The term “fat talk” was coined to describe negative conversations about body shape. A recent study found that women often feel pressured into engaging in these types of conversations. How often have you been with your friends when the discussion turns in this direction? When you, or your friend start to say things such as, “oh my goodness, look at my thighs!!” followed by “yeah, well, at least you don’t have a muffin top!”
Unfortunately, women think that these comparisons bond us together and may make us feel better because other women feel “fat” too. While we as women believe this conversation provides support, it actually can make them feel worse in the long-run and lead to GREATER body dissatisfaction. Women are one another’s best friends and worst enemies. We look to one another for reassurance, when we may really be better served asking ourselves why we are asking. Fat talk reinforces that we don’t like our bodies if we’re not thin and that being dissatisfied with our bodies is “normal” for women. Unfortunately, it shouldn’t be.
So, we then have to wonder, when we ask “am I fat?”, do we really want to know the answer? Women need to figure out why we need to bond in this way. Women fall into the comparison trap all the time, which can really weaken our self-esteem. Asking for external input can actually create more self-doubt, not less. If you are asking the question, it’s important to consider whom you are asking. Some people will be honest and supportive. Some will give you the answer you want. Know what you’re looking for in the interaction, and figure out if it’s a conversation that you really want to have.
One thing to really consider is what else is going on when this topic comes up. More specifically, when a friend declares “I’m so fat”, it could have nothing to do with weight. Current research found that when a girl says, ”I’m so fat,” it is not merely an observation about her weight but also an idiom for distress. ”I’m fat” may be used to describe a wide range of feelings and to illicit a variety of responses from peers. The fat talk can be viewed as a plea for affirmation from peers that one is not fat and, is rather, a call for social support. It can also be a request to confirm group solidarity.
Additionally, some girls in their sample used fat talk before eating to provide an excuse or apology for indulging and to absolve themselves of guilt that often followed the consumption of high-calorie foods.
The hardest thing, perhaps, is to know when the “fat talk” has gone too far. It’s hard to find clear signs, but here are some thoughts to consider:
- One sign that the “fat talk” has gone too far is that you don’t talk about anything else with friends aside from food, weight and diet.
- Your friend is ALWAYS on a diet. This isn’t the situation we have often come to expect with our friends. This is a situation in which your friend is doing all of the latest fads, getting involved in the most recent trend, and is never satisfied with how she looks.
- You friend (or you) obsesses over your body all the time. It seems that regardless of the situation, some comment is made about feeling or being fat. It’s no longer about talking; it’s about action. The fear of being too fat gets played out in actions: restricting of food, over-exercising, diet pill abuse.
The fact is that eating disorders can be contagious and have been found in clusters due to peer influence. Talking about weight and appearance too much can be contagious too, and then one’s thinking can become incredibly negative, and that may lead to an eating disorder. It’s important to monitor the talk before it leads to the behaviors.
In fact, a recent article in the New York Times pointed out that an older generation of women are struggling more and more with eating disorders, in some cases, surpassing that of adolescents. It seems that, no matter how old a woman is, there is still the need to achieve an ideal of thinness and perfection. Even into their 50s and 60s, women are engaging in extreme weight and shape control behaviors. Some women may have had eating disorders as teens or young women and they relapse as adults. These behaviors can also be triggered by the stressful situations of having a baby, sending a child to college or going through a divorce.
It’s often hard to detect eating disorders in older women, as they may present as though they are functioning well in other areas of their life. They also get more adept at concealing the problem. Some of the hallmarks we look for in adolescents: not menstruating, for example, may be assumed to be part of menopause. Malnourishment isn’t considered. Additionally, as the thinness is something we often aspire to, the “too thin” gets ignored, and is often, sadly, admired.
So, how do you have healthy conversations about weight with your friends? It is something we think about, and something we will talk about, but is it possible to do it in a healthy fashion? The answer, thankfully, is yes. Firstly, focus on healthy goals and role models. Rather than look to the skinniest model as your goal, look to athletic, healthy women, who lead positive lifestyles. Secondly, if concerned, don’t hesitate to mention it to your friend and offer any kind of support you can. Your friend may thank you in the long run.
How do you and your friends talk about weight?
Here’s the clip from The Early Show and my conversation with Erica Hill: