What ‘Fat Talk’ Does For Your Body Image

Ever said these things:

  • “These jeans make me look fat!”
  • “I wish I had your thighs.”
  • “My diet starts tomorrow!”

Fat talking — the tendency to make negative comments about our bodies – seems to be a staple of female culture. A 2011 study published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly found that 93% of women engage in fat talk.

Anthopologist Mimi Nichter stumbled onto fat talk while she was studying teen girls. During a series of focus groups, she noticed a familiar ritual: One girl would say, “I feel so fat,” and another would respond with, “You’re not fat!” The exchange was a normal part of daily life; the girls repeated it over and over throughout the day.

So Nichter coined the term “fat talk” and started listening for it. Turns out it’s everywhere. Thing is most women who fat talk aren’t fat. They’re a normal, healthy weight.

Body dissatisfaction is common among women, and researchers believe that Fat talk is a way for women to bond. A woman who responds that she’s confident and satisfied with her body risks being seen as arrogant.

Imagine. You’re arrogant because you’re not dissing yourself. You’re arrogant because you’re happy with who you are. What a load of rubbish.

An interesting insight of Mimi Nichter’s research is that black girls escape the weight obsession and the “fat talk” that is so pervasive among white girls. The black girls she talked with were much more satisfied with their bodies. For them, beauty was a matter of projecting attitude (“’tude”) and moving with confidence and style.

Put the words “fat” and “diet” into google and you’ll get 227 million responses in 30 seconds. That’s how much we obsess about weight.

Before you start jumping up and down and yelling about the health risks of being fat, there is strong research showing fat people can be healthy and fit. Data from a cross-sectional sample of 5440 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey, found that half of overweight adults and almost one-third of obese adults were metabolically healthy.  So, it is possible to be fat and fit if you have a healthy lifestyle: you’re physically active, eat a nutrient dense diet, and get enough sleep.

Now all we have to do is get over our obsession with skinny and put a muzzle on the fat talk. Or maybe it’s time to celebrate health in whatever shape it comes instead of treating larger bodies like some sort of personal short-coming.


Gail Vaz-Oxlade

Gail Vaz-Oxlade wants YOU! Join MyMoneyMyChoices.com to get smarter about your money and help others get smarter about theirs. Isn’t it time we eliminated financial illiteracy? Come find me on Google+ and on Twitter.

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35 Responses to “What ‘Fat Talk’ Does For Your Body Image”

  1. My experience working with teenage girls is that the fat ones never talk about how fat they are. The ones who go on about their “food babies” after they eat or their “disgusting rolls” are always the thinner ones. While I don’t think it’s deliberately cruel, I do notice that the truly fat girls cringe or look embarrassed if they overhear these often loudly proclaimed complaints. I find the talk idiotic and often ask the girls if they’d like me to make an appointment for them with our mental health team for their Body Image Distortion. That usually brings them quickly to assert that the don’t think they are actually fat, they just feel fat at that moment, and the conversation ends (often with significant eye rolls to each other).

    That said, I highly recommend Gary Taub’s Good Calories, Bad Calories for people who’d like to understand how we ended up with our Food Pyramid and the recommendations to eat they way we are being told to. Parts of this book made me almost angry and I changed the way I eat and lost weight.

  2. Everyone has a healthy weight range based on their height and gender…being at the top of the range is just as okay as being at the bottom…being a size 18 is just as fine as being a size 8 as long as you are healthy…which means blood pressure, cholestoral, breathing, and the comfort of your joints…if you cart around too much weight you will feel it…the 3 key factors are smaller portion sizes, healthy choices and exercise…being larger does not necessarily equate to unhealthy…but the more excess weight you cart around the more likely you are to have some type of health issue….alot of excess weitght can really restrict movement and flexibility and can really be a problem if you have surgery, or an injury that limits mobility (say a broken ankle etc)..that’s when you’ll notice the difficulty of being way overweight…and it will be especially difficult if you require assistance with your care…so live large and feel beautiful but do it sensibly..the sky is NOT the limit……FYI, the top of my healthy weight range is 155( I am female and 5ft 6in..46 years old) but I am usually about 160…I have gone down to 145 but 160ish is easier to maintain and I look and feel good about it…the bottom of my weight range is 125 but I wouldn’t even consider trying to get to that nevermind maintain it…I love my eats waaay too much for that! LOL

  3. Oh Gail, I so want to post this in our lunch room at work. I agree, it seems to be a way for certain women to bond.

  4. Thank you so much for addressing this. I’ve written multiple times about how damaging it can be to fat talk and have poor self image when it comes to ones body. On Why Hating your Body is Futile and how there is a lot to be learned from Black Women who are Healthier and Happier than the rest of us.

    I myself have been working extremely hard to stop the negative self talk and accept my body for all its capabilities rather than the aspects that might not fit into Western societies perception of beauty.

    My body is beautiful.

  5. avatar Linda Pearson Says:
    February 8, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I remember reading an article years ago about a meeting of professional women and men. The keynote speaker, a woman, had that year achieved the highest academic standard possible in her field and earned her doctorate. She was promoted at work to COO shortly before the day she was to present to the group and that milestone was published in a national newspaper as well as industry-specific publications.

    None of that mattered to the emcee who said by way of introduction that she looked so much better now that she had lost so much weight. There was a general round of applause for the achievement.

  6. I tend to measure myself by the numbers on the scale with a fear of going too high rather than how I look or feel. I am quite healthy, active and I eat well yet the numbers hold a lot of power for me. Part of it I believe is that my sister is quite overweight and I have always been the small one – fear of not being small one?? Who knows but this needs to stop. Thanks, Gail

  7. I can not agree more with who I find talks about being fat! I stopped engaging in those conversations years ago. I know it may have come across as mean but I was heavier and felt that the women complaining were “in shape” for lack of a better phrase. I just couldn’t go along with that talk and often just walked away or changed the subject all together. Why/when did women start bashing themselves and thinking this was ok conversation? I guess for me growing up being Black this was not a common conversation in my household or among female family members. I think there are soo many other things that women can bond over rather than putting themselves down. Let’s work for a better talk in 2013.

  8. I would also like to include in this my experience as I’m not a woman.

    Being a gay man, you are constantly bombarded by the “greek adonis” magnification. Look at any gay-focused advertisement and they are all VERY chisled. Look at any mainstream ads with gays in it and there are of two extremes – the male super-model or the funny, bumbly fat drama queen.

    Even straight-men are starting to be thrown into this craziness.

    I find in general with the explosion of multi-media, there is an extreme take on people – being very polarized. There is no “middle, normal” area.

  9. I’m guilty of fat talk. But, in my case, I’ve developed high blood pressure and I have GERD that’s made worse by excess weight. I’m only 5 pounds over what I “should” weigh, but I feel much better well under that weight. I don’t judge others at all for what they weigh, but for me, I know I need to lose weight for my health for feeling better overall.

  10. @tasi – thanks for the perspective. I’ve noticed the stereotyping but not realized the consequences.

    I’ve not owned a scale for years, and have downright refused to have one in the house even when my Mom offered to buy one (she wanted to weigh her luggage). It is much easier to ‘weigh’ yourself by how your clothes fit and by how much you jiggle when you go up the stairs. Too much jiggling and puffing? Time to do something about it. Lord knows I don’t want to buy a new wardrobe.

    I’ve also been very careful about the fat talk around my young daughter. If I don’t want her obsessed about ‘fat’ I need to emulate the behaviour and not have that type of talk in the house.

    Good topic. Thanks.

  11. I think part of the “fat talk” problem is the preconceived notion that women should be small and dainty (disney princesses anyone?). The world sees women with broad shoulders and hips as overweight rather then well built. It drives me nuts.

  12. @Christine
    I don’t own a scale and I don’t want to own one. Do I still fit in my clothes? Do I still buy the same size when I need a new piece of clothing? That’s how I mesure it. I also feel strongly about my role in transmitting a positive attutude to my children.

    I never talk about weight and diets at home. My children are growing up and when I pick them up, I never say “you’re getting so big or so heavy”. I always say they’re getting taller or older. I also watch what I say to my son, because it’s not just women who are subjected to fat talk or bombarded with unrealistic body images, men are too.

    My husband and I never comment about the weight or the look of others, whether it’s in real life or on television. I have angiomas in my face, a sort of birthmark. I try to never show I’m ashamed or shy, and I have a short 4-minute make-up routine. These are just little things, but I hope I can teach them to feel good about their bodies.

  13. Fat talk is a stupid way to “bond”. It’s gossip and I have been severely judged and ostracized because I wouldn’t partake in it or use it against other people. Be a nice person or I’ll judge you. I don’t like meanies.

    Besides, beauty is a subjective concept. It depends on your culture and period in history. When my beautiful (because she is a good person) and large aunt went to Nepal, men were quite literally fighting each other for the priviledge of carrying her luggage and opening her doors because in that country, large is gorgeous.

    When my son was a baby he breastfed the life right out of me. He fed every hour and a half and I became the skinniest person I’ve ever seen. I was the envy of all but I had no energy and I wasn’t happy. I undertook a nutrient dense diet (not chips and ice cream, cheese, yogourt and sandwiches) to gain 10 pounds so I could run after my kids all day and still have enough energy for myself after they’d gone to bed.

  14. @Julie you are totally correct. Unfortunately its not just teenage girls. I recently had coffee with 3 colleagues at work. 1 overweight, 2 super skinny – I’m not skinny the way these two girls are but I’m slim. Walking to the coffee shop super skinny #1 starts talking about her arm fat then Super Skinny #2 starts in about her problem areas. I felt so awkward listening to these 2 girls go making comments about their bodies – while the overweight girl we were with just looked so embarrassed and defeated. I thought how insensitive and narcissitc some people can be. I often fat talk to myself but I’m trying really hard to project a positive self image for my daughters sake. I don’t want her striving for the thight gap as she gets older.

  15. 🙂 You know what helped me lose weight in the last couple of weeks (and still will :)): being on budget.

    I realized while doing my expense analysis that what was throwing my budget out of control was eating out. You are like: “whatever”. But litteraly, I was spending 25-35$/DAY on food. 10$ coffee and breakfast at Starbucks, 10-12$ lunch and then, when feeling lazy, I would go grab something for dinner. Just make the math. I’m earning a good salary, but my bank account was melting (no, my credit card balance would go back to what it was, eating out all my debt repayment), while my bathroom scale would go up and up and up.

  16. Amen!! Not only is fat talk never helpful, it’s not even interesting. From puberty onward, the fat talk water cooler discussion is trumped in absolute boredom only by the weather topic. I think people fat talk because (like the weather) it takes absolutely no brains whatsoever to discuss. Can’t think of anything intelligent to say? Try: “I feel fat today.”

    Hmm… And in my relationship history I think I’ve yet to meet a gal who hasn’t played the “Does this make me look fat?,” trick question. What’s up with that? It’s a trap! A guy can lose on any answer he gives to this.

  17. Sorry, I forgot to ask for some help from you people! You always seem to have good ideas! 🙂

    I am single. My apartment freezer freeze burn stuff really quickly. I was planning to buy one of those freezer, but I want to save up the money for it first. So it wont happen for another couple of months.

    I was wondering if some of you had some tricks. I like to cook. But cooking for myself is boring. Because I make 2 meals over the weekend and eat it ALL week, until I’m so fed up of eatin it. Or I just waist so much time cooking several little receipes. My problem is that I have to finish a tax program (yeah being an accountant, you never finish studying! :)), so I have to study a couple hours every evening until probably the beginning of July, on top of my full time job (gatta get busy with that debt repayment plan!). I’m not complaining about it, I just don’t have time to spend time cooking when I get home. And lets be honest, I am too hungry when I get home to just cook. So I grab something on the way. Which is not good for the budget, nor is it for my weight…

    Anyway, does anyone have some helpful insites for me? I would really appreciate! 🙂


  18. Hi Gabby;

    I’m in the same boat (single, busy life, only a fridge freezer to work with). I also try to cook one or two big meals on the weekend and coast on those. Slow cookers are awesome for this!

    What I add though, is to freeze a single serving or two of each one I make, to either heat up on nights where I work late, or to throw in my bag for lunch. Freezing single servings doesn’t take up as much room as a big container, and it also means that I’m not eating the same thing every day of the week!

    I also try to be aware of and realistic about what I’m going to do through the week. Sometimes that means baking a batch of muffins that are grab-and-go breakfasts or snacks. Often that means washing and chopping veggies before I put them away – yes, they don’t last as long that way, but I know that if they’re not quick and easy to grab, I won’t make the smart choice when I come home tired.

    My last strategy to recommend for you is to not underestimate the ease of the basics! Cereal and milk with a banana can be dinner, scrambled eggs take about two minutes and are good for you, and smoothies are fast, healthy, and delicious!

    I hope some of these help!

  19. I really needed to see this article today. I’ve been fat talking to myself because I’m 3-4 lbs heavier than this time last year, yet still the thinnest and fittest I’ve been in my adult life. It’s ridiculous and yet it’s a deeply ingrained habit pattern. Thanks for the kick in the (size 8) pants.

  20. @ Gabby & Pam

    If you can – find some people in your same boat:single – want to eat healthier, but hate to cook for one – see if they want help too. Meet once a month and spend a few hours together cooking 4/5 meals and portion them out for everyone. Each person can bring containers to take the food home in and splits the grocery cost.

    I’ve had success when each person takes turns hosting (but only works if you have a kitchen that can handle it). And each person takes turns choosing the recipes and doing the grocery shop. NOTE: Meals should be freezable.

    I found its a great way to have a variety of healthy choices to augment the 2 weekend meals and a great way to spend time with friends/get to know people in the same boat. Budget friendly as well!

  21. For women, I think fat talk starts at a young age and becomes so ingrained that it continues well into adulthood. While my immediate family has never criticized my weight my other family members sure have (aunts, uncles, cousins). I will always remember a friend of mine telling me that I was only a “little bit” fat at age 13 – meanwhile what was really happening was my body was going through puberty so of course I grew breasts and hips, but these things have obviously stuck with me through life.

    Another comment I remember during a lunch room conversation on the topic of food and exercise – very common for the all female staff – was when someone was talking about a friend of hers who didn’t want to be fat at 40. One of my co-workers turned to me and said “You’re not 40 yet, you’ve still got time.” Meanwhile I wasn’t even talking about being on a diet and being concerned about my weight!

    Now I have lost 4 dress sizes since those days, at my Dr.’s orders, and even though people tell me I look great I still feel insecure about my body, because I carry around a lifetime of conversations that tell me a few pounds more and the compliments will all change to so-called “advice”.

  22. so glad you posted about this Gail
    Linda Bacon writes about this extensively:
    and the health at every size movement is really important
    it’s time to disconnect the link made between body image and health
    you can be fat and fit
    you can be thin and unhealthy
    eating is a behaviour, exercise is a behaviour but weight is not a behaviour!

    Re: Gabby – when I’m busy I do something really simple – eg tinned fish (salmon or macarel, rice or baked potato and a frozen veggie like peas – super quick, super easy.
    Another idea – add frozen edema to pasta sauce (pasta sauce either premade or bought) – add a few extra veggies to it – broccoli, mushrooms, peas (can be frozen veg) maybe some capers and olives, cook pasta separately – voila! easy meal!
    Another idea – salad with protein and a grain – eg roast chicken, salad, rice – you can buy small portions of chicken at the supermarket and bagged salad if it makes it quicker. I like to wash and spin a lettuce at the beginning of the week and keep it in the fridge and then use it throughout the week.

  23. I definitely agree that this starts young: I have had to become much more conscious of how I speak about my own body since the birth of my daughter. I want her to have the kind of positive outlook that finds beauty in herself and all around her, not the overly-critical self-punishing view I had as a young teen. I was shocked, when I started watching my words, to discover how often those kinds of negative messages were coming out of my own mouth!

  24. avatar Elizabeth A Says:
    February 8, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Good things to think about, thanks everyone! Julie, I went and ordered the book you recommended, it definately sounds worth exploring.

  25. Being skinny stuck with me all my life. In early grades I was called: skinny bones, chicken legs, and many other names. My ex-mother in law even told me the rooster had bigger legs than me.
    I did gain weight after puberty but mostly because I was eating really unhealthy food. In grade 11 I started to make my school lunches instead of buying it. I also ate off a side plate to cut portion sizes. I dropped a lot of weight fast. I still carry around the baggy skin from that weight loss. I have no intention of getting plastic surgery to “fix” it.
    I have a disease now that keeps me from gaining weight. I have to make sure I make every calorie count.

    I Have 2 young kids and this article made me think what I can say to them about body image as they get older. I’ll tell my daughter that “she” has curves not that “she” is fat. There are days I wish I had a bigger chest and bottom but I don’t. I embraced being flat chested and bottomed a long time ago.

  26. The one thing that fat talk does extremely well is reinforce a person’s negative self-image. Further, when done in groups or as part of cementing a friendship bond, it solidifies the false belief that it’s okay to put yourself down. Fat talk is a tool to ensure that people learn to only seek approval from others instead of from within.

    What’s that old saying about thoughts becoming words becoming habits becoming destiny?

    I might have missed an element in the chain, but essentially the message is that your thoughts become your destiny so choose your thoughts extremely carefully.

  27. It took me years to overcome my family calling me “Fats” throughout my childhood. I struggle daily with a severe eating disorder.

    I have no patience or time for people who engage in fat talk. If I think my butt is big, then I better step up, take responsibility, and either do something about it or learn to love it. The one thing I don’t need to do is ask the world’s opinion of me.

    I have learned that I’m not comfortable at my current weight so I’m actively changing my eating habits. Smaller portions, better snack choices, more fruits and veggies; and I’m seeing the results. I like my clothes and surely don’t need more, especially in a larger size. I’m responsible for me, and “me” includes my body.

    @tasi, thanks for the insight. Like others, I was (uncomfortably) aware of the stereotypes you address, and how astute your observation; you’re so right, the middle/normal has nearly disappeared. That’s frightening. And sad, that in today’s world we’re all judged by impossible (and ridiculous) standards.

  28. I freed myself of this fat talk during my first pregnancy, over seven years ago. I felt so healthy growing a person, now having three healthy boys with many years of breastfeeding my body deserves applause, not negativity. I feel great & yes one day I may do a sit up or two but for now I’ll enjoy my busy little boys.

  29. I was astonished to learn that your body, when faced with excess toxins (crap food, alcohol, pollution etc…) is actually trying to protect you when it stores the excess in your fat cells. It does this rather than let the toxins harm your cells. Once you eliminate the toxins – clean eating, healthy water consumption, fibre, green veggies – it can let go.

    It was a big step for me to just say “thanks” to my body for protecting me with this step, instead of hating it. I gave up wine recently & what a difference!

  30. @Gabby
    Here’s what I do to keep my frame (which tends toward bulky) in reasonable shape without working at it:

    Cut out the crazy stupid things in my diet – Some things are so calorie dense that they’re just not worth it: Chips, pop, ice cream, alcohol. Which isn’t to say that if you have a chance to have some superspecial ice cream, you don’t pig out. But avoid the mediocre stuff. This was enough to drop me about 10lbs.

    Eat lots of vegetables… half your plate, every time, avoid salad dressings that are fatty. You can eat what you like – you’ll just be fuller faster.

    Avoid restaurants – avoid the mediocre, do it only with friends. Even a non-healthy food like ramen (which I keep around) is WAY less calories than takeout (or fine dining). Half a thin-crust frozen pizza is the same. Add a side of microwaved veg.

    I’m still looking for ways to lose the last 10lbs without working at it (exercise is work, and I suck at it).

  31. @Pam Liesa and Jay

    Thanks for the comments. You gave me tons of good ideas! And Pam, you are right. I tend to plan to eat warm every evening, when in fact, I could just do something really simple! 🙂

    I will look around in my friends if some people would like to join me in a “cooking club”. I’ll get there. Last week, I thought I did well on the food jar, but it was horrible! 😛 It gave me the kick I needed to cook this weekend! 🙂

  32. No body shaming, yay! Thanks for this post Gail.

  33. My dad had a good saying – ‘Never put yourself down, other people will do it for you, and better than you can – so put your efforts somewhere else.’

  34. I think it starts when you are a kid. So many kids constantly call each other fat and it really affects their self-esteem (even if the kid isn’t actually fat). We need parents to constantly build confidence in their children and remind them of how beautiful they are.

  35. I’ve always been overweight and it’s always been a weapon that my Mother would use on me – “You’re fat and stupid”, it took me years to learn to ignore her as she refused to accept that she was demeaning me. It has been my experience that people who “fat talk” are:
    1. on a diet themselves and can’t talk about anything else (same with whatever is taking all their attention at some point (new boyfriend, new sport, new book, etc.).
    2. do the “fat talk” to make you or whomever in the group is overweight feel ashamed.
    3. do the “fat talk” to engage others in telling them they are wrong and how wonderful they look (variation on begging for compliments).
    In all my years, the only time I encounter “fat talk” is when a thinner person does it or when a previously overweight person does it (bragging).

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