Eschewing the fat talk

By By Sang Xiao, Li Ou / 06-13-2016 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

This cartoon, named No more self-bullying was posted by Gretchen Edwards-Bodmer, who is an advocate of the Shhhhut Down Fat Talk campaign in the US state of Virginia.


Weight is a ubiquitous topic in conversation among women and young girls today. When women get together to talk, they frequently scrutinize their own bodies as a group and invariably conclude that they need to lose weight.

However, if measured by the current Asian body mass index, many girls who consider themselves fat are actually in perfect shape. In the early 1990s psychologists coined the term “fat talk” to describe typical conversations that occur on body-related topics, such as figure, weight and diet. When engaging in fat talk, people, especially women, usually express negative opinions about their bodies.


Social comparison
The concept of social comparison was put forward by American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954. Festinger postulated that people tend to evaluate themselves in relation to others in situations where there is a shortage of effective information. From the perspective of social comparison theory, fat talk is a process of information exchange, and its real intention is to achieve social validation rather than express dissatisfaction about one’s own body. In other words, people want to confirm how others see their figures, and at the same time they seek some comfort and support.


In terms of directions, social comparison can be divided into upward social comparison and downward social comparison. If people are talking with someone who is thinner, upward social comparison will cause them to feel more dissatisfied with their own bodies. In such circumstances, they often ask others for methods to keep fit, which perpetuates the fat talk dialogue.

At the same time, if a person is talking to someone who is fatter than they are, downward social comparison comes into play, and fat talk enables that person to derive some confidence from the exchange. In addition, the positive response given by their companions will turn into an intensified power to some extent, providing impetus for fat talk in the next conversation.

Therefore, the tendency toward social comparison predisposes people to engage in fat talk. American psychologists Alexandra Corning and Dawn Gondoli successfully tested this hypothesis in a study. They randomly surveyed 143 female university students with a focus on three aspects—body concept, participation in social comparison and fat talk. The results showed a correlation between negative body image and a tendency to engage in fat talk.

The tendency toward social comparison was positively correlated with one’s tendency to engage in fat talk. In other words, people are more likely to participate in fat talk as the tendency toward social comparison increases.


Bandwagon effect
If social comparison offers an internal explanation for the phenomenon, then the bandwagon effect places fat talk within a broader context of social pressure to conform. In practice, this means that when beliefs, ideas, fads and trends are widespread, they are adopted at a faster rate. As more people come to believe in something, others also “hop on the bandwagon” regardless of the underlying evidence. Psychologist Solomon Asch affirmed this conventional wisdom in through a series of experiments in the 1950s.

During fat talk, if the participant who just finished talking expresses dissatisfaction about his or her own figure, then the silence of others will imply that they have perfect bodies. Therefore, people are likely to follow and express a similar opinion out of social pressure and the desire for inclusion.

Most people believe modesty and self-deprecation are the latent rules in social communication, while praising oneself in public is considered arrogant. When talking about weight with others, people tend to affect a lack of self-respect in order to fit in. Clichés such as “I am so fat” and “I have no idea how to control my diet” have become the words people frequently say.

In addition, when people lack understanding of a phenomenon, they tend to follow others’ opinions. Under the influence of mass media, the perception that slimness represents beauty is rooted in the minds of many. Social media discourse on slimness is a technologically amplified form of fat talk that causes many women to pay attention to the importance of figure. But the slimness portrayed on social media is usually beyond the capability of common people. When people cannot achieve the ideal, they will negatively evaluate themselves. Also, if they have no clear understanding of slimness, other participants in the conversation will tend to express a similar opinion.


Researchers hold different views on the impact of fat talk on people’s lives. Some scholars, like anthropologist Mimi Nichter, have a positive attitude toward fat talk. She argues that it increases emotional exchanges among people and allows people to fit into group  quicker.


Those who engage in this behavior develop a sense of organizational attachment, helping to sustain the social relationship. In addition, some overweight people can get support, understanding and some feasible measures to lose weight from fat talk.

But there is a growing body of research showing that fat talk could have a negative impact on physical and psychological wellbeing. Clinical psychologist Michelle Jones and other researchers tracked subjects for a year and founded that people who often join fat talk are relatively dissatisfied about their figures. This will increase the chance that they will respond with extreme diets, which pose a hidden threat to physical health.

Fat talk can easily lead to negative emotions because it can intensify the depression that many who are overweight already suffer from. Struggling to lose weight for a prolonged period of time can create anxiety and depression.

Though there is some evidence that self-deprecation in fat talk helps people fit into groups, other research has found this kind of behavior may cause negative evaluation from others. For example, a research group led by Brooke Tompkins conducted such an experiment in 2009. The experiment created a laboratory scenario in which four women were having a conversation. The topic then shifted to weight and figure. According to the experimental process, three women of the four would make negative comments about their own figures and the focus of the experiment was to observe the response of the fourth.

The experimental results showed that in most cases the fourth woman would respond with self-deprecation. But when the fourth one adopted a positive evaluation of herself, the other three had the most favorable impression of her. Another study in 2013 also found evidence supporting the same conclusion.

In the experiment, researchers recruited more than 100 female university students and showed them pictures of women with different body shapes who engage in fat talk. The students were asked to express their opinions on the women in the pictures. The result showed that no matter what figure the woman had, if she talked much about her weight, then her popularity among the students would decline.

Among these women, those who had slim figures but still complained about being fat were less favored while those who had relatively fat shapes but accepted themselves with confidence were more popular.


Sang Xiao and Li Ou are from the School of Psychology at Central China Normal University.