Four Naked Women by Albrecht Durer/Yale Digital Commons

Guys know better.

When the woman in their life asks, “Do I look fat?” guys respond, “Gosh, I love you more every day, honey,” or “Now would be a great time for me to start painting the kitchen, don’t you think?” or “Hey, is that a UFO up there?”

Anything to avoid fat talk.

For women, however, fat talk is social currency.

A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Mimi Nichter, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say About Dieting. Nichter coined the phrase “fat talk.”

You know what she means—that familiar conversation among girls and women that starts with one saying,  “I’m so fat,” to which the other is expected to respond, “Oh no, you look great but my thighs are HUGE,” to which the proper response is, “YOUR thighs are huge? Look at MINE!” and so on.

“It’s very common everyday discourse among girls,” Nichter says (although she found less body dissatisfaction among African American girls than among Caucasian and Hispanic girls). “And it’s culturally appropriate. It’s actually a way of creating solidarity among girls. You’re opening yourself up. It’s a way of sharing and disclosure.”

Fat talk is also a way of getting reassurance from friends, and it can be a way girls signal distress to each other. “For some girls and women, it’s like saying the day hasn’t gone well, like a bad hair day,” Nichter explains. “Saying, ‘I’m so fat,’ is not just about your weight, it’s really a statement about your sense of self at that moment.”

And as far as fat talk and dieting goes, Nichter, whose research focused on girls in middle and high school, found that one can be a way of avoiding the other. “If you’re about to order something that’s really fattening, like desert, saying ‘I’m so fat’ allows you to say ‘I know that I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m going to do it anyway.’

“If people were talking about it (dieting) and doing it, we wouldn’t have this epidemic of obesity,” she points out. “Saying ‘I’m so fat’ in many ways replaces the need to diet. It says you know what appropriate behavior is but you don’t need to do it at this minute.” (Hm, might this relate to new research on body image and weight loss?)

I also talked to Dr. Denise M. Martz, a professor at Appalachian State University and a psychologist in private practice, who is expanding on Nichter’s research to try and understand why girls (college-age in her research) fat talk and how that relates to body image problems.

“It does create a bonding and allows women to get reassurance and support from other women,” Martz says. “But it is also continuing a norm that objectifies women’s bodies and makes that salient, makes that important.”

In one experiment, published in the journal Body Image, Martz had participants read a vignette describing four college girls studying for a biology test when three of the girls start fat talking. Participants were asked if they thought the fourth girl (called Jenny in the vignette) would say something self-accepting, say nothing, or would “self-degrade”— fat talk. The result: most women and men thought Jenny would join the fat talk.

“I was surprised to find out men knew this norm for women,” says Martz. “This suggests that people know this is the norm and that there’s pressure to do it.”

Martz also found that both men and women thought women should fat talk to be liked by other women but that to be liked by men, they should be confident about their bodies.

Martz wants next to understand how much of women’s inclination to fat talk can be blamed on body image issues and how much is simply related to women’s tendency to conform. If conformity is the impetus, women should be able to turn fat talk into happy talk by making self-accepting statements—though that is difficult for many women. When she was preparing research assistants to conduct an experiment that required they say something “self-aggrandizing” about their bodies, “We had to really train our confederates to say what they had to say and keep a straight face,” says Dr. Martz.

Fat talk is not always fun for the participants. Martz cites previous research that indicated that when women hear a thinner woman fat talk, they feel bad about themselves. And, says Nichter, “’I’m so fat’ was something that was typically said among young women who were not fat. If you were overweight, you would not open yourself up to that.”

If there’s one situation in particular where you should avoid fat talk, it’s in front of your daughter. With body image issues cropping up in younger and younger girls, we need to do what we can to help girls maintain a healthy body image. Here are some tips I gleaned from experts about helping your daughter develop a healthy body image.

  • Watch what you say: Kids listen when you critique others’ appearance and complain about your thunder thighs. Think about the messages you’re sending.
  • Edit her influences: What magazines are in the house? What TV shows do you watch regularly. Does your daughter see only perfect bodies in the media?
  • Respect her comfort zone: If your daughter feels uncomfortable in bathing suit or shorts, let her choose what to wear instead. Don’t let self-consciousness interfere with healthy activities.
  • Point out the pluses of various body types: Tall kids can reach high things, muscular bodies are strong.
  • Be active together: No brainer.
  • Listen between the lines: Girls who criticize their bodies may be worried about something else–are they being bullied or teased in school?
  • Follow her lead: If your daughter is overweight, let her bring it up, sympathize, and ask what you can do to help.

Of course, the crappy body image many of us walk around didn’t start with us—we have internalized media images and a bajillion-dollar diet industry. A conference held this spring, Endangered Species: Women, focused on that very issue and hopes to start a global movement rebelling against societal and commercial pressure to look  a particular way. Here’s hopin’…