Communication Currents

“I’m so fat!”: The negative outcomes of Fat Talk

June 2, 2012
Health Communication

What is fat talk? 

How often have you looked in the mirror and thought to yourself that you look fat? Your stomach wasn’t flat enough, your butt was too big, you needed to go on a diet. Expressing comments like these to others is known as fat talk. Fat talk refers to the ritualistic conversations about their own and others’ bodies (e.g., “I’m so fat!” “No you’re not, I’m the one who is fat!”). Such comments are often negative in nature, with the specific tone and content of fat talk messages perpetuating negative self-perceptions (e.g., “I’m so fat,” “My ass is huge!”). Examples of fat talk included comments about what eating and exercise habits should be, fears of becoming overweight, perception of one’s own weight and shape, and voiced comparisons with other people in these areas. Fat talk is a normative practice among women, but men are also exposed to and participate in conversations about weight and appearance. 

Why is fat talk a problem? 

Fat talk articulates an objectified and largely helpless vision of self as part of a stigmatized group. It also escalates somewhat focused weight concerns into broader negative aspects of self-concept. Making fat talk comments is an issue because it represents and leads to broader psychological concerns. First, being dissatisfied with one’s weight leads one to engage in fat talk conversations. Engaging in fat talk may be a way to cope with negative body image by seeking feedback from others. Fat talk allows us to obtain social approval, so negative body perceptions may be a motivator for people to engage in fat talk as a way for people to express their concerns. Second, fat talk leads to negative outcomes such as body dissatisfaction, pressure to be thin, and depression. Fat talk may heighten body weight concerns and exacerbate mental health issues because it makes weight a salient issue. Talking about weight perpetuates negative self-perceptions and enhances perceptions that thinness is culturally important. When one does not live up to those ideals, it leads to the denigration of one’s self rather than the ideal. It is important to note that these negative effects occur when a person expresses fat talk comments. Listening to a friend or co-worker make negative comments about his/her body or appearance does not have these same effects; it is the act of making negative comments about yourself that leads to negative health outcomes for you!

For more information about the study conducted, please click here.

What can you do? 

Given the negative connections between fat talk and broader mental health problems, reducing the amount of fat talk will weaken those connections.

Such reductions might be achieved via public health campaigns. For instance, Delta Delta Delta, an international collegiate women's fraternity, has launched an eating disorders prevention program (Reflections: Body Image Program)As part of this program, a weeklong event challenges women to be “fat talk free.” Such programs (http://endfattalk.org/) reflect the intuition that fat talk has real and harmful consequences over and above merely reflecting body dissatisfaction.

Additionally, it is important to consider interpersonal strategies for reducing its occurrence (e.g., changing the topic, directly confronting those engaging in it, appropriate use of humor) for people in close relationships. Friends, family members, and romantic partners who engage in lots of this sort of talk may be struggling with more serious underlying issues, and fat talk is not therapeutic or helpful in terms of those underlying issues. Therefore, those who interact with people who engage in such talk should seek out ways of confronting both the talk itself and possibly the deeper issues.

Finally, it is important to encourage more positive forms of fat talk. For example, more empowered forms of fat talk might emphasize behavioral intentions (“I will…”) and behavioral control (“I can…”).Making fat talk comments (perhaps more so than hearing fat talk) has consequences for self; hence engaging in more empowered forms of fat talk might have positive consequences. Additional positive forms of fat talk deserving attention include the ways in which relational partners support each other to enact healthy behaviors, or provide positive feedback concerning weight-related achievements. Such health-related social support occurs in marriages, and women report receiving encouragement to exercise, eat well, and watch their weight from friends. Some of this encouragement might resemble more pernicious forms of fat talk, but support concerning attempts at healthy behavior clearly represents a counterpoint to the negatively-toned fat talk on which we have focused.

Conclusion 

Americans are inundated with media images of beautiful, successful, and thin women and men. Thinness is associated with attractiveness, creating a pressure to be thin and a desire to fit the ideal body image. Fat talk is a product of specific body-related dissatisfaction and more global mental health concerns, and is a mechanism whereby body dissatisfaction translates into broader mental health problems. Fat talk has consequences for critical mental health outcomes such as depression. By expressing dissatisfaction with one’s own and criticizing others’ weight, we are reinforcing the ideal body image. Further exploration of the causes and consequences of fat talk has the potential to lead to a healthier societal discourse about weight, however, it is important that all we all start with ourselves, close friends, and family in changing the comments we make about ourselves. Reducing the negative talk about our bodies will not only change the discourse we have about weight and appearance, it will also make you feel better about yourself!

About the author (s)

Analisa Arroyo

University of Arizona

Faculty