Fat Talk.  If you’re a woman, you know what this is.  It happens when you get together with girlfriends.  It’s usually at its worst if you bump into someone on a “bad hair day,” (or what I like to call, more aptly, a “bad body image day”).  The conversation starts innocently enough, with friendly small talk, but inevitably one of you compliments the other on “how great she looks.” Both of you know this has nothing to do with her outfit, but with how slim you perceive the other to be.

Thus begins the volley of self-deprecating remarks.  “Gosh, I feel so fat these days, I don’t know how you manage to stay so slim.” This is met with, “Lord no, you think I look skinny?  I look so gross today, I ate like a pig at lunch.  You’re delusional!” And back and forth, with each defending her position as the fat one, and complimenting the other on how great she looks.

What’s really going on here?  What’s Fat Talk really about?  And do you realize how damaging it can really be?

The Purpose of Fat Talk

There are a few factors at play here, some of which perpetuate the diet mentality and contribute to the maintenance of body image and eating disorders.

1. The social acceptability of Fat Talk.  When ”French Women Don’t Get Fat (http://astore NULL.amazon NULL.ca/heathehun-20/detail/0307387992)” by Mireille Guiliano first came out (this was before I specialized in this area), I remember being very clearly impressed by the author’s statement that in France (and Europe more generally), it’s considered in bad taste to comment on one’s own weight or eating habits.  However, in North America, women regularly engage in Fat Talk as a bonding activity, putting themselves down as a way to appear humble, and exchanging tips and tricks on losing weight.

That radically shifted my mindset about engaging in Fat Talk, and I became much more conscious about abstaining from these kinds of conversations with friends.  Many people find this notion to be difficult, as perhaps entire friendships are based on relating in this way.  It can be considered rude to fail to respond to these kinds of statements, but you might find it helpful to remember that by not engaging in Fat Talk, you’re showing respect for yourself and for your friend.

Saying something like, “I’m sorry you’re not feeling comfortable with your body these days, if you need support in dealing with your feelings about that I’m here to talk about it,” will go a long way in stopping fat talk short.  This is because you’re not playing along with the game expected of you, which is to deny your friend’s “excess weight,” and are rather focusing on the reality of what she’s saying, which is that she’s struggling with her body image.  This is the meaning of being a true friend.

2. The displacement of negative feelings onto one’s own body.  One of the more insidious purposes of Fat Talk is to take negative feelings about something in your life and “displace” them, or shift them onto, something more socially acceptable to attack.  Very often eating and body image disorders have at their root more serious feelings of depression or trauma.  By making your body the problem, you don’t have to deal with more painful feelings that are less obvious and concrete.  Fat Talk only reinforces this notion and neglects to deal with the more serious underlying issues.

A more dangerous version of this concept is when Fat Talk is really a veiled expression of aggression.  Maybe you’re feeling jealous of your friend’s apparent “perfect life;” without even trying, she seems to have it all, from a perfect body to a perfect job.  Or maybe you’ve been feeling unhappy about some aspect of the friendship lately.  Sometimes engaging in Fat Talk is a way to avoid having to deal with these unresolved conflicts, putting on a “happy face” as you gush about your friend’s lovely figure while really feeling inadequate, uncared for, or angry.  If you’re dissatisfied with the friendship, figure out whether it’s worth saving, and if so, approach your friend with compassion and openness to address some of these hidden feelings.  You might find that a deepening of the relationship can follow.

3. The mistaken belief that fat talk will make you feel better.  A recent study (http://bit.ly/dTSVsL (http://bit NULL.ly/dTSVsL)) showed that over half of the people who participated believed that Fat Talk helped them feel better about their bodies.  On the surface, it might make sense that expressing shame and dissatisfaction about one’s body, which typically elicits reassurance from others, would serve that purpose.  In fact, the opposite is true: it usually tends to increase body dissatisfaction, and researchers have long known that reassurance-seeking only increases the need for ever more reassurance from others.  True body satisfaction comes from within, not from the judgments of others.  In addition, regularly engaging in Fat Talk reinforces the diet mentality, and contributes to the internalization of the ultrathin ideal.

If you’re truly feeling unhappy about your body shape or size, and feel the need to talk about it, getting support from friends can be helpful.  However, because Fat Talk is so widespread in our culture, you’ll need to be responsible for asking your friends for the kind of support you need.  This might mean saying something like, “I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with my body for some time now, and I could use a friend to talk to.  But I’m going to ask you not to tell me I look fine, or tell me if I’m so unhappy about it I should just go on a diet.  I just want someone to listen non-judgmentally while I figure out how I want to deal with this.” You might be surprised at how much of a relief this will be to your friend as well, as most women often feel poorly-equipped to give support for a topic so personal and shame-laden.  Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable opening up to friends, or if the support you need is more serious than what a friend can offer, don’t hesitate in seeking professional help.