Changing the Culture Around Fat-Talk
MPH ‘18, Nutritional Sciences; Registered Dietitian
May 23, 2018, Alumni, MPH, Nutritional Sciences, Mental Health, Nutrition, Obesity
Let's be real - everyone can relate to that classic scene from Tina Fey's Mean Girls, where the "Plastics" are huddled around a mirror, complaining about parts of their body they don't like. The Plastics received their name for being so "perfect," they didn't even seem real. The message of the clip is clear - if these girls can find something wrong with their body, everyone can.
Their complaints, while exaggerated, seem relatable and even harmless. However, these observations, known as fat-talk, are more than just comments made in passing, and eventually have long term implications.
Why is fat-talk bad?
Fat-talk is a ritualized derogatory talk focusing on weight and shape, often in the form of self-degradation.1
Fat-talk is problematic in many ways:
- Research shows that fat-talk is associated with body dissatisfaction, which in turn is associated with disordered eating.2 Body dissatisfaction has a range of negative consequences and public health outcomes. These include low self-esteem, obesity, and unhealthy weight control practices, such as over-exercising, frequent use of fad diets, skipping meals, or smoking as a weight-control method.3 Additionally, many forms of disordered eating can be just as dangerous as clinically significant eating disorders.4
- Fat-talk can have a widespread effect. Seemingly harmless fat-talk could have unintended effects on friends or younger siblings. If you're a public health professional, even your patients or clients could be impacted. Consistent use of language suggesting that self-worth is rooted in body shape or size and normalizing body dissatisfaction can cause others to adopt this way of thinking.5
- Fat-talk does not promote healthy behaviors around food or with our bodies. The focus should be on health behaviors, not appearance. Fat-talk is the antithesis of promoting healthy behaviors, and thus should be addressed in public health settings.
How do we change fat-talk culture?
It is easy to respond to fat-talk by also putting yourself down, soon spiraling into a dismal, "Who hates their body more?" competition. However, with some self-awareness, it's possible to change the way you respond to fat-talk.
Point out the unhealthy behaviors fat-talk promotes, but avoid responding with language related to body appearance, such as:
- "No, you look great!"
- "You're already so skinny!"
- "You're so pretty!"
These statements can reinforce the idea that appearance is priority or a measurement of self-worth.
For example, let's say someone says, "I could never pull that dress off. It'd make me look huge." Rather than saying something like, "You think that dress makes you look big? It wouldn't even fit over my shoulders," instead try, "I think you should wear whatever makes you feel happy and confident."
Here are a few more examples of how you can respond to combat fat-talk:
- If someone says, "I was craving ice cream but I decided to be skinny for a second," you can say,"I don't think that's a very healthy association to have with food."
- If someone says, "If I eat this cookie, I should go on a run," you can say, "Exercise is not a compensatory mechanism for food."
- If someone says, "She's so thin and tiny! I wish I had her metabolism," you can say, "It makes me uncomfortable when you use body size as a compliment. Your body does so much and is amazing!"
Ultimately, it's important to remember that fat-talk promotes body dissatisfaction and harmful health behaviors. Focus on self-care, like getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, incorporating movement, and eating a balanced diet. Avoid using fat-talk in your own language, and help your friends recognize when they engage in fat-talk.
While this discussion focused on fat-talk primarily in women, self-degrading comments can be harmful to anyone.
About the Author
Lenora Goodman, RDN, graduated in 2018 from Michigan Public Health with her Master of Public Health degree in Nutritional Sciences. Her research focused on how low-income mothers restrict their children around food, and the motivational interviewing as tool for nutrition counseling in adolescents. Her interests include disordered eating and eating disorders in special populations.