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Fat Talk Among Friends

Published: December 7, 2011 | Last Updated: January 7, 2024 By | 1 Reply Continue Reading

by Sophia Dembling

Guys know better.

When the woman in their life asks, “Do I look fat?” guys respond, “Gosh, I love you more every day, honey,” or “Now would be a great time for me to start painting the kitchen, don’t you think?” or “Hey, is that a UFO up there?”

Anything to avoid fat talk.

Among female friends, however, fat talk is social currency.

A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Mimi Nichter, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say About Dieting. Nichter coined the phrase “fat talk.”

You know what she means-that familiar conversation among girls and women that starts with one saying,  “I’m so fat,” to which the other is expected to respond, “Oh no, you look great but my thighs are HUGE,” to which the proper response is, “YOUR thighs are huge? Look at MINE!” and so on.

“It’s very common everyday discourse among girls,” Nichter says (although she found less body dissatisfaction among African-American girls than among Caucasian and Hispanic girls). “And it’s culturally appropriate. It’s actually a way of creating solidarity among girls. You’re opening yourself up. It’s a way of sharing and disclosure.”

Fat talk is also a way of getting reassurance from friends, and it can be a way girls signal distress to each other. “For some girls and women, it’s like saying the day hasn’t gone well, like a bad hair day,” Nichter explains. “Saying, ‘I’m so
fat,’ is not just about your weight, it’s really a statement about your sense
of self at that moment.”

I also talked to Dr. Denise M. Martz, a professor at Appalachian State University and a psychologist in private practice, who is expanding on Nichter’s research to try and understand why girls (college-age in her research) fat talk and how that
relates to body image problems.

“It does create a bonding and allows women to get reassurance and support from other women,” Martz says. “But it is also continuing a norm that objectifies women’s bodies and makes that salient, makes that important.”

In one experiment published in the journal, Body Image, Martz Martz had participants read a vignette describing four college girls studying for a biology test when three of the girls start fat talking. Participants were asked if they thought the fourth girl (called Jenny in the vignette) would say something self-accepting, say nothing, or would “self-degrade”- fat talk. The result: most women and men thought Jenny would join the fat talk with her friends.

“I was surprised to find out men knew this norm for women,” says Martz. “This suggests that people know this is the norm and that there’s pressure to do it.”

Martz also found that both men and women think women need to fat talk in order to be liked by other women, but that to be liked by men, they should be confident about their bodies.

Fat talk might be blamed on body image issues, or it might just be about women’s tendency to conform. If conformity is the impetus, women should be able to turn fat talk into happy talk by making self-accepting statements among friends-though that is difficult for many women. When she was preparing research assistants to conduct an experiment that required they say something “self-aggrandizing” about their bodies, “We had to really train our confederates to say what they had to say and keep a straight face,” says Dr. Martz.

Fat talk is not particularly fun for the participants. Martz cited previous research that indicated that when women hear a thinner woman fat talk, they feel bad about themselves.

That might be worth thinking about next time you start complaining about your thunder thighs to friends.

About Sophia Dembling:

My colleague and friend Sophia Dembling is an award-winning author and writer who lives in Dallas, Texas. You can read more of her work at The Introvert’s Corner on Psychology Today. She also writes often about female body image at Real World Research on Psych Central. 

Question: Do you or any of your friends engage in “fat talk?” If so, what are the risks?

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Interesting topic – back in college, my girlfriends and I would talk endlessly about all the things we each hated about our own bodies – too fat, too flat, too round, too whatever. I would often find myself MORE depressed about myself after engaging in these talks, though of course my friends reassured me – as I did to them – that they didnt think there was anything wrong with my body (just their own). It was very very negative all-around.
    Shortly after college, I became friends with a woman of my age who I worked with. She had this opinion – at the time it seemed amazing to me – that this was the most boring, useless, awful conversation that could be had and she refused to participate. She would NOT discuss her appearance in any kind of negative term. She did not do the opposite either (ie, no “I’m so wonderful”) but she just simply had a very accepting attitude about herself and all her women friends. It was such a breath of fresh air to me! I realized we had SO many other much more enjoyable things to talk about, and though I can still be self-critical I keep it to myself. I just refuse to complain about my physical imperfections to girlfriends and if they start in about their own I quickly work to change the subject while being supportive. It opened me up to much better acceptance of myself overall, and I strongly encourage women to stop the self-denigration! It’s boring, it’s pointless, and it leads to feeling worse. You’ve got many more positive things to do, discuss, and base friendships upon!

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