‘Fat Talk’ Compels but Carries a Cost
Over winter break, Carolyn Bates, a college senior, and a friend each picked out five pairs of jeans at a Gap store in Indianapolis and eagerly tried them on. But the growing silence in their separate fitting rooms was telling. At last, one friend called out, “Dang it, these fit everywhere but my thighs! I wish my legs weren’t so huge.” The response: “My pair is way too long. I need to be taller or skinnier!”
The young women slumped out of the store, feeling lousy.
This exchange is what psychological researchers call “fat talk,” the body-denigrating conversation between girls and women. It’s a bonding ritual they describe as “contagious,” aggravating poor body image and even setting the stage for eating disorders. Some researchers have found that fat talk is so embedded among women that it often reflects not how the speaker actually feels about her body but how she is expected to feel about it.
And while research shows that most women neither enjoy nor admire fat talk, it compels them. In one study, 93 percent of college women admitted to engaging in it.
Alexandra F. Corning, a research associate professor in psychology at the University of Notre Dame, wondered whether a woman’s size would affect her likability when she engaged in fat talk. As an online experiment, Dr. Corning showed 139 undergraduates photos of two thin and two overweight women, each making either a positive or negative remark about her body.
圣母大学（University of Notre Dame）心理学研究助理教授亚历山德拉·F·康宁（Alexandra F. Corning）想知道，在女性参与肥胖聊天时，她的身形是否会影响其受欢迎程度。于是她做了一项在线试验，向139名大学生展示了两名苗条女性和两名超重女性的照片，这四个人每个都对自己的身形发表了或正面或负面的评价。
Because of the stigma against heavier people, Dr. Corning expected that the most popular option would be a thin woman who made positive comments about her body. But she found that wasn’t the case.
The most likable woman chosen by the students was overweight and quoted as saying: “I know I’m not perfect, but I love the way I look. I know how to work with what I’ve got, and that’s all that matters.”
The results were heartening, Dr. Corning said, a glimmer that nearly two decades of positive body-image campaigns may be taking hold.
But, she acknowledged, her experiment had limitations. “Are the students really liking these women the most? Or are they saying it because they think they should?” said Dr. Corning. “They might like them more, but would they really want to hang out with them?”
Renee Engeln, who directs the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University, cautioned that “we have complicated reactions to confident women in general, and particularly to women who are confident about their bodies. Women sometimes see them as arrogant.”
西北大学（Northwestern University）身体与媒体实验室主任蕾妮·恩格因（Renee Engeln）提出警告，“对于自信的女性，我们得到的反应非常复杂，而那些对自己身材非常自信的女性，取得的反应尤其如此。有时候，女性会觉得这类人太狂妄自大。”
Fat talk has insinuated itself among men, too, Dr. Engeln added, though it is far less frequent than with women. In addition, men are more likely to place emphasis on different issues, like muscular bulk or being too thin, something women rarely fret about, she said.
But putting a stop to fat talk is difficult. Dr. Corning said, in part because it feels airless and scripted and seems to offer the responder no avenue to change the dynamic without threatening the relationship. She gave an example:
First friend: “I can’t believe I ate that brownie. I am so fat!”
Second friend: “You must be joking — you are so not fat. Just look at my thighs.”
The second friend’s reply, an “empathetic” self-deprecating retort to maintain the friendship on equal standing, includes reflexive praise of the first friend’s body, supposedly feeding the first friend’s hungry cry for affirmation, Dr. Corning said. But to do so, the second friend has eviscerated herself, a toxic tear-down by comparison.
Dr. Corning said that to break the cycle, a person shouldn’t engage. But particularly for younger women, it’s hard to say something like, “Hey, no negative self-talk!” or “Why do we put ourselves down?”
Instead, for adolescents, she suggested, “Keep it light; it’s not a moment for major social activism. Teenagers can change the topic. They do it all the time.”
Ms. Bates, who recently graduated from Notre Dame, pointed out that “when you focus on clothes and make it about your body, you’ve put your friend in a position where she can’t say anything right. She can’t be honest, because it could come off as hurtful.”
That winter day, as she and her friend drove away from the Gap feeling so deflated, her friend said, “We always get good clothes from that store, but their new pants just don’t ‘get’ us!”
It wasn’t that their bodies didn’t fit the clothes; the clothes didn’t fit their bodies.
Ever since, said Ms. Bates, when the friends try on clothes that don’t fit, their go-to remark has become, “This doesn’t get me!” And, taking a cue from the positive-image primer, they leave it at that.