“Fat Talk” and Eating Disorder Risk

The term fat talk was created in the mid-1990s to describe a pattern of derogatory statements that girls and women make about their own bodies when they are with peers to create solidarity around a shared concern (Nichter & Vuckovic, 1994). Unlike weight- based teasing, fat talk is generally directed not toward another’s weight but toward one’s own (“Do these jeans make me look fat?”). If fat talk is directed toward another’s weight or eating, it is presented as a combination of a compliment and self-deprecating humor (“That’s such a healthy lunch—I wish I had your self-control instead of being such a fat pig”). Fat talk is common among adolescent girls and women (Sharpe, Naumann, Treasure, & Schmidt, 2013) and can function to elicit support or reassurance from peers. For example, in response to “Do these jeans make me look fat?” a friend might respond: “No! I’m so jealous of how good you look. I could never pull that off with my thunder thighs.”

However, fat talk has several potentially pernicious effects. First, when fat talk elicits reassurance, the positive reinforcement increases the likelihood of future fat talk and reassurance seeking, leaving the speaker increasingly dependent on the opinions of others to feel good. Second, when the speaker is clearly within a healthy weight range, fat talk communicates that a healthy weight is fat and thereby strongly endorses an unhealthy, thin ideal (“If she thinks she’s fat, she can’t possibly believe that I look good in these jeans”). Thus the act of fat talk contradicts any reassuring statements made during fat talk.

Longitudinal studies support that exposure to fat talk is a risk factor for disordered eating (Sharpe et al., 2013). Experimental studies have examined the causal effects of fat-talk exposure on body dissatisfaction and weight concerns. In these studies, participants believe that they are simply interacting with another research participant when in fact they are interacting with a research assistant who is following a script to ensure that participants’ exposure to fat talk is experimentally manipulated within the study. Stice, Maxfield, and Wells (2003) used a thin confederate who talked about how fat she was and about her plans to lose weight in the experimental “fat talk” condition and spoke about a neutral topic in the control condition. Thus all participants were exposed to a thin peer; however, half were exposed to a thin peer engaging in fat talk. Following these interactions, female college students randomized to the fat-talk condition expressed greater body dissatisfaction than did women in the control condition. Tucker, Martz, Curtin, and Bazzini (2007) extended these findings by randomizing women to one of three conditions: fat talk, self-acceptance, or self-aggrandizement (the opposite of fat talk, in which the research assistant would make especially positive statements about her appearance). Thus in all three conditions, the confederate was talking about her body rather than a neutral topic, but the valence of her comments ranged from highly negative to highly positive. While there were no differences among the conditions in how likable participants perceived the confederate to be, participants in the fat-talk condition were more likely than those in the other two conditions to make negative statements about their own weight and shape afterward: Fat talk begot fat talk.

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