Juliet Dunlop: Why ‘fat talk’ of cankles rankles

Boxing Day, 11am and I am sprawled out on the sofa enjoying a perfectly balanced breakfast: I have a slice of hot, buttered panettone in one hand, and a flat Buck’s Fizz in the other.

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The only thing that is missing, apart perhaps from some Rennies, is the TV guide. Then I spy it: the half-empty tin of Quality Street. Only the tin, damn it, is just out of reach. Getting up is not an option, putting anything down is not an option, so carefully – and with monkey-like dexterity – I slide my next sugar hit towards me using my foot (I am nothing if not practical). It was then that I noticed something had happened to my right ankle: had it become a “cankle”?

Now, for those of you not in the know, “cankle”, or “cankles” as they are more commonly known, is “fat talk” for an ankle which has become one with a calf. This may be down to swelling, weight gain or, in my case, marzipan poisoning, but whatever the cause, it is a less than flattering description of a less than slender ankle. Sturdy would be another way of putting it, but “cankle” has a mean and clever ring to it.

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Other, more widely used “fat phrases”, include: “bingo wings”, “muffin top” and “thunder thighs”. Most of us will have come across them at some point or other. They are words which belong to a special category: one which uses humour to denigrate and humiliate and can cut to the bone. They may make you laugh, but they could just as easily make you cry. Of course they’re not acceptable, everyday descriptions – they’re childish and hurtful. So why then do women routinely use them to describe their own bodies?

The equalities minister, Jo Swinson, who in the pre-Christmas run-up highlighted the rise in so-called “fat talk”, has referred to it as a “depressingly commonplace” practice. She has called for women and young girls to stop “insulting” their bodies and has warned how it can lead to low self-esteem, depression and self-harm. Her intervention chimes with the views of the actress Jennifer Lawrence, who recently said that using the word “fat” should be illegal on television. Lawrence, who could hardly be described as having a “muffin top” or “bingo wings”, claims that by Hollywood standards she is considered overweight. Where that leaves the rest of us is anyone’s guess.

Certainly, both Lawrence and Swinson are right to criticise the way that women are made to feel fat in a world that is obsessed by being thin, but we ourselves also have to shoulder some of the blame. If we are mired in issues surrounding body image, it’s at least partly because we live in a world of extremes: one that is occupied by both the very thin and, increasingly, the very fat.

Scots, in particular, have a well-documented weight problem. We are fatter than people across the rest of the UK. We eat less fruit and veg; we fry more; drink more; and die younger. We consume more sweets and sugar and are battling diabetes at an alarming rate. Childhood obesity, lack of exercise, health inequalities …the list goes on and it’s all bad. Is it any wonder that we try to use humour to describe our bloated, out-of-shape bodies?

Of course, we need to think a lot more carefully about how we deal with issues surrounding body image – women who are depressed about their weight are far more likely to pile on more pounds if they are “fat shamed”. But part of me also thinks that maybe we do need to be a bit harder on ourselves. Yes, we should discourage young girls and women from belittling their bodies, but a wake-up call is needed. Banning “fat talk”, sadly, is not the answer.

Perhaps it’s time to buy into that whole New Year-New You shtick – the kind of stuff you read about in magazines which also discusses ways to banish “thunder thighs” in six weeks. I have already started by making small changes. The last of the Terry’s Chocolate Oranges have been replaced by actual, real oranges. I intend to take my right “cankle” for a walk every day. And I, for one, will no longer tolerate “fat talk” – no matter how painfully accurate it is.