This is a typical conversation, that psychological researchers have named ‘fat talk,’ the body-denigrating conversation between girls and women. At best it is bonding and reinforces a friendship through shared problems.At worst, it is setting the stage for eating disorders.

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Body-image and fat talk

Some researchers see the ritualised series of ‘fat talk’ conversations as contagious and have found that fat talk is so embedded among women that it often reflects not how the speaker actually feels about her body but how she is expected to feel about her body-image. And while research shows that most women neither enjoy nor admire fat talk, it compels them. In one study, 93 percent of college women admitted to engaging in it. Alexandra F. Corning, a research associate professor in psychology at the University of Notre Dame, wondered whether a woman’s size would affect her likability when she engaged in fat talk.

body-image PlusSizeModelAs an online experiment, Dr. Corning showed 139 undergraduates photos of two thin and two overweight women, each making either a positive or negative remark about her body. Because of the stigma against heavier people, Dr. Corning expected that the most popular option would be a thin woman who made positive comments about her body. But she found that wasn’t the case. The most likeable woman chosen by the students was overweight and quoted as saying: ‘I know I’m not perfect, but I love the way I look. I know how to work with what I’ve got, and that’s all that matters.’

The results were heartening, Dr. Corning said, a glimmer that nearly two decades of positive body-image campaigns may be taking hold. But, she acknowledged, her experiment had limitations. ‘Are the students really liking these women the most? Or are they saying it because they think they should?’ said Dr. Corning. ‘They might like them more, but would they really want to hang out with them?’ Renee Engeln, who directs the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University, cautioned that ‘we have complicated reactions to confident women in general, and particularly to women who are confident about their bodies. Women sometimes see them as arrogant.’

(image:Dove/PA Wire)

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