How to turn 'fat talk' into something positive

Leave the negative comments behind and learn how to engage with other women on a topic that doesn't include how much you hate your ankles.

Two women stand at the end of hike cheering

Photo: Masterfile

Women have a well-established tendency to dwell on the things we hate about our bodies, and we also tend to allow even the slightest of imperfections to drive us crazy. I asked Michaela M. Bucchianeri, a postdoctoral fellow researching women and their attitudes towards weight at the University of Minnesota, to explain why we engage in fat talk and how we can turn such a prevalent negative into something that makes us feel better about ourselves.

Q: What does “fat talk” mean, and why are women so likely to engage in it?
A: “Fat talk” refers to the self-disparaging body talk, in which women typically engage, in relation to food, weight, or the body. Fat talk can take the form of statements or questions about oneself (‘Does this shirt make me look fat?’) or about a third party (‘She has really let herself go’) and can even seem quite complimentary (‘Wow! You look great! Have you lost weight?’).

It may be motivated by a need to belong (bonding over shared body complaints or critiques of others’ bodies), a desire for reassurance (highlighting a perceived flaw in ones shape to prompt compliments or soothing from others), or simply out of social habit.

Q: What do we get out of fat talk? Do we derive any sense of satisfaction from it?
A: Although engaging in fat talk may provide some temporary feelings of validation or security, the evidence suggests that exposure to this kind of talk actually decreases satisfaction with our bodies, which is predictive of disordered eating and a number of other negative health outcomes.

Q: Tell me about your study related to fat talk and like-ability.
A: It has been theorized that fat talk plays a role in helping girls and women form and maintain social bonds, and so we wanted to explore whether engagement in fat talk does indeed influence a person’s likeability.

Study co-author, Dr. Alexandra Corning, and I presented 139 ‘normal-weight’ women with a series of photos, each of which depicted either an overweight or a thin woman, making either a fat-talk statement or a positive body statement (‘I know I’m not perfect, but I love the way I look’), and we then asked the participants to indicate how likeable they perceived each woman to be.

Q: What did the results indicate to you?
A: What we found is that, first, overall, women who made fat talk statements were seen as less likeable than women who made positive body statements. One reason for this may be that we naturally are drawn to those who are more positive and confident, in general. Other possibilities include that fat talk can be awkward or difficult for others to respond to, and that it may direct listeners’ attention to their own weight in an unhelpful way.

Second, when we took the photographed woman’s body type into account, we found that overweight women making positive body statements were rated MOST likeable of all. It may be that when we see a woman whose body type diverges from the mainstream ideal of thinness, expressing feelings of contentment and appreciation for her body, we as listeners think, ‘If she can say kind things about her body, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to.’

These results enhance our understanding of how fat talk operates in women’s everyday relationships. We know from prior research that exposure to a mere few minutes of fat talk is associated with an increase in body dissatisfaction.  And we also know that body dissatisfaction is associated with poor consumption of fruits and vegetables and with decreased physical activity. So, we already know that fat talk sets us up for compromised health — now we also have evidence that it may be compromising our relationships as well.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on how we can talk to motivations that compel fat talk and turn them into something more positive?
A: The pervasiveness of fat talk — as well as the general belief that it is a normal, harmless part of everyday conversation — can make it especially tricky to curb. Whatever our reasons may be for engaging in this kind of talk, the evidence suggests it can only hurt us, not help us. So, a good place to start is by checking your own tendency to make negative comments about your body. If you find that you’re doing this often, pause and reflect on why that may be.

1. Are you feeling insecure or vulnerable and seeking support from others?
If so, then perhaps there is a more effective, and less harmful, way to get that need met (e.g., spending time doing something you love, scheduling time to chat with a trusted friend).

2. Do your comments reflect genuine feelings of dissatisfaction about your body?
Take a moment to shift your concentration away from perceived imperfections, and intentionally focus on something you truly appreciate about yourself. Maybe you feel grateful for your body’s strength or endurance — or, better yet, maybe there are things you love about yourself that have nothing to do with your body. If you find it difficult to come up with any attributes unrelated to your appearance, that may be an important signal to you that it’s worthwhile investing some time and energy in a new interest, activity, or relationship. In time, you might find that you’re too busy doing the things you enjoy to critique your body. And, of course, if your feelings about your body start tending more towards distress than dissatisfaction, seek support from professionals as needed.

3. Is fat talk simply the norm in your social circle, your workplace or with family?
It may be time to challenge the norm and change the conversation. Depending on your comfort level, you can address the issue directly (‘I’m really uncomfortable with all of the focus on weight when we get together. Can we talk about something else?’) or find more subtle ways to steer the discussion in another direction.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a fat-talk comment (‘I have gained so much weight this summer’), resist the urge to respond with more fat talk (‘You think you’re fat? Look at me!’), as it will only reinforce the negativity and the focus on weight. Rise to the occasion and offer a genuine reply that will move things in a more positive direction. For instance, you might be honest and tell the person you don’t like hearing them speak about themselves that way, and then compliment them on something of substance — their importance to you, their wit, a recent work or school achievement. Be honest and kind, and you’ll be on your way to setting a new standard in your conversations with each other.

Finally, for women especially, there is tremendous collective focus on appearance, shape, and weight as a measure of our worth. Because of this, it is very easy to fall into the habit of fat talk even when our intention is to compliment one another. For example, if you know a coworker has been dieting and is proud of her weight loss, it may be tempting to say, “You look wonderful! Have you lost weight?” The problem is that this type of comment can carry the same consequences as blatantly negative fat talk. So, rather than aiming to improve your relationships by delivering this type of compliment, focus on the broad array of interests, skills, and talents a person can have — starting with your own — and let your words and actions be guided by those interests. You’ll sidestep the urge to fat talk, and chances are you’ll be seen by others as more interesting — and more likeable, too.