Women's Diet

Why fat talk, diet talk and body shaming are big problems

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Houston, we have a problem. There is waaaay too much diet talk, fat talk and body shaming going on. None of this is new, but it’s an issue that’s coming to a head as we move into post-pandemic life.

Fat talk – self-disparaging remarks made to other people about one’s weight or body – is a form of self-degradation. The person engaging in fat talk typically criticizes their own body weight, shape, or level of physical fitness. For example, “I’m so fat” or “My thighs look huge in these shorts” or “I’m so out of shape…I feel like a big blob.”

Fat shaming is essentially fat talk directed at someone else’s body, either directly or indirectly (for example, making comments to your friends about someone’s body when your target isn’t present or can’t hear you). Diet talk includes talking about:

  • Whether a food is “good” or “bad”
  • Whether you are “good” or “bad” based on what you ate or are about to eat
  • Whether you “should” or “shouldn’t” eat a food
  • The diet you’re on (or planning to go on)

Before enough people had the COVID vaccine to make in-person socializing a safe possibility again, I was already hearing from clients that they were dreading the return of group fat talk and diet talk. Women in their book groups. Friends of friends. Other teachers in the lunchroom (I have a number of clients who are teachers, and they inform me that teachers are the worst about this kind of talk).

I’m going to lay out exactly why this is a problem

Fat talk makes other people feel bad about their bodies…or worse

Fat talk and diet talk may seem like benign (non harmful) behaviors, because the person is talking about their body and their food choices, but they are not benign.

When you criticize someone’s food choices or body – whether the object of that criticism is you, someone you are with, a mutual acquaintance who isn’t with you, or a total stranger – those words have a negative and harmful impact.

Both engagement in and exposure to fat talk contributes to body dissatisfaction, heightens our perception of societal and cultural pressure to be thin, and can push us into being overly invested in our appearance (self-objectification). These factors all erode quality of life, which is bad enough, but they also increase the risk of adopting disordered eating behaviors – or even developing an eating disorder.

Imagine that you are in a larger body (maybe you don’t have to imagine this). You’re sitting with a friend in a smaller body than yours, and she starts going off about how she’s “too fat.” How does this make you feel about your own body?

Similarly, what if you overhear someone making disparaging comments about the body of a woman passing by. Maybe she’s your size, maybe she’s smaller, maybe she’s bigger. Either way, this can elicit thoughts and feelings of:

  • “If her body’s ‘bad’ than what does that mean about my body?” or
  • “I better make sure I don’t gain weight if that’s what might be said about me.”

This is weight stigma, which research shows harms both physical and psychological health.

So when you engage in this type of talk, it’s impossible to know who you are harming, or to what extent, but make no mistake – you are causing harm.

Fat talk is a twisted and useless way of “bonding”

Fat talk is primarily a phenomenon that happens among women, and it’s directly tied to “normative discontent,” a term coined in 1984 to describe the widespread weight dissatisfaction among women. In the United States, as many as 84 percent of women exhibit body dissatisfaction.

Fat talk and diet talk are also treated as normal in Western society and are reciprocal in nature. In other words, when someone complains about their thighs or their weight, whoever they’re talking with usually talks about their hated body parts and their own weight. It’s a vicious, harmful cycle.

Given that fat talk is linked to known risk factors for the development of eating disorders, the fact that women so readily accept fat talk as normal is really, really alarming.

And it’s not as if fat talk leads to any positive change. When you engage in fat talk with your friends, you’re “co-ruminating” – passively disclose your body image concerns to one another without taking any steps to actively solve the problem.

(I would argue that talk about going on a diet and/or avoiding certain foods isn’t solving the problem. Why? Because upwards of 95 percent of attempts of intentional weight loss fail beyond the short term. So if you don’t like your body now, trying to “fix” that feeling with weight loss will eventually land you right back where you started.)

Fat talk doesn’t help you feel better about your body

Research shows that fat talk may make women feel better about feeling bad about their bodies, but it doesn’t actually make them feel better about their bodies. Basically, expressing dissatisfaction about your body may feel comforting or provide a sense of relief, especially you anticipate that the listener will reciprocate by complaining about their own body, or refute what you’re saying (“No, you’re not fat!”). Interestingly, and not surprisingly, women report engaging in more frequent fat talk after they eat foods that are high in fat or calories, which suggests that fat talk serves a guilt relief function.

If you participate in fat talk or diet talk, whether you initiate it or simply reciprocate when someone you’re with starts down that road, ask yourself what you hope to achieve when you:

  • Tell your friends/family/coworkers that you’re not eating bread anymore (or that you’re “being bad” because you are eating it)
  • Lament that you’ve gained weight
  • Grouse that “I really need to go on a diet”
  • Drone on about the diet you’re planning
  • Get all cheerleadery about the diet you just started
  • Blather on with unsolicited (and possibly false) nutrition information (“Did you know that [X food] is really bad for you?”)

If you want to see an example of diet talk taken to extremes, watch this very much NSFW sketch from Amy Schumer:

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Fat talk fractures families

I have multiple clients who feel a sense of dread when they visit their parents, because they know they will hear an earful about what’s wrong with other people’s bodies.

Hearing your mother or father body shame a stranger in a restaurant can be deeply triggering if your body was a source of parental criticism growing up. Even if you were spared – sadly, some parents pride themselves on never saying anything negative about their child’s body, and possibly their own body, but the forked tongue comes out when a stranger’s body doesn’t meet their approval — if you have any body insecurities, you can still be triggered.

My father was relentlessly critical of my body when I was growing up, but it took me until I was in my 40s to finally clap back. He was relentlessly fat shaming the cashier at the takeout place we’d just left, and I’d finally had enough. I asked him pointedly, “Why do you even care? Why do you think a stranger’s body is any of your business?” God, that felt good. Cathartic, even.

If you happen to treat making disparaging remarks about other people’s bodies as a sport, a bonding ritual, or a way to feel better about yourself, let me take a page from my 12-year-old self: Who died and made you the boss of other people’s bodies? If this sounds harsh, I don’t necessarily mean to be. What I want is to give you a clearer vision of why your behavior is hurting you more than helping you.

Fat talk might lose you some friends

Last week, I wrote about an article in The New York Times that discussed how to decide which friendships to renew – or not – now that we are socializing in person again. That article originally went to a dark place, suggesting, among other things, that we dump our fat friends, implying that body size is contagious (it’s not).

What is contagious is fat talk, and I know many women (including some of my clients) who are saying, “enough.” They’ve realized that life is too short, and too precious, to continue to spend time with friends who just won’t stop with the diet talk and fat talk.

The research supports this view. Specifically, although it’s seen as “normal” to respond to fat talk with more fat talk, and women are expected to be more likely to engage in fat talk than in positive body talk – fat talk is not seen as a socially desirable behavior.

Not only can refusing to conform to the fat talk norm make other women view you as more likable, but women prefer other women who engage in positive body talk. I would argue that simply being neutral is also a fine alternative. Talk about the fun hike you went on or the new recipe you made, but don’t talk about how many calories you burned or how virtuous or sinful the recipe was.

As humans, we are social creatures (even though individual needs for social interaction and connection vary), but we need to stop the BS of bonding over how bad we feel about our bodies, and by extension our food choices.

We are so much more than that. We have big hearts and big brains, why can’t we show ourselves, and others, more compassion – and find something better to talk about?

Stopping fat talk doesn’t mean stuffing your feelings

If you really hate your body, don’t just stuff those feelings down. But there are more constructive ways to deal with those feelings:

Once you start doing some of this work, you will likely find that you can have more meaningful conversations with friends and family who are on similar journeys. I know this has been very healing for some of my clients as they have the courage to share some of their struggles and in return find that the people they share with have struggled as well.

These are very different conversations, think “I’ve really struggled with hating my body, and I’m starting to work on changing those feelings so I can have more body peace” rather than “My thighs are too big and I feel fat.”

This is work well worth doing, and doing NOW. Please don’t become the 87-year-old who is still wedded to her scale and treats keeping her weight within a pound of where it “should” be as her life’s purpose. That’s not virtuous, it’s sad, because it’s a sign of a life not well lived.

I do want to note that if you have long engaged in fat talk, using it as social currency and an easy conversational shorthand, it can feel really strange to NOT do that anymore. But remember, we are better than that. We are interesting, complex human beings, and we CAN find other things to talk about.

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Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health.

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