A new study, published online in the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, reveals that conversations in which individuals perceive themselves as being fat may be damaging to their mental health. ‘Fat talk’, i.e. ritualistic conversations about one’s own or other peoples’ bodies, can result in decreased body self-esteem and higher levels of depression.

Leading author, Analisa Arroyo, a Ph.D. student in communication at the University of Arizona in Tucson declared:

“These results suggest that expressing weight-related concerns, which is common especially among women, has negative effects. We found that fat talk predicts changes in depression, body satisfaction, and perceived pressure to be thin across time.”

Arroyo and Jake Harwood, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of Arizona, collaborated on two surveys that involved undergraduate student volunteers at the university in order to establish whether ‘fat talk’ was a cause or outcome of body weight concerns and mental health issues.

Their first study involved 33 women and 24 men, who were almost 21 years old on average, and who were asked to respond to a series of online questionnaires over a 3-week period. The surveys contained questions regarding their body satisfaction and how they perceived pressure from society to be thin, their level of depression and self-esteem, as well as how often they engaged in ‘fat talk’.

The researchers defined ‘fat talk’ as comments about what the participants’ eating and exercise habits should be, their concerns of becoming overweight, how they perceived their own weight and shape, as well as how they engaged in making comparisons with other people with regard to these issues.

The findings revealed that overall, regardless of the participants’ sex or body mass index, the more frequently someone participated in ‘fat talk’, the lower their body satisfaction became and the higher their level of depression became after three weeks. A statistical evaluation showed that regardless of the fact that the first study was unsupported, the second study did show evidence that body weight concerns and mental health issues were indeed a result of ‘fat talk’. The second, larger study involved 85 women and 26 men who were 21 years old on average, and consisted of a 2-week series of online questionnaires. However, during this larger study, the researchers distinguished between ‘talking’ ‘fat talk’ and ‘listening’ to it.

The result demonstrated that low body satisfaction had a substantial impact on talking more ‘fat talk’ and talking ‘fat talk’ subsequently substantially led to higher depression over time and greater perceived pressure to be thin. In contrast, the outcome revealed that listening to ‘fat talk’ was neither a cause, nor a consequence, of body weight and mental health issues.

According to Arroyo, the latter outcome is very interesting, as it contradicts published media effects research, which demonstrates that exposure to listening to media messages can impact a person’s body image.

Arroyo concluded:

“Interpersonally. However, this is not happening. It is the act of engaging in fat talk, rather than passively being exposed to it, that has these negative effects.”

The study, “Exploring the Causes and Consequences of Engaging in Fat Talk” will be published in May’s 2012 print issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research.

Written By Petra Rattue