Healthy Voice: Fat talk is cheap, but the cost is high

illustrated walking person with "fat" thought bubbles

Sanaa Naeem | Washtenaw Voice


A few weeks ago, I attended an event that hosted a potluck dessert reception. Making conversation with the gentleman who took the plate of cookies from my hands, I asked if he was on the food committee.

“I’m the fat guy, you know. I take the food,” he replied.

I was left speechless, and I was devastated for the part of him who had just suffered abuse by his own hands.

My friend and workout buddy and I often engage in “I’m so fat” comments to be funny. Or so I thought.

Scientists started using the phrase “fat talk” in the mid 1990s to describe comments and conversations involving weight. The detrimental effects to the psyche are studied more often because negative fat talk is more common than positive comments encouraging healthy body image.

College students, regardless of having an eating disorder or not, engage in fat talk more often than the general population, according to a 2008 study published in “Eating Disorders.” Ousley and colleagues noted other studies that identified fat talk as a method of group acceptance.

Engaging in fat talk leads to lower body satisfaction, and lower body satisfaction leads to more fat talk, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Denigrating comments can create feelings of shame, self-loathing and guilt.

But saying and hearing fat talk has different outcomes investigated in the study published in the “Journal of Applied Communication Research” in 2012.

The study notes the unexpected finding that saying negative fat talk was linked to depression, but hearing it was not. While the researchers Arroyo and Harwood realize the need to further test the effects of saying/hearing fat talk, they consider self-deprecating comments to be more harmful than peer influence.

But that is not to say peer influence has no effect.

Another study published in “Social Behavior and Personality,” in 2013, looked at the impact of observing fat talk via social media and concluded peers can affect a person’s body satisfaction and psychological well-being.

Lee and colleagues found that even limited amounts of exposure to fat talk on Facebook had an impact on study participants. They also observed that positive talk regarding weight could show positive results.

Designed as a cross-cultural study, Lee indicated that women from the higher social comparison society of Korea were affected by fat talk at a greater rate than U.S. women.

Another cross-cultural study between the U.S. and the United Kingdom identified that women engage in fat talk more often and have more of a negative body image than men.

The social norm for women to engage in negative fat talk is theorized to be the result of objectification of women’s bodies, as described in the 2011 study published in “Sex Roles” by Payne and colleagues. Across cultures, fat has been associated as a feminizing characteristic through centuries of fine art to current mass media.

Until recently, men have been more concerned with body image surrounding musculature. With the rising rate of obesity in developed countries for both males and females, there may be implications surrounding masculinity for overweight men.

While those in the U.S. are more likely to engage in fat talk than the U.K., Americans are more likely to have positive fat talk than the British.

Multiple studies identify the negative consequences of fat talk and researchers advocate for positive fat talk messages.

A popular method for reducing negative thoughts and reducing stress is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Based on the premise that negative behaviors have to be identified first before they can be replaced with positive behaviors is a recognized and used form of behavior modification.

Stuart Smalley may have it right in his “Daily Affirmations” skit on Saturday Night Live: “I’m good enough; I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.”

Next time I think about saying something funny about fat, I’ll just leave the humor to the professionals.


M. M. Donaldson is a staff writer with The Voice and a journalism student at WCC. She has a Bachelor of Science in family and community services from Michigan State University and has several years of experience with nutrition issues affecting infants through older adults. Follow @mmdonaldson1 on Twitter.





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