These days it’s hard to find someone who isn’t concerned about the size and shape of his or her body. In the U.S. alone, at least one third of adults are obese. Up to 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. A huge number of women are dissatisfied with their bodies, often resorting to “fat talk,” or self-deprecating comments about eating, exercise, or our bodies in general. But according to recent research, dissing our bods isn’t going to win us any pals. Turns out women tend to like other women more when they have a positive relationship with their bodies.
What’s the Deal?
The research on “fat talk” was presented at the Midwestern Psychological Association annual conference. In the study, college-age women looked at photos of thin and overweight women next to phrases representing either fat talk (“I can pick out something about every part of my body that I’d like to change”) or positive body talk (“I know I’m not perfect, but I love the way I look”). The participants then rated how likable they found each woman. Turns out the women pictured alongside negative comments about their bodies were rated less likable than everyone else. Perhaps more interesting was that the people rated most likeable were overweight women pictured next to positive comments about their bodies. The researchers say the positive body statements may have been less threatening coming from overweight women than from thin women. This in turn may have encouraged the participants to start thinking positively about their own bodies too.
Previous research has found body image issues are a big problem among college-age women, with more than 90 percent admitting to engaging in “fat talk” at some point. On some campuses, “fat talk” has become so common that people think it’s more typical for women to make negative statements about their bodies than to make positive comments. Fat talk and self-presentation of body image: Is there a social norm for women to self-degrade? Britton LE, Martz DM, Bazzini DG. Body image, 2006, Jul.;3(3):1873-6807. Testing the norm to fat talk for women of varying size: what's weight got to do with it? Barwick A, Bazzini D, Martz D. Body image, 2011, Sep.;9(1):1873-6807.
Studies have shown the frequency of “fat talk” isn’t directly related to BMI, with research suggesting this phenomenon is more about feeling fat than being any certain shape. Other studies have found that “fat talk” typically reflects a woman’s dissatisfaction with her body, and women who engage in this kind of vocalized body-hating are generally more likely to develop an eating disorder. Who is most likely to fat talk? A social comparison perspective. Corning AF, Gondoli DM. Body image, 2012, Jun.;9(4):1873-6807. Fat talk among college students: how undergraduates communicate regarding food and body weight, shape & appearance. Ousley L, Cordero ED, White S. Eating disorders, 2008, Mar.;16(1):1064-0266.
Why It Matters
In many cases, “fat talk” can be a way for women to bond, "play arguing" over whose thighs are biggest or whose jeans fit tighter (Remember that scene in Mean Girls where all the girls stand in front of Regina George’s room picking out the “ugliest” parts of their appearance?). But talking about our upper-arm flab may also be a big turn-off. This study is hardly the first to suggest women with a positive body image are more likeable; other research has found those who engage in positive body talk are generally perceived as having more socially desirable characteristics. Testing the norm to fat talk for women of varying size: what's weight got to do with it? Barwick A, Bazzini D, Martz D. Body image, 2011, Sep.;9(1):1873-6807.
But that’s no reason for women to fear discussing their body image concerns with friends and loved ones. One easy solution? Spend time around positive peeps, since there’s some evidence that ladies with a positive self-image may actually influence other people to be more accepting of their bodies. "But I Like My Body": Positive body image characteristics and a holistic model for young-adult women. Wood-Barcalow NL, Tylka TL, Augustus-Horvath CL. Body image, 2010, Feb.;7(2):1873-6807. Of course, if you're struggling with body image issues, it's probably healthier to share these feelings than to keep them bottled up for fear of being deemed less likable. In some cases, it may also be worth visiting a mental health professional, who can listen to body image issues without passing judgment about likability.
Perhaps the most important takeaway is to realize that it doesn’t matter all that much if other people are looking at us and thinking about how much weight we’ve gained (or lost) since last year. It seems like people are more interested in our sense of self-esteem and how comfortable we are with our bodies, rather than what our bodies actually look like. In an ideal world, we’d be as satisfied with and confident in our own bodies as other people are.
Special thanks to Drs. Alexandra Corning, Michaela Bucchianeri, and Rachel Crews for their contributions to this article.