Fat-talking girlfriends

Monday, July 26 2010

Women actually love talking about their weight problems, whether real or imagined

Sophia Dembling, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Saturday, July 21, 2007

A guy knows better.

When the woman in his life asks, "Do I look fat?" he responds, "Gosh, I love you more every day, honey," or "Now would be a great time for me to start painting the kitchen, don't you think?" or "Hey, is that a UFO up there?"

Anything to avoid fat talk.

For a woman, however, fat talk is social currency.

The term "fat talk" was coined by Mimi Nichter, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and author of Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say About Dieting (Harvard University Press, $18.50).

You know what she means -- that familiar conversation among girlfriends of all ages that starts with one saying, "I'm so fat," to which the other is expected to respond, "Oh no, you look great, but my thighs are HUGE," to which the proper response is, "YOUR thighs are huge? Look at MINE!" and so on.

"It's very common everyday discourse among girls," Nichter says (although she found less body dissatisfaction among African American girls than among Caucasian and Hispanic girls). "And it's culturally appropriate. It's actually a way of creating solidarity among girls. You're opening yourself up. It's a way of sharing and disclosure."

Fat talk is also a way of getting reassurance from friends, and it can be a way girls signal distress to each other.

"For some girls and women, it's like saying the day hasn't gone well, like a bad hair day," Nichter explains. "When things aren't going well, you look in the mirror and say, "oh god.' Saying, 'I'm so fat,' is not just about your weight, it's really a statement about your sense of self at that moment."

And as far as fat talk and dieting goes, Nichter, whose research focused on girls in middle and high school, found that one can be a way of avoiding the other. "If you're about to order something that's really fattening, like dessert, saying 'I'm so fat' allows you to say 'I know that I shouldn't be doing this, but I'm going to do it anyway.'

"If people were talking about it (dieting) and doing it, we wouldn't have this epidemic of obesity," she points out. "Saying 'I'm so fat' in many ways replaces the need to diet. It says you know what appropriate behavior is but you don't need to do it at this minute."

Denise Martz, a professor at Appalachian State University and a psychologist in private practice, is expanding on Nichter's research to try to understand why girls (college-age in her research) fat talk and how that relates to body-image problems.

"It does create a bonding and allows women to get reassurance and support from other women," Martz says. "But it is also continuing a norm that objectifies women's bodies and makes that salient, makes that important."

In one experiment, published in the journal Body Image, Martz had participants read a vignette describing four college girls studying for a biology test when three of the girls start fat talking. Participants were asked if they thought the fourth girl (called Jenny in the vignette) would say something self-accepting, say nothing, or would "self-degrade" -- fat talk. The result: Most women and men thought Jenny would join the fat talk.

"I was surprised to find out men knew this norm for women," says Martz. "This suggests that people know this is the norm and that there's pressure to do it."

Martz also found that both men and women thought women should fat talk to be liked by other women, but that to be liked by men, they should be confident about their bodies.

Martz wants next to understand how much of women's inclination to fat talk can be blamed on body image issues and how much is simply related to women's tendency to conform. If conformity is the impetus, women should be able to turn fat talk into happy talk by making self-accepting statements -- though that is difficult for many women. When she was preparing research assistants to conduct an experiment that required they say something "self-aggrandizing" about their bodies, "We had to really train our confederates to say what they had to say and keep a straight face," says Martz.

Fat talk is not always fun for the participants. Martz cites previous research that indicated that when women hear a thinner woman fat talk, they feel bad about themselves. And, says Nichter, "'I'm so fat' was something that was typically said among young women who were not fat. If you were overweight, you would not open yourself up to that."

"I think the time where it's appropriate and it's genuinely reassuring is if close friends of similar size are doing it and reassuring each other," says Martz.

Nichter says that if your fat-talking friend is genuinely fat, there would be nothing wrong with gently suggesting she not eat that cupcake she's reaching for. However, Martz urges caution with fat fat-talkers.

"Reassure them," she says. "Say 'I love you no matter what you look like' or 'You're a great person, you're so much fun.' Women want reassurance more than they want honesty."

And mothers -- if your daughter is fat talking, "It opens up an opportunity to talk about how we are more than just our weight," says Nichter. "Should you have a daughter who repeatedly comments on her weight and is very focused on it, it's a reminder that we need to be educating our children to the fact that weight is not the most important part of who we are."

So take a lesson from the guys. Change the conversation.

Sophia Dembling is the author of The Making of Dr. Phil.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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