'Fat Talk' Seeks to Reassure but May Hinder Self-Esteem

Women engaging in negative talk about their bodies do disservice to self.

April 4, 2011— -- Friend 1: "Ugh, I feel so fat."

Friend 2: "OMG. Are you serious? You are NOT fat."

Friend 1: "Yes I am, look at my thighs."

Friend 2: "Look at MY thighs."

Friend 1: "Oh, come on. You're a stick."

Friend 2: "So are you."

Sound familiar? 93 percent of college women today admit to engaging in this type of so-called "fat talk," despite being of normal weight or even underweight, according to a new paper published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

The above conversation is an example of an imagined "fat talk" exchange written by one of 186 participants in the study, all of whom were surveyed on frequency of fat talk, why they did it and how strongly they agreed with the model-thin body ideal espoused by some.

Most women said that they complain about their weight to friends as a way to vent or to reach out for emotional support over troubling body issues. They viewed it as a way to make them feel better about their bodies, but researchers suspect that just the opposite might be true.

Women in the study who engaged in frequent fat talk were more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies (regardless of their weight) and more likely to buy into the super-thin body ideal, says lead author and Ph.D. candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison Rachel Salk.

It could be that women who feel bad about their bodies feel the need to vent about their dissatisfaction more, but some research suggests that it might also work the other way around: the mere act of complaining about one's body could contribute to poor body image, leading women to feel worse about themselves, despite the fact that they turn to fat talk for comfort.

"It's part of a cycle of misery," says Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, founder and executive director of the Oliver-Pyatt eating disorder centers in Florida. "Girls participate in this type of talk with their friends and it spreads…it becomes normalized to be preoccupied with food and our bodies and it's not even thought of as pathological or unhealthy," she says.

Harmless Kvetching or Dangerous Denigration?

It's easy to write off fat talk as an annoying, but harmless, form of fishing for compliments, but psychologists say that the prevalence of this type of self-criticism is indicative of a larger cultural problem.

"A young woman is 'not supposed to be' satisfied with herself in America. Middle class culture is all about dissatisfaction, perfecting the self. The American Dream is that you can always be better, so by saying 'I'm so fat,' girls are tapping into this feeling that they're never good enough, thin enough," says Mimi Nichter, associate professor in the school of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of "Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say about Dieting."

She says that this simple phrase "I'm so fat," has become a way of expressing general distress for young women. Dissatisfaction with any part of their physical appearance gets expressed as concerns over body weight. This may be why engaging in fat talk is not associated with taking steps to lose weight. Despite frequent complaints about being "too fat," these women aren't dieting or hitting the gym as a way to battle this actual or perceived extra weight.

A better way for a form of fat talk to take place, says Salk, would be to have it be health-focused as opposed to weight-focused. In the study, much of the fat talk was "state-based" complaining. That is, a girl felt guilty because she ate a big meal or had missed a gym session and this translated as "I'm fat." Instead, Salk says, this should be focused on the healthy behaviors (eating right and exercising) and not the negative ones (depriving oneself of food).

"Ideally, these feelings would come out as 'I should be healthier,' not 'I feel fat.'"