Fat Talk Impacts Body Image and Self-Esteem

“Fat talk (women speaking negatively about the size and shape of their bodies) is a phenomenon that both reflects and creates body dissatisfaction.” Fat talk is a dialogue where each of the participants claims to be fatter than the other one. This study explores how often such talk takes place among college women, what they say, and how it affects them. It also considers current ideas of thinness. Though fat talk suggested dissatisfaction about their bodies, the volunteers reported feeling better for doing it.

It is reported that when a woman claims to be fat, a wide range of feelings are implicit. It could mean a call for reassurance and support from her peers. Since fat talk is so widespread, women indulge in it to be accepted. Listening to a thin woman talking negatively about her body may sadden the listener, although she might relish knowing that others share her concerns. “The overall frequency of fat talk was positively related to eating disorder behavior and body dissatisfaction.” This study addresses fat talk among college women, as they are at the highest risk for eating disorders.

* In the study, 186 women aged between 18 and 23 answered questions regarding body measurements and body-related feelings. According to guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7 percent of the participants were underweight, 84 percent had normal weight, and 9 percent were overweight.
* The participants wrote an imaginary dialogue between themselves and a friend, starting with the friend claiming that she was fat. Later, they indicated whether this friend was really fat, and the answer that they would wish for if they were in her shoes.
* They indicated the frequency of fat talk. To find out their reactions to it, they were given various statements to choose from.
* Their dissatisfaction with various body parts and their attitude toward appearance (thinness) were determined and correlated to eating disorders.

* Of the participants, 93 percent admitted to fat talk, though most claimed that “others” did it more frequently. Body Mass Index, a measure of fatness, did not affect their participation in fat talk. While imagining which friends might grumble to them about excess weight, 86 percent of participants described a friend who was not really overweight.
* The most common response (more than 80 percent) to the complaining friend in the imaginary dialogue was to deny she was fat. The first responses were irrespective of their own dissatisfaction, their thinness ideals, or the friend’s actual body size.
* Fat talk, to most women, meant body dissatisfaction. They expected reassurance from the friend, emotional support or a weight-loss tip.
* Most women felt less distressed after fat talk. Many felt annoyance at being preoccupied by appearance, and a few (the heavier subset) felt worse about their self-image.

Actual estimations are hard to draw, as the study is based on self-report. Fat talk among overweight women was not determined, as the majority of the participants were average to underweight. The group was too homogenous to be extrapolated to other ethnicities and ages. There is a need to create standardized definitions describing related themes, and a method to analyze self-reports.

The more women believe that a perfect body is a very thin body, the more often they tend to talk about and bolster that belief in their conversations. Being fat does not correlate with the frequency of fat talk. Most women engaging in fat talk were not fat, but wanted reassurance to feel good about themselves. Fat talk often ended up with plans for workouts, probably leading to a good feeling. Fat talk is very common, and women may consider it a way of supporting each other. Though women claimed to feel happier after engaging in it, the study suggests that it is a sign of dissatisfaction with their own bodies.

For More Information:
“If You’re Fat, Then I’m Humongous!”: Frequency, Content, and Impact of Fat Talk Among College Women
Publication Journal: Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2011
By Rachel H. Salk; Renee Engeln-Maddox; Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.