Girl, You are So Not Fat! Does ‘Fat Talk’ Make Anyone Feel Better?

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The overwhelming majority of college women — 93% — engage in “fat talk.” You know, in the “Ugh, I feel so fat in these jeans” vein of griping. Many women say they think fat talking with their friends makes them feel better about their bodies, but a new study suggests the opposite may be true.

For the new paper [PDF], published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly, researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison and Northwestern University surveyed 186 undergraduate women about whether and how often they participated in fat talk. Researchers measured the participants’ level of dissatisfaction with their own bodies and how strongly they agreed with the model-thin body ideal perpetuated by the media. Self-reports of height and weight were used to calculate the participants’ BMI (a measure of overweight and obesity).

The researchers found that nearly all women engaged in fat talk with their friends, and that about a third of them did so frequently — regardless of whether they were actually overweight or not. Why? Mostly, women complained to their friends about feeling fat or bloated, or about feeling guilty for not going to the gym or eating too much. For many, it was a way to reassure or to be reassured that in fact they weren’t fat at all. (More on Global Spread: More People Think ‘Fat People Are Lazy’)

As part of the experiment, researchers asked women to write down how a typical fat-talk session might unfold. Here’s an example, between two women who are not overweight:

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? “The predictable back-and-forth argument between two women where each denies that the other is fat was the most typical content of fat talk conversations,” the authors write. When asked how they felt about fat talk, the majority of women indicated that it made them feel better about themselves — that “it helps to know that I’m not the only one who feels bad about my body.”

Yet the study showed that women who complained about their weight more often — even if they were thin — were more likely to have greater dissatisfaction with their bodies. They were also more likely to buy into the media’s thin ideal. Of course, it could be that it isn’t fat talk that makes women feel worse; rather, it’s that people who feel badly about their bodies to start are simply more likely to complain about them. (More on Study: How Well Do You Know Your Best Friend?)

Still, the habit doesn’t appear to help women improve self-esteem or change their underlying attitudes about body weight. The authors write:

Although social support and empathy are usually viewed as psychologically healthy constructs, constant reminders that one’s normal-weight or underweight friends also feel fat may not be helpful in the long run. Such fat talk simply serves to reinforce the thin body ideal and the notion that disliking one’s body is normative for women. Women come to expect this type of talk from their peers and likely feel pressured to engage in it.

Indeed, the researchers found, despite the fact that so many women used fat talk to seek reassurance from friends, “several women in our sample remarked … that they do not believe their friends when the friends tell them that they are not fat.”

If there’s any upside to women’s constant kvetching about weight, it’s that it could help some of them actually get in better shape. “Nearly a quarter of participants indicated that fat talk discussions would lead to plans between the two friends to support each other with a specific weight-loss strategy (e.g., going to the gym together or planning a diet together),” the researchers write. Whether they follow through with those plans, however, is another matter (past research suggests it’s unlikely). (More on The Cranky Dieter Explained: How Self-Control Makes You Angry)

Our advice is, if you’re going to talk fat, put your money where your mouth is.