Whether it’s declaring that you’re “so fat” after eating dessert or that you hate your hips after someone compliments your outfit, chances are you or someone you’re close to has engaged in “fat talk” — that negative self-talk of putting yourself down in front of others.
To understand why women participate in this common self-degrading banter, researchers at the University of Ottawa applied self-determination theory — in other words, what motivates you — to 453 female college students. In general, some people are motivated by extrinsic factors, such as physical attractiveness (in particular, “thinness”) and social status, while others are motivated by intrinsic factors, such as health and personal growth. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that women who participate in fat talk are more likely to be driven by physical appearance, reports Canada’s National Post. They’re also more inclined to have unhealthy eating habits, likely in an effort to reach their internalized body ideal, which is often the “thin” body perpetuated by media.
The researchers also found that fat talk can be contagious. “Women who overhear others engage in fat talk are more likely to fat talk themselves and to experience heightened body dissatisfaction and guilt,” noted the researchers, according to the National Post.
The bad habit is also one way women bond — albeit in a negative fashion. As Alexandra F. Corning, a research associate professor in psychology at the University of Notre Dame, told the Huffington Post: “It’s a way to keep us feeling like no one is better, no one is above the mean and we’re all the same.”
Just as when a friend says she’s “fat” and you chime in with “Of course you’re not fat!,” fat talk is often a way for women to receive reassurance when they’re feeling bad about their bodies or eating habits. According to a 2011 study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly: “The most common response to fat talk was denial that the friend was fat, most typically leading to a back-and-forth conversation where each of two healthy weight peers denies the other is fat while claiming to be fat themselves.”
“It’s done with the purpose of fishing, or trying to understand what people think of you, or perceive of you,” Luc Pelletier, a co-author of the Ottawa study and a professor and social psychologist at the University of Ottawa, told the National Post.
So how can you stop the fat talk? Break the cycle by catching yourself when you fat talk and not participating in it when others do. If your friend is going down a fat-talk spiral, Corning suggests saying something along the lines of: “Are you listening to the way you’re demeaning yourself? You’re so much more valuable than that,” or “You and I are not doing ‘fat talk’ — we are way above it.”