“Ugh, I hate my thighs.”
“I really need to go on a diet.”
“I wish I had your arms.”
If those comments sound familiar, then you’re no stranger to fat talk.
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 forties and early fifties, 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 her 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.
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