Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Yes, fat talk is a problem... and no, this is not the solution

This morning, I stumbled across this extremely unhelpful headline on a Web site called Medical Daily:

"Girl, Shut It!" Study Finds People Don't Like Women Who 'Fat Talk'


The piece itself describes the same study detailed here in the NYT, which examined how undergraduate college students perceived speakers of fat talk, and specifically the speaker's body shape / size might affect their perception. Here is how the NYT described it:

As 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 likable 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.”
Here is how Medical Daily described it:

Over 100 female undergrads were shown a series of photos of thin or overweight women participating in fat talk. The women in the photos who engaged in fat talk were rated as significantly less likeable, regardless of whether or not they were overweight.

"The take-home message is that if women engage in fat talk in the hope of enhancing their social bonds, their attempts may have the effect of backfiring," said Corning.
The NYT unpacks how and why fat talk can be such a problem among girls and women:

But putting a stop to fat talk is difficult. Dr. Corning said, in part because it feels airless and scripted and seems to offer the responder no avenue to change the dynamic without threatening the relationship. She gave an example:
First friend: “I can’t believe I ate that brownie. I am so fat!”
Second friend: “You must be joking — you are so not fat. Just look at my thighs.”
The second friend’s reply, an “empathetic” self-deprecating retort to maintain the friendship on equal standing, includes reflexive praise of the first friend’s body, supposedly feeding the first friend’s hungry cry for affirmation, Dr. Corning said. But to do so, the second friend has eviscerated herself, a toxic tear-down by comparison.

Medical Daily treats fat talk as a problem of likeability: "A new study from Notre Dame suggests that "fat talk," or those everyday statements that voice dissatisfaction about bodily appearance, eating, and exercise, is very unpopular among college-aged women."

As a parent and a former journalist, I think it is interesting to read the two pieces and important to think about the different messages that they send, not only about the study itself, but also how to read and interpret research. There is a lot reported these days that is relevant to practice and policy concerning the health and well being of girls and women. We need to understand what it means.

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