Friend 1: ‘I’m so fat and ugly’.
Friend 2: ’No you’re not! I’m the one who needs to lose some pounds’.
Friend 1: ‘Yeah right. If I looked like you, I wouldn’t have anything to worry about. I need to lose at least six kilograms.’
Repeat back and forth ad infinitum.
By my estimation, I’ve had and heard this conversation 68 bazillion times in my life. Sometimes I play the role of the fat and ugly one forcing my friend to be kindly and self-abasing. Other times I’m the one trying to talk some sense into my friend /colleague/neighbour/hairdresser/mother/stranger on the bus.
Having been schooled from girlhood in self-criticism, particularly when it comes to our bodies, Fat Chat becomes our default language in adulthood. It’s an icebreaker, a means of ingratiating ourselves with a group of strangers or a way to bond with our gal pals.
While we may talk about how much we hate our body parts to gain social acceptance, research suggests that Fat Chat is counterproductive. It turns out that women who engage in Fat Chat are liked less by their peers.
In a recent study conducted by Alexandra Corning, research associate professor of psychology and director of Notre Dame’s Body Image and Eating Disorder Lab, participants were asked to rate the likability of women who were talking both positively and negatively about their bodies.
Women who engaged in Fat Chat were rated significantly less likeable, regardless of their body weight. Overweight women who made positive statements about their bodies were rated as the most likeable.
‘Though it has become a regular part of everyday conversation, “fat talk” is far from innocuous,’ said Corning. ‘It is strongly associated with, and can even cause, body dissatisfaction, which is a known risk factor for the development of eating disorders.’
One conclusion of the study – that we shouldn’t Fat Chat because people wont like us – isn’t my idea of helpful. Women already spend too much time seeking other people’s approval and trying to please them. But it is useful to question the belief that we can only maintain our friendships by discussing the circumference of our thighs.
In a world that’s hostile to women’s bodies, it’s understandable that we fish for compliments and reassurance from our friends. But aside from the hundreds of hours of our lives we waste talking about how ugly we are, Fat Chat makes us even more insecure by reinforcing the idea that our beauty is relative to the ugliness of those around us.
No matter how much we run ourselves down in order to boost up a friend, as soon as somebody deemed more beautiful than her walks into the room she will consider herself to be ugly again.
Worse, in certain contexts, Fat Chat can be contagious. A study published in 2012 in the journal Sex Roles found that women who hear Fat Chat can come away from the exchange with lower body satisfaction.
The upside of the study, however, is that women can protect themselves from the negative effects of Fat Chat, not just by contradicting someone who engages in Fat Chat, but by calling bullsh*t on the whole conversation.
By refusing to give in to Fat Chat, we can challenge our friends to think about the tyranny of using beauty as a measure of self-worth. More importantly, we can also shut down the spiral of competitive self-loathing.
Contrary to popular belief, racing our friends to the bottom to claim the crown of Ms Fat and Ugly 2013 isn’t a lasting foundation for friendship, sisterhood, or good mental health. Calling out the obsession with our bodies isn’t just good for our friends. It’s good for us too.
Bottom line: friends don’t let friends Fat Chat.