The Power of Negative Words
By Christin L. Seher, MS, RD, LD
Programs that change the way women talk about their bodies may have positive health effects.
“Does this shirt make me look fat?” Toni asked.
“Not as fat as these shorts make my legs look,” Brittany retorted. “Look at this!”
“I think your legs look fine,” Toni assured. “But this top is so tight around my stomach, I look like a whale.”
“If I could just lose 10 lbs,” Brittany sighed, “then maybe I’ll be able to fit into these shorts.”
Conversations like this are daily occurrences between friends and family members, and researchers around the world are increasingly scrutinizing these discussions.
Labeled as “fat talk,” dialogue during which body weight is discussed in ways that reinforce sociocultural perceptions of the ideal body, promote the desire to be thin, and contribute to body dissatisfaction, may seem harmless to the millions who engage in it. But new research shows that frequently participating in fat talk, which tends to be negative, can be damaging. A study published in February in the Journal of Applied Communication Research links fat talk to harmful health effects, such as body dissatisfaction and depression.1 Interestingly, it seems as though the action of engaging in fat talk, rather than simply hearing it, has the most negative effects,1 indicating that these conversations aren’t as harmless as they seem.
While all types of people engage in fat talk, young adult collegiate women are more likely to take part in it, given their social living arrangements and increased pressure to engage in fat talk.2 Research indicates women are aware of the social expectation to join the fat-talk conversation, and studies have shown that college students perceive fat talk as normal.3 According to experts, it’s possible that engaging in fat talk serves a variety of emotional and psychological functions, including validation, relieving guilt, and making sense of the discrepancy between the way one’s body actually looks compared with the sociocultural ideal.3
To stop these unhealthful communication patterns, nutrition professionals can learn about and join health promotion campaigns that support positive body image messages by volunteering their time and expertise. Existing campaigns often provide educational materials that can be downloaded for free, opportunities for training, and a network of qualified professionals.
One such campaign for collegiate women involves Delta Delta Delta (Tri Delta) sorority’s efforts to end fat talk (www.endfattalk.org) by sponsoring a Fat Talk Free Week each fall. The initiative consists of a five-day body activism campaign designed to raise awareness of body image issues and the damaging impact the thin ideal has on women in society.4
Born from Tri Delta’s Reflections: Body Image Program, a peer-led evidence-based eating disorder prevention curriculum geared toward collegiate women, Fat Talk Free Week encourages supporters to sign a pledge to eliminate fat talk and begin changing the conversation about what constitutes the ideal body. Discussions shift from one that’s focused on thinness and size to one centered on health. This year the month of October is dedicated to ending fat talk, with student groups on campuses across the country planning events during the week of October 22 to 26.
Campaigns such as Tri Delta’s offer collegiate dietitians the opportunity to tap into a national conversation and collaborate with campus communities to promote positive nutrition behaviors that often are lost when the message these women receive is predominantly focused on dieting, weight loss, body size, and shape. Gale Welter Coleman, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, has worked with the End Fat Talk campaign on the University of Arizona campus, noting, “When we mentioned the phrase ‘fat talk’ to women, they knew exactly what was meant, and they appreciated, with relief, that this was being acknowledged and addressed.”
Coleman notes that campus events have been successful and have received support from a wide range of university groups. “The hardest thing is finding replacement statements and messages for the fat talk,” she says. “Fat talk comes so easily, and no fat talk takes practice.” To address this challenge, Coleman helped University of Arizona students to counteract fat talk by creating and distributing educational materials that offer positive affirmations.
Melanie Brede, MS, RD, CSSD, is trying to make the University of Virginia an environment free of fat talk through its Body Positive program that promotes healthful body image messages and provides information about diet and nutrition, eating disorders, disordered eating, and exercise concerns. She agrees that college campuses are the ideal place to start changing the conversation about what constitutes an ideal body. “College campuses serve as unique communities for fostering critical thinking and activism. Students welcome opportunities to make a difference and easily gravitate toward improving their own campus culture,” she says. “Beyond college, students become our future leaders, and therefore have the opportunity to influence the broader culture in positive ways.”
What’s important to note is that dietitians know the messages promoted during Fat Talk Free Week shouldn’t be targeted only to women or those on college campuses. Research demonstrates that men increasingly are affected by sociocultural perceptions of the ideal body; adolescents are becoming more focused on weight loss and the desire for thinness at alarmingly early ages; and the prevalence of disordered eating is rising among older adults. So it’s important for RDs working with these and other populations to take notice of what dietitians on college campuses are doing to end fat talk—and help change the conversation.
— Christin L. Seher, MS, RD, LD, is a dietitian, instructor, and nutrition consultant in northeastern Ohio.
- Arroyo A, Harwood J. Exploring the causes and consequences of engaging in fat talk. J Appl Comm Res. 2012;40(2):167-187.
- Tucker KL, Martz DM, Curtin LA, Bazzini DG. Examining “fat talk” experimentally in a female dyad: how are women influenced by another woman’s body presentation style? Body Image . 2007;4(2):157-164.
- Martz DM, Petroff AG, Curtin L, Bazzini DG. Gender differences in fat talk among American adults: results from the Psychology of Size Survey. Sex Roles. 2009;61(1-2):34-41.
- Fat talk free week. Delta Delta Delta sorority website. Available at: http://www.tridelta.org/thecenter/fattalkfreeweek. Accessed July 11, 2012.