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Last week was “Fat Talk Free Week.” Today I wanted to continue the conversation because it’s so common for people to bash their bodies. And now it’s become common for kids and teens to do so, too…and at younger and younger ages.

Below, Elizabeth Easton, PsyD, clinical director of child and adolescent services at the Eating Recovery Center, discusses whether fat talk is a new phenomenon, its effect on kids, how parents can help and much more.

Q: Do you think there’s more fat talk today then there was a few decades or even a decade ago? Is this a new phenomenon?

A: I do believe “fat talk” has increased in the last decade, for both adults and children. I’m not sure it’s a “new phenomenon” because it’s human nature to want something different than what we have. Straight-haired woman envy curly-haired women; curly-haired women envy straight-haired women, etc. We generally look for what is more envied or valued, and then strive for that.

“Skinniness” has been highly valued in our society for several decades, but now it’s not just in magazines and on television. It’s on the Internet and readily assessable through blogs, tweets, websites about dieting and even pro-eating disorders websites. If desired, people can be inundated with “fat talk” 24 hours a day with just one “click.” 

Q: What are the consequences of fat talk?

A: Any time we contribute to the dialogue about “skinny is pretty,” we are devaluing body acceptance. We learn how to assess our bodies based on our environment. If we buy into or even just allow “fat talk” to occur around us, we are creating an environment that perpetuates “good” versus “bad” body types.

Negative body image is an easy hook for individuals who struggle with self-esteem or identity to latch onto as a way to feel more confident and even accepted by others.

I hear children and teens talk about this dynamic daily at Eating Recovery Center’s Behavioral Hospital for Children and Adolescents. Somewhere along the way they learned: skinny equals acceptance.

Q: Why do you think kids fat talk today?

A:Like the old TV commercial portrayed, they learned it “from watching us.” This is not to say that all parents teach their children these negative body judgments. I have worked with a significant number of parents who tried to convey a message of body acceptance and shield their kids from “fat talk.”

However, children and teens are very susceptible to picking up any value judgments in which they are exposed.

They are working through developmental tasks that require them to be critical about “good” versus “bad.” If we teach them, even in minor ways, that there is a “good” body type, then that is exactly what they will strive for and discuss amongst their peers.

Q: How can parents be positive influences for their kids when it comes to fat talk?

A: Children and teenagers are fairly adept at picking up others’ attitudes concerning body image. They look for people’s reaction for what is “pretty” versus “not accepted.”

Self-awareness is key to helping your children learn a positive and accepting understanding of body size and shape.

Q: Parents may fat talk themselves. What tips do you have for adults to stop fat-talking?

A: As stated above, as your awareness grows about your perceptions of the body, you will start to catch yourself labeling bodies as “good” or “bad.” You will also, hopefully, start catching yourself labeling your own body, specifically being critical or shameful about what you wish you could change.

When this occurs, challenge yourself to identify positive or even just neutral parts of your body. Shift your focus to the amazing functions of your body; instead of remaining stuck in examining its form.

If you strive to become more accepting of and grateful for your body, “fat talk” will slowly slip out of your daily conversations and your daily self-criticisms.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about fat talk?

A: Do not be afraid to intervene if you believe a friend or loved one’s “fat talk” has begun to cross the line into disordered eating behaviors. Early intervention is key for lasting recovery.

Thanks so much to Elizabeth Easton for her insight!

Here are other Weightless posts on “Fat Talk”:

Why does it seem like today, more and more people dislike their bodies and make disparaging comments about themselves (and others)? What do you think contributes to “fat talk”? How can we stop?