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Nix the Fat Talk

Much as I encourage clients and Food and Feelings message board members to speak their minds, I draw the line at fat talk which involves putting your body or someone else’s down because it is fat, large, or unshapely. This kind of talk is dangerous to self-esteem and mental health. Fortunately, we all can play a part in ending it.

Psychological researchers define fat talk as “body-denigrating conversation between girls and women” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 6/4/13, “‘Fat talk’ can carry a steep cost” by Jan Hoffman, Health and Fitness, p. 28E). Of course, men can take part in these exchanges as well, but are less likely to do so. Hoffman explains fat talk as a “bonding ritual” that can be “contagious, aggravating poor body image and even setting the stage for eating disorders.” How many women participate in fat talk? One study concluded that “93% of college women admitted to engaging in it.”

Here are some questions to help you assess your participation in fat talk. Do you and your friends complain about body size and shape? How do you feel after fat talk conversations? Do you have a set of friends who fat talk and a set who don’t? What’s the difference between these people? Which group is more mentally healthy? What happens when someone in the group tries to discourage fat talk or change the subject?

You may not realize how often you think or speak of your body in derogatory terms or, equally, how often you make a critical comment about someone else’s body, be she or he a celebrity, stranger, or friend. What is the purpose of making these comments? If this is what passes for conversation with friends, quite honestly, you need new friends. Put downs of yourself or other people does nothing to make you emotionally healthy. Rather, it speaks to your lack of self-esteem and that of your good buddies.

If you’re tired of fat talk, here’s what to do. When someone says a body put-down (about herself or someone else), wince, say “Ouch!”, or remark on the unkindness of such a comment. If you slip and badmouth your own body, catch yourself and say, “Whoops, I take that back. I refuse to speak badly of my body.” If you’re in a group in which people are making fat comments, speak up and say you’re uncomfortable with the topic. If you’re feeling brave with friends and family, ask why they need to engage in fat talk, so they can start recognizing what they’re doing and explore why they do it—and stop. You can’t keep blaming society for fat prejudice. If you engage in badmouthing fat yourself and do nothing to change others doing so, you’re part of the problem.