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.
Engeln talks to mothers about the impact “fat talk” has on their daughters. Engaging in “fat talk” sends a message that it's OK to say mean things about your body. This kind of talk has the same impact on men. The difference is there's more emphasis on women's image in popular culture, she said.
“I do think women carry a heavier load because of this chronic emphasis on weight loss and being thin, but I think men suffer, too,” Engeln said.
What does it mean to take a positive approach to body image and weight loss?
One way to stop “fat talk” is to stop focusing on how you look, she said.
Instead, think about the power your body gives you to achieve great things, she said.
“Think about the strengths you have, the endurance you have, and when you think about weight management, which is a real issue for a lot of women, think about it in terms of becoming strong and healthy, instead of in terms of becoming less.”
What are the best ways to curb this bad habit?
Engeln said changing any habit is hard. She encourages women to do simple things, such as make a “fat talk” jar, placing $1 in it every time they catch themselves. Ending “fat talk” can be refreshing.
“There are a lot of women who are really ready to hear something different, who are ready to stop thinking about themselves as just a number on a scale and start thinking about all the power their body has and all the things it can do,” she said.
Engeln said women shouldn't ignore their health but rather should take a more positive approach to how they become healthier.
“We have years of medical science now saying weight matters,” Engeln said. “We want women to be strong and healthy, but the key issue here is there's no evidence that feeling bad about your body helps you be healthy.”