“These jeans make me look fat!”
“I wish I had your thighs.”
“My diet starts tomorrow!”
Fat talking -- the tendency to make negative comments about our bodies -- is a tried-and-true staple of female culture. Today, researchers are just beginning to study why we do it, and how it affects the way we feel about our bodies and ourselves.
In the early 90s, anthropologist Mimi Nichter, Ph.D., unexpectedly stumbled onto fat talk while she was studying teen girls. During a series of focus groups, she noticed that they all reported a familiar ritual: One girl would say, “I feel so fat,” and the other would respond with, "You're not fat!" The exchange was a normal part of daily life; the girls repeated it over and over throughout the day.
Once Nichter started listening for fat talk (a term she coined), she realized the ritual was commonplace, peppering many women’s conversations.
Chances are, you’re one of those women.
Meet the Fat Talkers
A 2011 study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly found that an “overwhelming majority of women” -- 93 percent to be exact -- reported engaging in fat talk. A third of them reported fat talking frequently.
“Fat talk is everywhere,” says Nichter. Mothers say it to daughters; daughters say it to mothers; girlfriends say it to boyfriends; friends say it to friends. We hear it on TV, read it in magazines and overhear it on the street. Once you notice it, it really is everywhere.
Surprisingly, most women who fat talk aren’t fat.
In fact, most of the women who report frequent fat talking are a normal, healthy weight. Heavier women do feel pressure to join in when their friends are fat talking, but actually participating may hit too close to home.
Fat talking is about feeling fat, whether that means feeling bloated, out of shape, guilty for eating dessert or frustrated about not looking as thin and toned as Gwyneth Paltrow (who, btw, fat talks too).
“Fat talk may also be a metaphor for feeling down,” says Nichter. Just like you have a bad hair day when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, you can have a fat day.
So far, most of the research has been done on college women, but preliminary surveys and personal stories suggest that older women fat talk too.
To hear them, just step into a dressing room.
Chelsea Tyler, a private wardrobe stylist who works with women in their late 40s and early 50s, hears fat talk all the time. “Women will say, ‘Look at how big my thighs look’ or ‘I feel like this top is too tight’ when it actually creates a flattering silhouette,” she says. “Most of the time, I think women fat talk when they’re not sure how to dress for their bodies.” Tyler believes that if you can teach someone to flatter their body, you can stem the flow of fat talk.
Still, fat talk plays a role in many female friendships and may not be so easily ended by a curve-kissing, killer dress.
Bonding Over Body-Bashing
Body dissatisfaction is common among women, and researchers believe that fat talking may be a way to express that we all share those feelings of insecurity. “Fat talk is a way for women to bond with their friends,” says Nichter. “It shows vulnerability.”
Since fat talk expresses a soft spot, opting out may come off as insensitive.
A woman who responds that she’s confident and satisfied with her body risks being seen as unempathetic at best, arrogant at worst, says Engeln-Maddox.
In the second episode of the popular television show “Sex and the City” -- known as the “modelizers” episode about men who only date models -- a magazine photo prompts the women to start listing off their physical flaws. Charlotte hates her thighs, Miranda would love to trade her chin and Carrie is none too pleased with her nose. Only Samantha bucks the trend saying, “I happen to love the way I look.”
In an unpublished study, Engeln-Maddox showed that scene to male and female undergraduates and asked them to choose their favorite character. The men chose Samantha, hands down.
The women, however, found her confidence less appealing. They chose Carrie because she was willing to participate in the fat talking, but called out the irony that, in her words, “four beautiful flesh and blood women could be intimidated by some unreal fantasy.” In fact, Samantha was their least favorite because she seemed too self-assured and didn’t support her friends.
A 2009 study published in Body Image found slightly different results. College students who read short vignettes about fat talk preferred a woman who spoke positively about her body. However, they believed that other women would prefer the fat talkers, possibly suggesting why women may hesitate to break the mold.
“That was a very refreshing finding,” says co-author Denise Martz, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Appalachian State University. “Fat talk reinforces negativity and critique among women, so perhaps we think it’s normal and expected but don’t really like seeing it.”
Words Can Bring You Down
We often think of fat talk as fairly harmless, especially when it’s said in jest (“This bagel is going straight to my thighs!”), but research suggests that it may be more harmful than we think.
“Fat talk seems to have unintended consequences,” says Engeln-Maddox. “Women think it will make them feel better, but it actually seems to make them feel worse.”
Opening up to a friend about negative feelings is a perfectly healthy way to cope, but expressing those feelings by fat talking is not. Research suggests that people who fat talk often have higher body dissatisfaction and may be more at risk for eating disordered behavior.
Fat talk may be particularly distressing for people who are actually overweight.
“Imagine you’re a woman who has a real struggle with weight and you overhear two thin women talking about how fat they feel,” says Engeln-Maddox. “As one of our study participants wrote, ‘If you’re fat, then what am I?’”
Women report widespread pressure to be thin, even thinner than men find attractive. “Weight, body size and body shape are too often a measure of worth among women,” says Nichter. To feel gorgeous and confident -- worthy no matter what your size -- get fat talk out of your lexicon.
Is the End of Fat Talk in Sight?
At Northwestern University, the girls in Delta Delta Delta sorority (known as “Tri Delt”) spend one week every year going totally fat talk free. The girls spread awareness on campus, counter friends’ mealtime fat talk with a breezy “Fat talk free!” and even have stickers on the mirrors in their sorority house that say, “Friends don’t let friends talk fat.”
They’re part of a national campaign, Fat Talk Free® Week, that educates sorority members about the negative effects of fat talk and encourages them to focus on health instead of weight or pant size. “We work with women all over the country to educate them about how to change the conversation,” says Stacy Nadeau, national Fat Talk Free® Week spokesperson and former model for the Dove Real Bodies campaign.
The intervention might only last a week, but the girls’ new awareness persists.
Just last week, Elizabeth Henderson, a senior political science major at Northwestern University and organizer of the Tri Delt Fat Talk Free® week, was watching TV with her girlfriends when an ad came on for Victoria’s Secret. The fat talk was immediate: One girl said, “I’m not going to eat for a week after this,” while another chimed in with, “I ran three extra miles today.”
Henderson called them out. “I just said, guys, this is ridiculous,” she remembers. She admits that it’s hard to take a stand when it’s your friends, but she finds it easier now that fat talk awareness is part of their lives.
Just the awareness helps, Henderson says. “I’m not going to say I never feel bad about my body or fat talk, but now I realize what I’m doing and I can get back to a good place.”
The program doesn’t directly measure its success, but Engeln-Maddox is happy to see interventions like “no fat talk” tables in sorority cafeterias. “It’s really taking a stand,” she says.
In Engeln-Maddox’s dream world, women would spend less time worrying about their physical appearance and more time engaged with the world around them. “I want women to focus on the health and strength of their bodies,” she says. “On what their bodies can do instead of how they appear.”
That’s a pretty appealing aspiration.
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