Even if you haven’t heard of the term Fat Talk, you’ve probably engaged in it – and likely many times. You’ve probably talked with your friends about the body parts that frustrate you the most or the ones you wish you could change.
You might’ve said that you’re too fat, too thin, too something undesirable. You might’ve lamented the looks of your legs or the softness of your belly.
All these words make up a common conversation that we just can’t seem to stop having.
In addition to talking about world issues, a fantastic book we just read and other important or thought-provoking topics, we can’t seem to stop talking about our undoubtedly undesirable physical attributes.
But just because Fat Talk might seem automatic doesn’t mean it is.
That’s why I’m pleased to present an interview with Denise Martz, Ph.D, a professor of psychology at Appalachian State University, and a clinical psychologist who studies Fat Talk.
Below, she talks about her research on Fat Talk, whether it’s a new phenomenon and much more.
Q: You’ve conducted extensive research into Fat Talk. What has your research shown?
A: Our research is ongoing, but so far we have found that both male and female college students would expect another young woman to join in fat talk if it is happening in a circle of female friends (they know the norm to fat talk). Yet, they did not say they would necessarily join in.
Both men and women thought fat talk would be most appealing for a female to do in front of other women to appear attractive to them. However, they thought that it would be most appealing for a woman to say self-accepting things about her body in order to be attractive to men (as the poor guy is always in trouble when the female asks “Do I look fat in this?”).
In another study, we found that young women would mirror either positive body ratings or negative ratings based on what a female (really a research confederate or actor) said in a get-to-know-you interview. This made us wonder if pressure to fat talk is just females conforming to other females in a conversation.
Another study involved seeing another woman conform or not conform when the group was either fat talking or saying positive things about their bodies found that young women participants liked the target woman in the story the most when she said positive things (rather than fat talking) no matter what the group was saying (positively or negatively) about their bodies. With that study, we concluded there is likely a norm for women to fat talk but there may also be a norm to be more self-accepting.
In a large US survey, we found that women experience more likelihood of hearing [fat talk] and pressure to engage in fat talk compared to men and this was also the case when we studied college students in England.
Q: Do you think Fat Talk is a recent phenomenon — maybe due to media pressures or our current cultural ideals — or something women have been doing since the beginning of time?
A: Some evolutionary psychology research shows the #1 trait men look for in a mate is physical attractiveness whereas the #1 trait women look for is “considerate.” As a feminist I am not thrilled with this but it does make sense that across evolution, women search for a considerate, dependable, man with status and money to be able to care for her offspring. He, on the other hand, searches for beauty that translates to mean health and fertility and ideally healthy and attractive kids.
Hence, we think a focus on appearance/beauty has been around forever for women. I think fat talk is a way in a rich country with an abundance of food and an obesity epidemic for some women to manage their self-impressions in front of others by acknowledging their perceived flaws (my thighs are so fat and yours are so skinny) and telling others that they value physical appearance and are working on improving their bodies. Mimi Nichter coined the term fat talk and found that White middle-school girls reported several functions of fat talk in their lives.
Q: You’ve mentioned that Fat Talk provides short-term social benefits. Many women use Fat Talk to sort of bond with each other. What are some ways we can move away from these kinds of interactions?
A: Nichter reports the social function of bonding, but I’ve not studied that specifically and none of our research supports the assumption that fat talk is really valuable. Rather we are finding that women know about it and expect other women to do it.
However, not all of the women we have studied say they hear it and feel pressure to join in. In those that do hear it and feel pressure to join in, there is a clear gender difference with more women than men. Additionally and fitting with a feminist perspective, we’ve found that college females like a female who says positive things about her body more than one who fat talks.
Q: How can we stop Fat Talk?
A: Become aware of it when we hear it and find alternative ways to choose not to participate. I hear it when I’m on the university campus with young students and even around the parents of my teens.
Q: For many women, it seems that a negative body image and an inner critic are underneath all that Fat Talk. How can we improve our body image as a whole?
A: A recent study in another lab found that college females with poorer body image do participate in fat talk more. One way to change body image is to get in touch with one’s inner dialogue (private thoughts) and make deliberate changes to be kinder to oneself.
So instead of looking in the mirror, focusing on one’s stomach and wishing there had been different food choices, one could either avoid the mirror and scrutiny in the first place or look in the mirror and say “My stomach is curvy just like normal women and has not been touched up to look artificial like the women in magazines.”
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about your work, body image or stopping Fat Talk?
A: I think publicity about this is a start to helping more people become aware of fat talk so that they can make choices on how they participate or do not as opposed to just succumbing to peer pressure and the status quo. Thanks for your help in that!
Thanks so much, Dr. Martz, for your insight!
Do you engage in Fat Talk? If you’re trying to stop, what’s worked for you?