'Fat talk' may be counterproductive to weight management, psychologist says

Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University, answers questions about the impact of “fat talk,” or a negative verbalization of your attitude toward your body.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: December 27, 2012
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Many women have found themselves at one point standing in front of the mirror, grabbing at their waist and saying something to the effect of “I am so fat.”

Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychologist and body image researcher at Northwestern University, has studied what she calls “fat talk” for about five years and recently started working with Special K on research related to women who take a positive approach to weight management.

Engeln answered questions about the impact attitude has on a woman's success in weight management.

What is “fat talk”?

“Fat talk is just a verbalization of your attitude toward your body,” Engeln said. It's those moments when women say things like “I'm so fat,” or spend several minutes saying negative things about their body and their weight.

The original research published about “fat talk” is a couple of decades old, but this type of attitude seems to have become increasingly common in women and girls, Engeln said.

Meanwhile, research recently commissioned by Special K found that nine out of 10 women who think positively about weight management reported success in either maintaining or losing weight in the past year, compared to about half of women who took a negative approach.

What are some reasons women engage in “fat talk”?

Engeln said “fat talk” is a more complicated phenomenon than many people realize. It's not about women looking for compliments, wanting someone to say, “You're not fat,” Engeln said.

“That's not really how it works,” she said. “What I found is that fat talk is really about something deeper. It's about women who are having a lot of distress over their bodies. They spend a lot of time thinking about how they look, feeling not good enough, and fat talk is about reaching out for some social support to try to feel better. But the bad news is, it doesn't work. It doesn't make you feel better.”

A woman's immediate instinct might be to talk to a friend or family member about how bad she feels, in hopes it will make her feel better. But in the end, taking a negative approach when talking about your body tends to make you feel worse, she said.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, medicine and fitness, among other things. She graduated from Oklahoma State University with a news-editorial and broadcast production degree. Outside of work, she enjoys riding her bike, taking pictures of...
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