Written by Kaitlin Sanzone, BA.
Have you checked your Facebook status today? Refreshed the comments on your Instagram post? Filtered or edited one of your pictures because you wanted to be taller and thinner? If you answered yes to any of the above, then you have encountered “Fat Talk.” Fat Talk refers to conversations that involve speaking negatively about your own or somebody else’s body weight, shape, or size. Such negative statements encourage the listener to also state something they dislike about themselves, leading to an unproductive spiral of communal body dissatisfaction. We now know that even seemingly small comments can be consequential to our physical and emotional health.
Research is being conducted globally to study the effects of Fat Talk on and off social media platforms. At the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, researchers are studying the association between social media usage and eating disorders. In one study, 1,765 people between the ages of 19 and 32 years old were surveyed about their daily social media usage. Study participants also completed a questionnaire screening for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Results of this investigation, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, indicated that individuals who logged the most time on social media platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat) were more than twice as likely to have an eating problem or body image distress. Because social media creates a platform that combines “the visual aspects of traditional media with the opportunity for users to interact,” it may be propagating stereotypes leading to an increase in eating and body image concerns.
The latest research supports the anecdotal perception that Fat Talk is all too common. For example, investigators in Australia surveyed 135 adult women over the course of a week, delivering questions via smartphone app regularly. This type of data collection is called ecological momentary assessment, and it allows for real-time reporting which reduces recall bias. Eighty-two percent of study participants experienced Fat Talk during the seven-day trial period, with approximately one-quarter of all social interactions reportedly involving some form of Fat Talk. In this article summarizing the study, Dr. Jacqueline Mills, study investigator, described that engaging in Fat Talk in any way (i.e.; in-person or online via social media platforms) was negatively associated with body satisfaction. Body dissatisfaction is not only associated with eating disorders but sometimes with symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as unhealthy practices surrounding food and exercise that might not meet the threshold of an eating disorder diagnosis. We are left to wonder if mindfulness of and a reduction in our social media usage could be one way to reduce Fat Talk and its impact.
Let’s Stop the Talk: Strategies to Reduce Fat Talk
- Limit your social media usage. Advertisements online can present inaccurate body images and false appearance that can easily facilitate Fat Talk.
- If you hear something, say something. Fat Talk loves company. When a friend starts talking disparagingly about their body, you may feel more inclined to say something negative about your own body. Try not to fall into the trap. Instead, add positivity to the conversation either about yourself or others or change the topic of conversation altogether.
- Be aware of how often you are engaging in Fat Talk. Keeping a journal may be a great way to tally up how often you are bringing negative thoughts into everyday conversation and to notice the fluctuations in how you feel about your body over the course of a day.
- Become a savvy Instagram or Facebook user. When looking at your posts, try to reroute any self-criticism that surfaces. Do you remember enjoying the moment depicted? How did you feel in the experience? Are you looking forward to more memories like this?
- If you are interested in taking action to a bigger platform, join two great awareness groups called Proud2BMe or Project HEAL. Each aims to re-define mental health and promote a safe, positive environment for all individuals. If you are a college student, Fat Talk Free Week is a great platform for change.