Sarah Royal, MA, PhD Student in Clinical Psychology
Imagine two close friends, Amanda and Charlotte, trying on clothing at their favourite store on the weekend. They each put on a new outfit and emerge from the change-room.
Amanda: “Do I look fat in these pants? My thighs are so big!”
Charlotte: “No way! You're so skinny. Me, on the other hand, I need to start going to the gym more often. This dress makes my hips look huge.”
Amanda: “Stop it. You have a great body!”
Charlotte: “No, I don't. Look at my stomach! It's not flat at all.”
Amanda: “Ugh, I need to cut back on junk food immediately. I feel so fat.”
Does this conversation sound familiar to you? For Amanda and Charlotte, this type of body-related language comes up frequently in their daily conversations with one another. These friends are engaging in what researchers and clinicians call “fat talk”.
What is “fat talk”?
Fat talk is the term, coined by Mimi Nichter, for negative body-related conversations that often take place between friends.1 Fat talk is not the thoughts that go through your mind about your body but, instead, the body-related comments you say to other people about yourself. Typically, these discussions involve negative comments or criticisms about parts of your body or your body as a whole. Additionally, fat talk can involve statements about wanting to change your body through physical activity or dietary changes, such as planning to restrict what or how much you eat.
There is often a back-and-forth nature to fat talk conversations, where you and your friends might reassure one another that your body-related concerns are not accurate.2 Often, however, you may not necessarily feel better or reassured by your friends' comments to you. Fat talk is a common social behaviour in today's society, particularly among women.3 This is likely because physical appearance carries significant meaning in society. The current North American beauty ideal is for slender, toned bodies. Such bodies have become symbols of many valued attributes, such as self-discipline, good health, and success in all areas of one’s life. There is a false assumption that one can tell a lot about an individual based on their physical size, so being slender has become highly desirable and something that one is told is achievable with enough self-control. This occurs despite evidence that we inherit a genetic predisposition to a particular body size, weight, and shape, and that dieting and physical activity do not guarantee a socially ideal body.
Fat talk often takes place among friends but some women might also engage in fat talk with other loved ones, such as mothers, sisters, cousins, or even romantic partners. You might even hear strangers making comments about their own bodies, such as in a change-room or at a swimming pool. Fat talk may be more likely to occur in places where the body is a significant focus: for example, when trying on clothing, when exercising, or when eating, but this is not necessarily the case. Individuals who are struggling with eating disorders, or food and weight preoccupation, may actively participate in fat talk discussions or, alternatively, they may completely avoid these types of conversations to not draw attention to themselves or their bodies. You may find, however, that hearing others say fat talk comments, or making them yourself, might be triggering and lead to urges for eating disorder symptoms.
Why do women participate in fat talk?
Women participate in fat talk discussions for different reasons. Fat talk may promote bonding within friendships, allow for the expression of personal concerns regarding body size and shape, and provide a manner through which to ask for support and seek reassurance from friends.4 These reasons for participating in fat talk could be viewed as positive or helpful, which may help to explain why making negative body-related comments and criticisms is commonplace. There is also perceived pressure to participate in fat talk conversations; women are more likely to verbalize fat talk language if they hear women making similar statements.5 Fat talk has also been linked to a sociocultural pressure to be thin5, with thinness and self-control around food and weight issues being highly prized in North American society as proxies for both good health and character.
Consequences of fat talk
Many women view positive aspects to fat talk; therefore, it makes sense that they might talk about their bodies in this manner with friends. Unfortunately, fat talk has been associated with some potentially negative consequences. For example, fat talk has been linked to more negative body image, low mood, and internalization of a thin ideal for women.6, 7 Although not directly examined yet through research, it is also possible that fat talk might contribute to problematic eating patterns in individuals with and without eating disorders. For example, engaging in fat talk may keep women focused on perceived negative aspects of their bodies. In turn, they might engage in unhealthy dieting practices and/or eating disorder symptoms in an attempt to alter their weight and shape.
Strategies to stop fat talk
Consider the risks and benefits of continuing – versus not continuing – your participation in fat talk conversations. This will help clarify the role that fat talk plays in your life as well as help to identify potential barriers to changing your behaviour.
Speak to your therapist about fat talk. They may be helpful in determining the role that fat talk plays in contributing to your eating disorder or self-image. If you don't have a therapist, speak to a close and supportive loved one about your concerns.
Become more aware of how often you're engaging in fat talk by keeping a journal. Keep track of your fat talk conversation partners, where fat talk is happening, and what impact it has on your mood and behaviours. For example, does participating in or hearing fat talk lead to urges for eating disorder symptoms?
Try stopping fat talk as an experiment to see what impact this has on how you view your body or the types of interactions you have with your friends or family members.
If you feel comfortable, let others know that you wish to not engage in negative body-related conversations. It might be helpful to first practice being assertive about your wishes in more neutral situations, such as with individuals with whom you are less emotionally close.
Think of strategies you could use “in the moment” when fat talk language comes up in conversation. One strategy you could try is changing the subject to something neutral.
If you are comfortable, promote positive body-related talk. For example, you could focus on what you appreciate about your body and what your body does for you, as opposed to how your body looks. In fact, some research shows that women who make more positive body-related comments are perceived more favourably by others than those who make negative fat talk comments.8
- If you hear fat talk around you and it feels risky because you are concerned that you may have eating disorder symptoms, it is your right to politely remove yourself from the situation.
1. Nichter, M., & Vukovic, N. (1994). Fat talk. In N. Sault (Ed.), Many mirrors: Body image and social relations. (pp. 109-131). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
2. Salk, R. H. & Engeln-Maddox, R. (2011). “If you’re fat, then I’m humongous!”: Frequency, content, and impact of fat talk among college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35, 18-28. doi: 10.1177/0361684310384107
4. Nichter, M. (2000). Fat talk: What girls and their parents say about dieting. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
5. Tucker, K. L., Martz, D. M., Curtin, L. A., & Bazzini, D. G. (2007). Examining “fat talk” experimentally in a female dyad: How are women influenced by another woman’s body presentation style? Body Image, 4, 157-164. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2006.12.005
6. Arroyo, A., & Harwood, J. (2012). Exploring the causes and consequences of engaging in fat talk. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 40(2), 167-187. doi: 10.1080/00909882.2012.654500
7. Warren, C. S., Holland, S., Billings, H., & Parker, A. (2012). The relationships between fat talk, body dissatisfaction, and drive for thinness: Perceived stress as a moderator. Body Image, doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2012.03.008
8. Barwick, A., Bazzini, D., Martz, D., Rocheleau, C., & Curtin, L. (2012). Testing the norm to fat talk for women of varying size: What's weight got to do with it? Body Image, 9(1), 176-179. doi: 10.1016/j.bodyim.2011.08.003
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