updated 3/14/2007 8:46:21 AM ET 2007-03-14T12:46:21

It’s almost inevitable: When women get together, the chatter eventually turns to whose skinny jeans don’t fit anymore and who weighs in heavier on the scale. And participation is socially mandatory, a new study finds.

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Researchers call this “fat talk,” a term coined to describe a behavior common in middle school-aged Caucasian females. But the phenomenon seems to occur in older females as well.

“We have found in our research that both male and female college students know the norm of fat talk—that females are supposed to say negative things about their bodies in a group of females engaging in fat talk,” said study co-author Denise Martz of Appalachian State University.

Self-degradation is predictable
In one study, Martz and her colleagues showed 124 male and female college students a scene describing three women engaging in fat talk. The test subjects were then asked to predict how a fourth female would respond to this discussion.

Forty percent of male subjects and 51 percent of female subjects believed that the fourth female would self-degrade her body, in results that will be detailed in the June issue of the journal Body Image: An International Journal of Research.

“Because women feel pressured to follow the fat talk norm, they are more likely to engage in fat talk with other females,” Martz told LiveScience. “Hence, women normalize their own body dissatisfaction with one another.”

“If there are women out there who feel neutrally or even positively about their bodies, I bet we never hear this from them for fear of social sanction and rejection,” she said.

Coping mechanism
As obesity rates in the Unites States climb, more and more females are finding their bodies further from the beauty ideal put forth in the media, and thus more women could be coping through fat talk, researchers hypothesize.

“Females like to support one another and fat talk elicits support,” Martz said. “An example would be one saying, ‘It's like, I'm so fat today,’ and another would respond, ‘No, you are not fat, you look great in those pants.’”

Fat talk also allows females to appear modest, a prized quality in a culture that shuns egotism.

“We tend to dislike arrogance and especially dislike it in women (‘bitches’)”, Martz explained. “Women are perceived as OK if they fat talk and acknowledge that their bodies are not perfect but they are working on it.”

Land of opportunity
The phenomenon might be exclusive to wealthier countries where food is abundant. In nations where famine rules, people often regard heavier bodies as a sign of good fortune and status, Martz said.

In the United States some people show their social status by their ability to be thin, which translates into meaning they are disciplined in their food intake and exercise, Martz said.

Researchers hope to better understand fat talk and its function in society to create awareness and instill change.

“I wish women would worry less about their bodies — while still taking good care of their health through behaviors like stress management, regular exercise and healthful eating — and spend more time learning, helping, educating, leading, solving problems, rising to positions of influence and contributing to society in general,” Martz said.

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