Is the social media giant encouraging “fat talk”? (GIF: Yahoo Health)
On Facebook, users can tell the world if they’re “feeling fat,” complete with a puffy, rosy-cheeked, double-chinned emoji face. It’s one of the 100 “pre-loaded” emotion-based statuses the social network offers to its users.
But according to a group of activists working to change culture promoting negative body image, “fat is not a feeling” — and they are petitioning for the social media site to take down what they call a “blatant endorsement of body shaming.”
The group, Endangered Bodies, launched a Change.org petition, writing: “Fat is not a feeling. Fat is a natural part of our bodies, no matter their weight. And all bodies deserve to be respected and cared for.”
In a statement to PEOPLE, Facebook defended the “feeling fat” status, saying:
People use Facebook to share their feelings with friends and support each other. One option we give people to express themselves is to add a feeling to their posts. You can choose from over 100 feelings we offer based on people’s input or create your own.
Facebook has also included links to eating disorder resources on its site, should users grow concerned about friends’ potential self-harm.
But is that enough?
“It may not seem like a big deal, but fat talk is a problem,” Art Markman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Texas, tells Yahoo Health, “The more time that people (and particularly women) spend thinking about their weight and their diet, the more difficulties they end up having eating in a healthy way.”
Markman also points to research by Janet Polivy and Peter Herman, showing a vicious cycle of restrained eating leading to obsession with food — all of which result in the individual making bad food choices. “Fat talk plays into this pattern of restrained eating by focusing on body image,” Markman notes, adding that it is also possible to say you “feel fat” without actually having an unhealthy body weight. “There are many people (again particularly women) who internalize a thin ideal from media and that ideal influences their behavior,” he says.
But for some young people, this could be a safe way to express their feelings. “One of the things we know from research is that a lot of adolescents use Facebook and other forms of social media to ‘try out’ new aspects of their self-presentation,” Julie Dobrow, PhD, director of the Communications and Media Studies Program and a professor of child development and community health at Tufts University, tells Yahoo Health. “They can receive validation from doing so. In this sense, young women could get support or affirmation from feeling that they’re not alone when they’re ‘feeling fat’ and letting the world know.”
But, Dobrow adds, this form of self-expression isn’t without risks. “Adolescents and young people can also feel alienated and disrespected by responses they get from social media. So I worry that a public, negative declaration of one’s body image could have the effect of reinforcing young women’s already somewhat-fragile sense of themselves,” she says.
“I can understand the pull and the psychology surrounding the expression of both positive and negative emotions through social media outlets,” Jessica Zucker, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s health, tells Yahoo Health. “Since people most often share experiences painted chock-full of personal perfection and flawless fun in their Facebook feed, it would make sense that social media also allow for feelings that are a bit darker and arguably less appealing, like grief, depression, or inviting others into one’s heartache after a loss, for example.”
However, “the emoji associated with “feeling fat” arguably encourages body shaming, and likely minimizes the deeper issues associated with these complex feelings, such as depressive symptoms, anxiety, disordered eating, or body image dissatisfaction,” she says.
Plus, the emoji doesn’t take into account the feelings of people who are actually overweight, she notes.
"A ‘feeling fat’ status update with emoji makes it seem as though ‘feeling fat’ is a common feeling that everyone is expected to have from time to time," Markman says, noting that it may even make it easier for people to engage in negative self-talk. "I would encourage Facebook to take it down.”
While the emotional impact of the emoji varies from person to person, on a whole, the message of a “feeling fat” status “is not one that should be promoted if we take into account the mental health of communities,” Zucker says. “Weighing the potential emotional risks versus the emotional benefits in this case seem to lean toward deleting this status update.”