July 13 2017

Why ‘fat talk’ can lead to poor body image

By Australian Psychological Society

Complaining to friends about flabby arms or big thighs can incite comparison with other women and cultivate body dissatisfaction

“My arms are so flabby.”

“I hate my thighs.”

“My stomach is too big.”

How often do you or women you know engage in this sort of ‘fat talk’? According to one recent Australian study, it happens much more often than you might think.

The research reveals that during an average week four out of five young women experience ‘fat talk’ about their appearance or another person’s. And even though it might seem like a harmless way to alleviate body dissatisfaction, the opposite is true – fat talk can have a negative effect on body image.

How common is fat talk?

The study, which was conducted through Deakin University, examined the experiences of 135 women aged 18-40 over a seven-day period using a smart phone app that delivered unobtrusive mini-surveys each day. The results revealed that 82 per cent of participants experienced some fat talk in that time and, worryingly, 27 per cent of all social interactions among participants involved some form of fat talk.

“Seventy-one per cent of participants reported making negative comments about their own body or appearance, 70 per cent of participants made negative comments about the body or appearance of another person and 49 per cent of participants reported overhearing someone else engage in fat talk. It’s really, really common,” says lead researcher Dr Jacqueline Mills, a psychology lecturer at the Cairnmillar Institute.

Fat talk and poor body image

Dr Mills says her research has identified a link between engaging in fat talk and decreased body satisfaction. Instead of alleviating negative body image and helping women feel better about their appearance through peer support, fat talk draws attention to the parts of the body women dislike, which in turn leads to decreased body satisfaction.

Additional research reveals only one in five women are satisfied with their body weight, and approximately nine out of 10 young Australian women have dieted at least once in their lives – a habit that often becomes self-destructive. Body dissatisfaction is associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety as well as unhealthy practices relating to food and exercise.

“Comments about appearance, body size, body shape or weight that at the time seem relatively harmless or even have a positive intention to alleviate distress are actually quite dangerous,” says Dr Mills. “In the study, we found that there was a definite link between engaging in fat talk about yourself and experiencing decreases in body satisfaction.”

She says comparison – with everyone from friends to influencers on Instagram – is a major source of the problem. “The link seems to be partially explained by appearance-based comparisons – looking at someone else, such as a friend or an image of a celebrity on social media, and comparing an aspect of your appearance with the other person’s appearance – which reinforced women’s negative feelings about aspects of their bodies,” says Dr Mills.

“In our study, women were engaging in fat talk with their friends and that naturally encouraged comparisons with the appearance of their friends, which made them ruminate about negative aspects of their own appearance and in turn reinforced those negative feelings.”

Cutting back on fat talk

Further research shows that many women believe engaging in fat talk is normal and expected, says Dr Mills. “So it’s not just accepted but expected – it’s the social norm for women to talk in this way about their bodies,” she says. “Other studies have shown that it’s basically weird if you don’t engage in fat talk.”

But that doesn’t mean fat talk must remain the norm among groups of friends, and Dr Mills says women who cut back on fat talk and encourage others to do the same can aid the cultivation of positive body image.

“Thankfully, friends also have the ability to reverse the effects of fat talk by challenging it or refusing to engage in it,” she says. “It can be as simple as refusing to engage in a conversation or pushing back a little. Ask, ‘Do you really believe that?’ or ‘Why do you feel that way?’ rather that accepting negative comments about other people’s bodies.”

Dr Jacqueline Mills is presenting at the APS College of Health Psychologists Conference on the Gold Coast on July 13-15, 2017.