Fat Talk Isn’t Just for Young Women, Research Finds

Fat talk is a term that mental health professionals sometimes use to describe spoken statements that emphasize concerns about one’s weight or make negative comparisons with other people’s weight. While many of these statements seem superficially harmless, current evidence indicates that they contribute significantly to a state of mind called body dissatisfaction. In turn, the presence of significant body dissatisfaction increases the chances that a person will develop some form of eating disorder. In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Eating Disorders, a multinational research team concluded that women continue to engage in high levels of fat talk until they reach their 60s.

Fat Talk Basics

Fat talk typically involves statements such as “I feel so fat in these clothes,” or “She’s thin, so she looks much better in that dress than I do.” On the surface, these statements seem harmless or meaningless, and most people make them without giving them a second thought. However, mental health experts are beginning to understand the potential darker implications of conversations centered on weight-related issues. In a study published in 2012 in the journal Body Image, researchers from the University of Notre Dame examined the phenomenon of fat talk in a group of 143 college-age women. These researchers found that women who tend to compare themselves to others engage in such talk more often than anyone else. They also found that participation in fat talk is strongly associated with concerns about body image. In addition, the researchers concluded that even small amounts of body image concern substantially increase fat talk participation.

Body Dissatisfaction Basics

In combination with concerns about body image, fat talk can form the basis for body dissatisfaction. This mental/emotional state is characterized by strongly negative assessments of one’s appearance, both in terms of body shape and body size. As with fat talk, body dissatisfaction stems largely from subjective comparisons with other people’s bodies. In some cases, affected individuals make these comparisons with their own peers or the people they encounter in everyday life. With the rise of modern media culture, comparisons to models, TV stars, movie stars and other celebrities are also extremely common. Generally speaking, women with high levels of body dissatisfaction focus on other women’s thinness more often than women with low levels of body dissatisfaction.

Long-Term Persistence of Fat Talk

In the study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers from Trinity University and the University of the West of England used questionnaires to assess the level of participation in fat talk among a group of 914 American, British and Australian women between the ages of 18 and 87. They chose to study such a broad age range because most previous studies had exclusively focused on fat talk among young women. In addition to fat talk-related questions, the questionnaires included questions relating to body dissatisfaction, a related phenomenon called body distortion, the presence of disordered eating and another form of negatively reinforcing conversation known as old talk (which centers on age-related commentary and comparisons).

In their initial findings, the researchers concluded that 81 percent of the study’s participants engaged in fat talk at least some of the time; they also concluded that 33 percent of the participants regularly engaged in fat talk.  Next, in order to gauge the prominence of fat talk among women in different stages of life, the researchers split the participants into four groups: women between the ages of 18 and 29, women between the ages of 30 and 45, women between the ages of 46 and 60, and women age 61 or older. After reviewing the results of this breakdown, they concluded that, when considering each age group as a whole, fat talk participation declined in frequency only among women 61 or older. In addition, they found that, even in the 61-or-older group, significant numbers of women still regularly participated in fat talk.

Significance and Considerations

The authors of the study in the Journal of Eating Disorders concluded that, among women between the ages of 18 and 61, fat talk is clearly associated with increased risks for body dissatisfaction, as well as increased risks for eating disorders. They also concluded that, as women age, old talk starts to play a substantial role in the chances that these mental health problems will arise. However, old talk apparently has a smaller effect on body dissatisfaction- and eating disorder-related risks than fat talk.

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