Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.
Whether it's a woman complaining about the size of her thighs or saying she's "so bad" for having that extra cookie she had at lunch, "fat talk" is often a regular pat of women's daily conversations. According to a 2011 survey, 93 percent of college-aged women engage in this type of disparaging commentary about their bodies and the bodies of others, endorsing the idea that thinner is always better. Fat talk has been linked with body dissatisfaction, especially for those who engage in it themselves, but also for those who hear their friends' negative comments. The question is: How bad is fat talk for women, especially in the context of friendship?
Researchers from University of Queensland were among the first to study fat talk among actual friends, and their new study explores its affects on women's mental health as well as their social dynamics.
The researchers gathered 43 pairs of friends between the ages of 17 and 25 and told them that they'd be participating in a study about communication on social media (not fat talk). Each friend pair was separated and instructed to discuss 20 celebrity images over an instant messenger program. They were told that they'd be randomly assigned to chat their friend first or second. If they were second, that meant that they'd reply to their friend's comment about the celebrity. But in reality, all participants were told to be the second one to chat, and the researchers sent them pre-selected comments that were either considered fat talk ( "She looks great after losing all that weight"), positive body talk ("Love that skirt, would look amazing on me!") or neutral ("Such a great actress").
After that, participants completed a survey that measured their body image, mood, their intentions to diet, and how much they had internalized the thin ideal. The survey also asked them to report how often they engaged in fat talk with their friends, and how they felt about the friend partnered with them in the study.
After analyzing survey results, the researchers found that the correlates of disordered eating (like thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, poor mood and dieting intentions) were significantly higher for those whose "friend" chatted them with fat talk. In this study, however, merely listening (or reading, in this case) a friend's negative commentary only affected well-being if the person responded with fat talk, too.
Talking about bodies didn't always lead to negative consequences though. Those whose "friend" chatted positively about bodies, on the other hand, showed no increased risk. In fact, out of the three types of talk, positive body talk was considered the most "socially acceptable." Participants rated this type of chat positively, even if the norm in their friend circle was to engage in fat talk.
While it may seem harmless to look at a photo of Jennifer Lawrence and joke to a friend, "I'd never be able to wear that," this study suggests that it could actually be pretty bad for your self-esteem -- and your friend's, if she chimes in with her own negative body talk.
Fat talk is the norm in many women's friend circles, so it might seem daunting to deviate from that social formula, sitting silently as your friend jokingly berates herself for ordering dessert or even -- gasp -- expressing that you actually like your body the way it is. But knowing how bad it is for everyone involved can serve as motivation to avoid fat talk and maybe even say something nice about your own figure. After all, participants across the board appreciated positive body talk.
When it comes to talking about your body -- or anyone's body -- perhaps it's best to remember the old adage: If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all.
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