‘Fat Talk’: Does It Depend on the Audience?

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
September/October 2007 Volume 18, Number 5
©2007 Gürze Books

For women, being attractive is a social asset thought to provide popularity, romance, and better opportunities in life. In western society, thinness is often equated with attractiveness, and this idea has been reinforced by the mass media and popular cultural icons.

One of the most potent forms of peer pressure to be thin occurs in casual conversations when a thin peer complains about feeling fat and needing to lose weight. This puts pressure on other females to join in and self-derogate as well. Nichter and Vuckovic proposed that women use this type of ritualized conversation as a means of adhering to indirect peer pressure where the norm is to speak negatively about one’s body, and labeled such conversations “fat talk” (Fat Talk, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

A test with four audiences

Dr. Ashley B. Craig and colleagues at North Carolina State University and Appalachian State University attempted to find whether college women deliberately alter their self-reported body image according to the specific characteristics of their audience (Eating Behaviors 2007; 8:244). To test the theory that the women would derogate themselves and their body image with a female audience but not with a male audience, the team set up four situations: private, public, female audience, and male audiences. They then compared pre-study versus post study changes on the Body Esteem Scale (BES) and the Body Weight Figure Assessment (BWFA) questionnaires. One-hundred volunteers participated.

Groups of approximately 20 participants were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions, based on counter-balanced study sign-up times. Participants were given a packet of questionnaires, including the BES and BFWA. After completing the first set of questionnaires, participants were given a 5-minute “filler” task to serve as a distraction from the context of the pretest surveys. After the filler task was finished, each group was told that they would either simply fill out the questionnaires a second time (private condition) or they would fill out a second set of questionnaires that would be then shown to either a female or a male audience. To enhance the realism of the procedure, the participants were told that this group of women or men would be evaluating the information on the questionnaires.

To the researchers’ surprise, there were no significant differences among the groups. The researchers theorized that one reason their results did not match earlier study results was that the analog study lacked the social realism to invoke the fat talk. Other factors might also be at work; for example, in a study by Gapinski et al in 2003 (Sex Roles 2003; 48:377), there was a type of body objectification called “state objectification,” which is dependent on the situation. These researchers found that women trying on a bathing suit were more comfortable with a female friend’s comments about being “fat” than were women trying on a sweater. Thus, “fat talk” may depend on the time and place, according to the authors.

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