The girls in “Mean Girls,” Tina Fey’s 2004 blockbuster, are gorgeous by any standard. But put them in front of a mirror and you hear:
“My hips are huge!”
“Oh please. I hate my calves.”
Their complaints about supposed “man shoulders,” weird hairlines, huge pores, and sucky nail beds are classic examples of fat talk, meaning negative comments about your body.
Fat talk is common among women and often has nothing to do with actual body fat or visible “imperfections.” Instead, it’s a way to express insecurity or negative feelings and bond with other women.
Mimi Nichter, Ph.D., a researcher who coined the term ‘fat talk’ in the 90s, observed that fat talk was a social ritual for young women. In her research on middle school girls, she saw that they talked to each other about fat almost compulsively. Exchanges like, “I’m so fat!” followed by “You are so NOT fat!” happened repeatedly throughout the day and was an expected part of daily interaction. Indeed, studies on college students have shown that a full 93 percent participate in fat talk.
Fat talk is harmful for our self-esteem, but our intention may be positive. It may be a way of showing vulnerability and humility—a basis for bonding between women.
Women who compliment their own bodies tend to be off-putting. “As much as we tell women to love their bodies, we don’t actually like women to love their bodies,” says Northwestern University psychology professor Renee Engeln-Maddox, PhD. “We find them arrogant and they make us a little mad.” So instead, women tend to put themselves down as a way of leveling the playing field. That’s a tough environment for anyone who wants to stop fat talk.
Here, we offer expert advice to help you change the conversation.
Teach the consequences. Fat talk often seems harmless, so most women have no idea that fat talk is bad for them. “Educate your friends on fat talk and how detrimental it is to your self-esteem,” suggests Stacy Nadeau, former model for the Dove Real Bodies Campaign and spokesperson for the Reflections Body Image Program. That will make it easier for you to call out fat talk when it happens.
Declare fat talk off-limits. Instead of bonding over fat talk, try bonding over a pact to go fat talk free together. “Ask your friends to commit to ending fat talk in your group; help each other,” says Nadeau.
Several colleges have created fat talk free zones as part of the Reflections Body Image Program. Scripps College bans fat talk from the gym and Northwestern University Delta Delta Delta sorority members place stickers on the mirrors in their sorority house that say, ‘Friends don’t let friends talk fat.’ That’s a mantra we could all stand to adopt.
Make a joke. Nadeau prefers a light approach when she hears her friends fat talking. “I’ll often say, ‘Don’t talk about my friend that way!’” says Nadeau. “It lets my friend know I care about him or her and I don’t want to hear them bash their own body.” Just make sure your joke isn’t at your friend’s expense.
Address the real issue. Especially for chronic fat talkers, body-bashing might be masking deeper unrest that you don’t want to brush off. “At the end of the day, you still want to be the best friend you can be,” says Nadeau. You might tell your friend that she seems a little down on herself and ask if anything is going on with her. “Sometimes letting someone tell their story will do more than you know,” adds Nadeau.
Many people only fat talk in certain contexts like, say, the gym. If your friend is fat talking under the guise of getting healthy (“Ugh, I really need to go to the gym, I’m getting so fat.”), help her refocus the conversation. “Focus the conversation on being healthy and strong, rather than looking different,” says Engeln-Maddox, especially if your friend already spends plenty of time at the gym. If she doesn’t and she really could stand to be healthier, just encourage healthy habits. Say something like, ‘Going to the gym together would be really fun. Want to make a gym date next week?’ You both win and no one’s fat talking.
Change the subject. When it comes to fat talk, just pretend you hear no evil. “Don’t reinforce fat talk,” says Engeln-Maddox. “You’d be surprised by how easy it is to just change the subject.” She suggests acknowledging your friend’s comment briefly then signaling the end of that conversation. You might say something like this: ‘I think your arms look fine. What are we going to do later tonight?’ By doing that, you show her that you won’t engage in that conversation. That’s much better than upping the ante by fat talking yourself, adds Engeln-Maddox.
Set a good example. There’s no golden ticket to ending fat talk (at least not that anyone knows yet), but your own language is the best weapon you have. “The best way to change the conversation in any situation is to lead by example,” says Nadeau. “Be the change you want to see.” To start, you can eliminate fat talk from your own lexicon. You don’t need to start telling everyone you have the most spectacular thighs on earth (they will hate you), but you can still be respectful of yourself. “Be the leader to set the example for those around you,” encourages Nadeau.
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