Whether they're getting ready to go out, clicking through Facebook photos or primping in the bathroom mirror, the conversation between 21-year-old Talia Seidman and her friends at Northwestern University inevitably will turn to one thing: their (practically non-existent) flab.
Seidman, a college senior at the Evanston, Ill., school, says the conversation goes something like this:
Friend 1: "Look at this fat." (pointing to an area by her tank top strap)
Friend 2: "Oh my God. There's no fat there. Look at mine."
Friend 1: "That's nothing. Mine is bulging."
Friend 2: "It is NOT. But I must have gained 10 pounds."
Friend 1: "Don't be ridiculous. You're a size 2."
Friend 2: "Yeah, well, maybe I should hit the gym."
Spend any time around tween, teen, or college-age girls and it won't take long before one young woman says to her friend, "Ugh, I feel so fat." Now, a new study confirms that the overwhelming majority — 93 percent — of college-age women engage in "fat talk." Most of them believe it makes them feel better about their bodies, but the study results suggest the opposite: The more college women talked about how fat they were, the more likely they were to be dissatisfied with their bodies.
In the research, published in the March issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly, scientists rounded up 186 female undergraduates ages 18 to 23 at a Midwestern college. Only 9 percent of this group were overweight.
The women took an online survey asking them to write the next seven lines of dialogue between two friends after one complains about feeling fat. In addition, the students also answered questions about the frequency and meaning of fat talk, their level of satisfaction with their bodies and the factors influencing their body ideals.
"I was surprised at how common it was for college women to engage in fat talk and the ease with which the women wrote realistic fat-talk scripts," says Rachel Salk, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the study's lead author. "Most women were clearly not at a loss for typical responses in a fat-talk conversation."
The research suggests that much of "fat talk" really is a form of seeking reassurance about appearance. But while fat talk offers comfort and connection with other women, "several participants remarked that they want their friends to tell them they're not fat, but they don't really believe it when they hear it," explains Salk.
Seidman, who describes herself as "normal weight, fit and athletic," says that when she initiates the fat talk, she wants her friends to say it's not true. "You want some validation, and that's why you're doing it." These conversations remind her that feeling fat is not based on reality, and these negative thoughts are not as real as they feel in her mind.
And when it's Seidman's turn to listen and react to a friend's fat talk, she says it "does provide some comfort knowing that you're not alone in feeling this way about your body, and it gives me some perspective on myself." Even so, Seidman knows these discussions can be "kinda tricky and precarious," and she may need to be "super delicate" in her responses. "In some sense, fat talk can make you feel connected, and in other ways, disconnected," she admits.
Prior research has suggested that it's something that's done almost exclusively by young women who are at a normal weight or below — perhaps because someone carrying a few extra pounds would likely be reluctant to call attention to it.
"Fat talk has very little to do with being overweight," Salk says. "But it has real, measurable negative consequences."
While it may seem like healthy bonding for friends to vent about their body dissatisfaction, "the body ideal for women is so unattainable that thinking and talking about body shape and size tends to leave women feeling worse, not better," points out Salk. "Fat talk likely results in more body monitoring, which women are already spending too much time doing."
Even the most physically fit females may have temporary weight anxiety— from eating poorly, not exercising, or feeling bloated. But for women to have fewer "feeling fat" moments, they should redirect their body-related thoughts to feeling healthy and treating their bodies with care and respect, Salk suggests. To the extent that it's possible in a looks-oriented culture, women should focus on aspects other than appearance that are key to personal identity: personality, intellect and values.
As women get older, some learn to feel more comfortable in their own skin and there's some evidence that fat talk decreases with age, according to Salk. But getting older can bring it's own self-image problems. "Many continue to 'fat talk' as their bodies move further away from the thin body ideal," she says.