Stopping the 'fat talk' cycle

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How often do you overhear women say, ‘I look fat’? And if you’re a woman, do you ever say it to yourself? It’s likely that female ‘fat talk’ is all around you. It’s passed from one generation to the next as mothers stare in the mirror with dissatisfaction while little girls look up at them and absorb the idea that all shapes and sizes are not beautiful. This belief is reinforced by images of thin, glamorous models and actresses that surround us in media and magazines.

It’s an insidious aspect of womanhood – and something that men also encounter, but often not to the same degree. Self-deprecation and personal image sabotage are commonplace. So much so that it would take a bit of getting used to if women regularly said things like, ‘I look great today, don’t you think?’

Jacqueline Mills, Associate Lecturer in Psychology at Deakin University’s Faculty of Health has been studying body image for four years and says, ‘the vast majority of women fat talk’. In some cases she believes women verbalise insecurities about wobbly thighs and bulbous stomachs for reassurance, but it does more harm than good, decreasing overall satisfaction with oneself.

Increasingly, women are working to stop the relentless cycle of fat talk and question why it’s become socially acceptable. The Butterfly Foundation runs a campaign called Fat Talk Free February in which they actively encourage people to stop making harmful negative statements about their bodies, and last year thousands of people petitioned Facebook to remove ‘feeling fat’ from the range of status options and won.

Mills is currently running a research project in which female participants are asked to document the frequency of their fat talk and level of body satisfaction. They are prompted to answer a survey via an app multiple times per day. The aim is to assess their behaviour in order to develop ideas for intervention and prevention.

Mills admits that breaking the cycle of negative body image is a monumental challenge. ‘People think it’s strange when women are confident about their image,’ she observes and adds that the media’s perpetual ‘thin ideal’ messages aren’t helpful. Mills suggests mothers watch the attitudes they’re inadvertently imparting on their daughters. ‘When you say that you won’t have a slice of cake or you’re dieting, kids take that on.’

'When you say that you won’t have a slice of cake or you’re dieting, kids take that on.'

Jacqueline Mills,
Deakin University

With a shift in behaviour, Mills believes women can reset the way they think and speak about their bodies and stop drawing comparisons with other women’s figures. To begin with, she says it’s important to make positive statements about appearance. ‘Tell people you like your size, instead of relying on fat talk and that way of thinking,’ she suggests.

In the short term, she hopes it helps the participants to become aware of just how often they’re internalising, verbalising and hearing toxic statements about their body and those around them. Mills says simply recognising this pattern and understanding the implications will help women to start being kinder to themselves. ‘It’s accepted that women talk like this, but it doesn’t have to be,’ Mills concludes.

Would you like to be part of the fat talk research project? Women aged 18 to 40 are invited to email jacqueline.mills@deakin.edu.au. Interested in exploring the field of psychology? Find out more about Deakin’s psychology courses.

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Jacqueline Mills
Jacqueline Mills

Associate Lecturer in Psychology, Deakin University
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