Does this dress make me look fat? - The Importance of Rejecting Fat Talk
By Caroline Christian
“Does this dress make me look fat?” “Oh my, you look so good! Have you lost weight?” “I need to lose a few pounds before spring break if I am going to wear a bikini on the beach.” These are all statements I have heard just within this past week. With the extreme pressure and focus around body shape and weight in our society, conversations like these are extremely common. Most women will hear at least one statement like these every single day. These statements are called fat talk. Below is a short list of fat talk statements that we may hear, or even say, on a daily basis.
Fat talk statements:
“Your arms look so skinny today!”
“If I were her size, I would not want to leave my house.”
“I need to go to the gym so my boyfriend won’t feel my love handles.”
“I could never pull off jeans that tight with my thunder thighs.”
“Why is he with her? She is a whale!”
“If I was that fat, I just wouldn’t eat.”
“I wish I could be as thin as you.”
“If you think you are fat, I must be a cow!”
“I wish I had a bikini body.”
“That dress is cute, but it isn’t very flattering on you.”
“I need to lose weight before we vacation.”
“Oh my gosh, you look amazing! Have you lost weight?”
“Be honest, do I look fat in this?”
“She probably shouldn’t have been wearing that dress, it was way too revealing.”
The important thing to recognize about fat talk is that it isn’t necessarily malicious. In fact, looking at this list of fat talk statements, you can see that many of the more common examples are actually meant to be complimentary. However, regardless of intention, fat talk statements that equate weight and shape with value or beauty, can be very harmful to you and to the people around you.
Fat talk is extremely prevalent in young women, especially around high school and college years, with around 93% of college-aged women admitting to engaging in fat talk (Salk & Engeln-Maddox, 2012). Other studies have shown the impact negative body talk can have on the people around you. In one study by Gapinski, Brownell, and LaFrance (2003), women who listened to another woman saying negative things about her own body reported higher body dissatisfaction than women who listened to the woman speak about a neutral topic. In addition to increases in body dissatisfaction, exposure to fat talk also increases the likelihood of listeners engaging in fat talk (Tucker et al., 2007). Because of this, fat talk tends to have a cascading effect (i.e., if one friend engages in fat talk around 2 friends, those friends may engage in fat talk around 2 more friends, those 4 friends may engage in fat talk around 2 more friends, and so on.)
Given the huge prevalence and negative mental health impacts of fat talk, there is a clear need for change. But because fat talk is so inundating, change can be really difficult. Some universities and organizations around the country have started challenging this societal norm by hosting a Fat Talk-Free Week. This movement was started at Trinity University in 2008, as a part of the Reflections Body Image Program, which was started by Dr. Carolyn Becker and the national sorority Delta Delta Delta. Now Fat Talk-Free Weeks are hosted at universities all across the country. In addition to challenging students not to engage in fat talk and to shut down fat talk when they hear it, many other events happen during this week that promote healthy body image, like smashing a scale or writing a letter to a younger girl about body image. Another common exercise promoted at these events is challenging women to look in a mirror and write down only positive things they like about themself, both internally and externally. Dr. Becker said in reference to this activity, “It's really hard for women to do. Women are used to standing in front of the mirror and trashing themselves.”
Additionally, beyond participating in these big events, there are lots of small ways you can challenge fat talk in your everyday life. One way I commonly like to challenge fat talk is when I hear a friend say something negative about her own body, (instead of joining in with another fat talk comment about myself) I tell her to say three things she likes about her body. At first this may be brushed off with a snide laugh, but actually make them say those three things. Saying things out loud has been shown to have a reinforcing effect on ideas and beliefs. So verbalizing positive self-affirmations may help reinforce a body positive attitude. Another great way to challenge fat talk is to just speak kindly about your own body and others. The same way fat talk can have a cascading effect, positive body talk can also spread like wild fire among young women. Instead of saying things like, “Oh my gosh you look so skinny, I would kill to look like that!” practice saying compliments that are not dependent on weight or shape. Try some on this list for example:
“The color of your shirt matches your bright personality.”
“You have a great sense of style.”
“Your laugh is so contagious!”
“I love how down-to-earth you are.”
“You are so warm and fun to be around.”
“Your positive attitude brings out the best in me.”
“I love that dress! You look so confident in it!”
“That thing you don't like about yourself is what makes you so interesting.”
“I am proud to be your friend.”
“Your confidence is contagious!”
At first these changes can be uncomfortable and difficult. But after implementing them in my own life, I have seen a huge boost in confidence and self-love among my close friends and family members. Thinking consciously about the way we talk about others and ourselves in front of our sisters, daughters, mothers, and friends makes a huge difference in the way they see themselves and other women. So next time you face fat talk try to be more conscious about the way you respond, and don’t be afraid to fight back with positive compliments!
Gapinski, K. D., Brownell, K. D., & LaFrance, M. (2003). Body objectification and “fat talk”: Effects on emotion, motivation, and cognitive performance. Sex Roles, 48(9-10), 377-388.
Rochman, B. (2010, October 13). Do I Look Fat? Don't Ask. A Campaign to Ban 'Fat Talk'. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2025345,00.html
Salk, R. H., & Engeln-Maddox, R. (2011). “If you’re fat, then I’m humongous!” Frequency, content, and impact of fat talk among college women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(1), 18-28.
Tucker, K. L., Martz, D. M., Curtin, L. A., & Bazzini, D. G. (2007). Examining “fat talk” experimentally in a female dyad: How are women influenced by another woman's body presentation style?. Body Image, 4(2), 157-164.
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