In the locker room after spin class, a friend groaned, “Ugh, no matter how much I exercise, my butt gets bigger every day.” This lament set off a chain reaction as nearly all the women in the room—most of whom were fit and healthy—chimed in with their own verbal body-bashing (“Your butt is minuscule compared to mine”…“Well, my belly makes me look nine months pregnant”…“The way I pigged out yesterday, it’s no wonder my thighs are the size of Texas”).
It was a classic example of communal fat talk—a term coined by an anthropologist to describe how teenaged girls bond via self-deprecation. Yet clearly the habit doesn’t end with adolescence. In fact, exchanging fat talk seems to be an all-but-inescapable part of being an American woman. The big question: What is fat talk doing to our psyches?
To discuss this, I called Denise M. Martz, PhD, a psychology professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, who has done extensive research on the fat-talk phenomenon. Surprisingly, she noted that engaging in fat talk may have a few benefits. It can be a bonding experience between women…it can serve as a means of releasing negative emotions…and it can help relieve the guilt women feel after eating certain foods. But for the most part, Dr. Martz emphasized, fat talk’s potential positives are far overshadowed by its harmful consequences.
For example: In a new study in Journal of Applied Communication Research, researchers from the University of Arizona showed that engaging in fat talk is associated with increased depression. In addition, fat talk reinforces a counterproductive view of oneself as helpless against fat…and it encourages negative feelings about body image to broaden into a more all-encompassing negative self-concept.
Admittedly, when fat talk starts flying, it’s hard not to join in even if you’re aware of the damage it can do. Dr. Martz conceded, “Even I find myself in this situation. I start to say something that would sound like fat talk just to be funny—and I have to rein it back in, reminding myself that it really is not funny.” Fortunately, it is possible to break this bad habit. What helps…
Raise your awareness. Once fat talk is on your radar, you realize that you hear it everywhere. The more quickly you recognize it for what it is, the easier it becomes to suppress the urge to add your own self-castigating comments, Dr. Martz said.
Own your actions. Imagine you’re in a buffet line, piling food on your plate, when a friend comes over. If you are tempted to say, “I’m so out of control, this will go straight to my thighs,” you may be trying to deflect the guilt you feel for overindulging—in which case you may want to rethink that too-full plate. But if you are comfortable with your choices, rather than getting mired in embarrassment about what your friend might think, you’re better off saying nothing and enjoying your meal.
Dig deeper. Often a woman wallows in body negativity to avoid examining the fact that she’s actually feeling bad about something else, Dr. Martz noted. If you notice your fat talk increasing, try to put your finger on what’s really happening. Are recent layoffs making you feel insecure at work? Do you feel hurt because your husband has been moody and distant? The more clarity you gain about your true emotions, the less tempted you are to criticize your body…and the easier it is to acknowledge and address the true underlying problem.
Reassure and redirect. One reason a woman might call herself fat is that she wants her companions to reassure her that she is not fat, at least in comparison to others. So if a friend starts a fat-talk conversation, don’t get sucked into an escalating cycle of self-criticism. Instead, say something reassuring—“Your weight is fine” (if that’s true) or “It’s wonderful how hard you’re working to slim down”—and then change the subject.
Keep in mind: Throughout her research, Dr. Martz has found that women (and men!) really like it when they hear a woman speak with acceptance about her body. Now wouldn’t that be something—a chain-reaction conversation filled not with self-loathing, but with self-respect? You can make it your mission to spark that kind of emotionally healthy conversation every day.