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In an unpublished study, Engeln-Maddox showed that scene to male and female undergraduates and asked them to choose their favorite character.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.
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