I remember hearing it all the time in my all-girls high school. "I'm so fat." "My _____s are huge." "I can't believe I ate that. I'm disgusting." I remember hearing it even more in my own head.
Then a strange thing happened when I went to college. I didn't hear it anymore from the women around me, I only heard my own internal voice. I thought other women's silence might have to do with the fact that my university was co-ed, and the general rule was that you didn't talk about how much you hated your body around guys. But it didn't happen at all-female gatherings, either. As I've gone on to work mostly with women, I've rarely heard a female colleague make a negative comment about her weight or appearance. It just isn't done.
A new study offers a possible reason why. The research team, led by psychology professor Alexandra Corning, who heads Notre Dame's Body Image and Eating Disorder Lab, asked 139 undergraduates, mostly freshman, all with average BMIs, to look at photos of both "noticeably thin" and overweight women captioned with quotes ostensibly from the women expressing either positive thoughts about their bodies or negative thoughts -- "fat talk." Questions followed each photo and quote, including one that asked how likeable the woman in the photo was on a scale of 1 (not at all likeable) to 7 (very likeable). Every participant saw eight photos total, including every possible combination of overweight or thin photo and positive or negative quote.
The findings, presented at the Midwestern Psychological Association's 85th annual conference last weekend, indicated that participants liked the women who said positive things about their bodies much more than those who engaged in fat talk, and they liked the overweight women who said good things about their bodies most of all. Both thin and overweight women who engaged in fat talk were less liked. And even though overweight women were liked more overall than thin women, participants liked thin women who were positive about their bodies better than overweight women who spoke negatively about their bodies.
The researchers said that the undergrads preferred the overweight women who made positive statements because, "These women's statements may be less threatening to another woman's body satisfaction than thin women making these statements." They also guessed that seeing overweight women make positive comments about their bodies "may encourage others to accept their own bodies as well."
A 2011 study involving a similar number of undergrads demonstrated how easily college-age women are able to slip into fat talk (perhaps my university or group of friends was anomalous?) and showed that while women say negative things about their bodies to be reassured that they are not as overweight as they fear, friends' responses don't actually reassure them.
While Rachel Salk, the lead author of that study, told Today that there is evidence that fat talk wanes with age, a February 2013 study found that women tend to replace fat talk with "old talk" -- negative statements about how they are aging -- as the years go by.
Corning said in a press release that the results of the new study are important "because they raise awareness about how women actually are being perceived when they engage in this self-abasing kind of talk."
I think many women were already wise to how socially unacceptable fat talk has become, but it helps to have the research to back it up.
Now we just need to work on the fat talk in our heads that we don't speak aloud.