that as an interaction, it may be doing a few other things. And that is what I think we're really interested in here — figuring out, what does this interaction do? And this isn’t just about fat per se, but we also do this with our aging bodies as well,” she said.

Ultimately, SturtzSreetharan simply doesn’t want her kids to have to think about their weight all of the time. She wants to instill ways to negotiate fat talk scenarios without sacrificing self-esteem or body satisfaction. She says she hopes to teach her daughters how to think through these conversations and join in without assigning guilt or shame.

Fat talk research was funded by the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust.

Written by Madison Arnold.

Top photo: Student research assistants code data for the “Fat talk: A citizen sociolinguistic approach” project. Photo by Cindi SturtzSreetharan

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ASU supports young innovators in Southeast Asia

April 22, 2019

Arizona State University’s missions of inclusivity and serving the community go beyond the state of Arizona, and even the United States. Funded by the U.S. State Department, ASU is implementing a three-year program to promote equitable, sustainable and inclusive economic growth in the Lower Mekong countries of Southeast Asia through education, science and the environment.

The Lower Mekong Initiative Young Scientist Program supports young scholars in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to create a collaborative research community that will develop solutions to challenges people face along the Mekong River.

"Together, we are going to make a difference in the lives of these young scientists who will have an impact throughout the entire Lower Mekong region for years to come,” said Jose Quiroga, director of the LMI Young Scientist Program and associate director of global outreach and extended education in the Ira. A Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.

large group of students posing outdoors

Lower Mekong Initiative Young Scientist Program participants pose for a group photo in front of the Maker Innovation Space in Danang, Vietnam, where they built prototypes of ideas inspired by real-world challenges along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. The Maker Innovation Space is supported by the USAID Building University-Industry Learning and Development through Innovation and Technology Alliance, better known as the BUILD-IT Alliance, and implemented by Arizona State University. Photo courtesy of Jose Quiroga

Solving real-world challenges through multinational collaboration

In its first year, the 2018 LMI Young Scientist Program cohort included 24 young researchers from the five Lower Mekong countries who solved challenges related to water, energy and environmental sustainability. The four-week program in Vietnam included workshops, networking events and a scientific symposium to share knowledge, ideas and experiences such as authoring peer-reviewed scientific research papers. They also met with companies in the region to see what solutions are already being developed and to learn about the skills employers are looking for in prospective employees.

Throughout the four weeks, scholars worked together on international and multidisciplinary teams to create prototypes for solutions to water, energy and sustainability issues. They created prototypes of an eco-floating farming system made of affordable, recycled materials for residents of floating villages on the Mekong River; a low-cost, easy-to-maintain household wastewater treatment system to prevent the transmission of pathogens for households that practice aquaculture farming (such as raising fish and shellfish); a seesaw-powered water filtration system to provide safe and clean drinking water access for primary schools in rural areas; and an energy warning system for smart electric meters to help conserve energy used by appliances.

Waste material turned into heavy metal adsorbent earns seed grant

As Vietnam’s industrial sector grows, mitigating pollution is a priority for both industry and academia. An LMI research team is working to tackle pollution caused by one of Vietnam’s leading agricultural sectors.

LMI Young Scientist Program participants were encouraged to submit proposals for the LMI Young Scientist Seed Grant Program that awards up to $15,000 in seed funding to further develop and implement their projects. Proposals are judged on the quality of their idea, project planning, the team’s ability to achieve objectives and cost effectiveness.

Lan Nguyen Phuong Tran, a recent chemical engineering doctoral graduate and current lecturer of mechanical engineering at Can Tho University in Vietnam, participated in the 2018 LMI Young Scientist Program. She studies bioenergy and biodiesel production from agricultural byproducts. At the beginning of the program, she was especially excited about the opportunities it would bring.

students sitting around a table talking

Lan Nguyen Phuong Tran (center), a recent chemical engineering doctoral graduate and current lecturer of mechanical engineering at Can Tho University in Vietnam, works with other Lower Mekong Initiative Young Scientist Program participants. Photo courtesy of Jose Quiroga

“I would like to learn new research activities from other participants and lecturers, especially about the conversion of biomass into bioenergy and byproducts because the Mekong Delta is a rich source of agricultural waste,” said Tran, who is from Vietnam. “Another concern is to treat the pollutants from rice fields and remove pollutants and heavy metals from wastewater treatment plants in Vietnam.”

Tran joined in on the seed funding competition with LMI Young Scientist Program participants Bundit Buddhahai, a doctoral student in energy management technology at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Thailand, and Chanreaksmey Taing, a recent environmental design master’s degree graduate and current water and environment researcher and lecturer at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia.

Together, Tran, Buddhahai and Taing developed a proposal to synthesize a composite using cellulose acetate and zeolites from rice husk ash to remove heavy metals from wastewater.

As one of the top rice exporting countries, Vietnam also has an abundant supply of rice husk ash. Rice husks are a byproduct of the milling process and are burned to generate electricity, which produces ash. Currently, rice husk ash is thrown away or used in lower-value applications such as soil improvement and cement production.

The team proposes the silica found in rice husk ash can be used to synthesize zeolites, an adsorbent that can be used to remove heavy metal ions from wastewater due to their excellent ion-exchange capacity, selectivity and compatibility with the natural environment. However, due to the difficulty of separating zeolites from the solution after absorption in large-scale wastewater treatment, the team developed a composite of zeolites and organic polymers like cellulose acetate.

Their actionable results and potential for advancement earned the team the $15,000 in seed funding. They also learned essential skills in grantsmanship, opening up the potential for additional grant funding from Vietnam’s National Foundation for Science and Technology Development, the Ministry of Education and Training and other local Mekong Delta region funding.

large group of students holding certificates

A certification ceremony during the last day of the Lower Mekong Initiative Young Scientist Program at the Arizona State University Makerspace in Danang, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Jose Quiroga

Focus shifts to health challenges in program’s second year

In its second year, the 2019 LMI Young Scientist Program will challenge Lower Mekong-area graduate and doctoral scholars to solve challenges in public health using bioinformatics. The four-week summer program will be hosted at the National University of Laos, or NUOL, in Vientiane in collaboration with the university’s faculty of engineering.

The LMI Young Scientist Program is recruiting current master’s degree and doctoral students, or recent graduates of statistics/biostatistics, informatics/bioinformatics, epidemiology, public health, data/information science and mathematics from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The 2019 program aims to recruit up to 34 participants by May 17.

“Since this program is open to eligible candidates in the five LMI member countries, we encourage Fulton Schools faculty and students to forward this opportunity to their colleagues in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam,” Quiroga said.

Participants will be challenged to form multidisciplinary and multinational teams and develop a prototype using physical or computational models to help solve public health issues related to monitoring, modeling and controlling vector-borne diseases and outbreaks.

The projects completed by LMI Young Scientist Program participants could lead to the formulation of public policy and public health strategies for the region, and could earn additional local, national or international funding to further their research and collaboration.

Top image: Arizona State University supports young scientists in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam to collaborate and create innovative, real-world solutions to challenges people face along the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. It is done through the Lower Mekong Initiative Young Scientists Program, funded by the U.S. State Department. Photo courtesy of Jose Quiroga

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering