The Social Function Of Fat Talk

sharma-obesity-distored-body-image1Comments about body shape, size or weight are so common that we often don’t pay attention to them. However, even a simple comment about someone’s weight or appearance, as in, “You look great – have you lost weight?”, has been shown to have significant negative consequences for the folks involved, as it endorses a thin-ideal.

Often fat talk is presented as a self-degrading comment, as in, “I feel fat” or “My thighs look too big” – not seldom from people with perfectly “normal” weight, which again endorses the negative connotations associated with fatness.

Now a study by Tegan Cruwys and colleagues published in Eating Disorders purports to demonstrate a causal link between fat talk and the correlates of disordered eating (thin-ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction, negative affect, and dieting intentions) by experimentally manipulating fat talk in existing friendship groups and measuring naturalistic expression of fat talk and its effects.

The study involved 85 women aged 17–25 who participated in friendship pairs that were randomly assigned to a condition in which their friend expressed fat talk, positive body talk, or neutral talk.

Here is how the researchers describe the experiment:

“Participants in all conditions viewed the same 20 images of female celebrities, which were diverse in terms of age, race, body shape and size. Each comment that participants read from “Friend A” was generated from a predetermined script. In the neutral talk condition, none of the 20 comments were about appearance, for example, “Such a great actress”. Eight of the neutral comments were retained in the other conditions, with the remaining 12 comments referencing appearance. In the fat talk condition, these comments explicitly valued thinness, and/or expressed body dissatisfaction. For example, “She looks great after losing all that weight” and “I should really watch what I eat more”. In the positive body talk condition, the comments emphasized body acceptance and satisfaction. For example, “It’s so great to see that she doesn’t care about her photo being taken right after having a baby”, and “Love that skirt, would look amazing on me!”. The simulated “conversation” ran for ∼10 min, following which participants immediately completed a computer-based questionnaire.”

The broad range of outcome measures included the

Body Image States Scale, the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS), the Internalization-General subscale (nine items) of the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance Scale-3 (SATAQ-3), the Dieting Intentions Scale (DIS) and a five-item questionnaire that assessed how participants felt about their friendship subsequent to the messenger task.

Existing friendship group norms for fat talk were measured using the Descriptive Norms for Pursuit of Thinness Scale.

Not only did the study show that listening to friends fat talk increased correlates of disordered eating but also that these negative effects of listening to fat talk were fully mediated by fat talk expression.

Furthermore, the study also revealed a social function of fat talk, whereby participants rated their friends more positively when they were perceived to behave consistently with group norms, either pro- or anti-fat talk.

In contrast positive body talk showed none of the negative effects of fat talk, and was considered socially acceptable regardless of existing friendship group norms.

As the authors note,

“These findings indicate that fat talk is a mechanism through which the thin ideal is transmitted between individuals. Interventions at the level of the friendship group to challenge norms and communication styles may break the link between societal risk factors and individual risk of eating disorders.”

To learn more about fat talk and its negative consequences click here

Berlin, Germany