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Researchers at Appalachian explore phenomenon of fat talk

07_02Psy19.jpgBOONE—When a group of women get together, sooner or later the conversation turns to their dissatisfaction with their bodies.

It’s called “fat talk,” a term coined by anthropologist Mimi Nichter who looked at the behavior in middle school and high school girls.

Appalachian State University psychology professors Denise Martz, Lisa Curtin and Doris Bazzini and a team of students are looking at the behavior among college-age women.

Their research, including master’s degree student Lauren Britton and honors student Anni LeaShomb, has been published in the online journal ScienceDirect.com, and appeared in the September 2006 issue of Body Image: An International Journal of Research. The international, peer-reviewed journal publishes high-quality, scientific articles on body image and human physical appearance.

“It’s a wide open area of study,” Martz said of the practice that most often occurs among Caucasian females. “There’s not a lot of research on the subject.”

For their research purposes, Martz defines fat talk as the pressure for women to say negative things about their own body.

“Our research showed that college students – males and females – know that when women are in a group of other women who are fat talking, that they are supposed to join in to say negative things about their bodies. And, there is pressure to do so,” Martz said.

In their study, researchers described a vignette to 124 test subjects in which four female college students are studying for an exam. In the scenario, three of the four students begin to discuss their weight and dissatisfaction with their bodies.

The students participating in the study – both males and females – were asked to choose how they thought the fourth female student would respond to the discussion. Forty percent of the male students and 51 percent of the females believed the woman most likely would join the negative discussion.

They also found the women in the group would be more inclined to like a woman who participates in fat talk than a woman who doesn’t join the discussion.

“My interpretation of the students’ response is that they think fat talk is a normal thing,” Martz said. “But, it’s an unfortunate thing that women do.”

In a related study, psychology graduate student Katheryn Tucker looked at actual discussions that occurred between a pair of college-age women when one engaged in fat talk or spoke about her body in a positive manner.

To do this, Tucker enlisted the help of a student, called a “confederate,” because she was familiar with the research.

Ninety-two female students participated in the study.

Tucker found that when that student talked negatively about her body in front of the other female, the second student in the pair would also express dissatisfaction with her body. Conversely, when the student confederate talked positively about her own body, her partner was more likely to verbalize a positive body image.

Tucker’s research, coauthored with Martz, Curtin and Bazzini, will appear in the June 2007 issue of Body Image: An International Journal of Research and will be published online at ScienceDirect.com.

“We believe that many American women succumb to a vicious cycle of private/public body image dissatisfaction,” the researchers wrote. “If there is a social pressure to fat talk, and this is what females routinely hear in social circles, ordinary social interactions may reinforce their own personal body image discontent.”

The researchers also say women who feel positively about their bodies may remain silent or engage in fat talk for fear of social rejection.

Martz, who is a health psychologist, says this research is important to the understanding of the cultural pressures on women to participate in fat talk and the role the media play in women’s perceptions of their bodies.

“In general, we find that women in the United States, particularly Caucasian women, feel poorly about their bodies,” Martz said. “Women also believe there is pressure to fat talk, and that other women do it because they feel poorly about their bodies. We never break out of that cycle. If there are women who have a positive body image, they never step up and vocalize that, so the norm never changes.”

She hopes this and future research about fat talk will help women become more aware of the practice as well as the pressures from media images to strive for a particular body type.

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Caption Photo: Fat talk, a phenomenon that occurs when women get together and complain about their body image, is being studied by psychologists at Appalachian State University. Students Jessica Bowling, left, Amber Hardesty and Laura Grattan help illustrate the concern women have about their body image. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Mike Rominger)