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Fat Talk Among College Women is Both Contagious and Harmful

Abstract

Fat talk is a social phenomenon during which women speak negatively with each other about the size/shape of their bodies (Nichter and Vuckovich 1994). In this study, exposure to fat talk from peers was experimentally manipulated to determine the effect of hearing fat talk on a woman’s own likelihood of engaging in fat talk and on state body dissatisfaction, guilt, and sadness. Undergraduate women (n = 87; all of a healthy weight) from a Midwestern university in the United States participated in a study ostensibly about discussing magazine advertisements. Two female confederates were present for the discussion. While discussing an advertisement featuring an attractive and thin female model, participants either heard both confederates engage in fat talk, neither confederate engage in fat talk, or the first engage in fat talk and the second challenge the fat talk. Hearing a confederate fat talk made the participants more likely to fat talk themselves (especially if the fat talk went unchallenged) and increased participants’ self-reported state body dissatisfaction and guilt. Participants who engaged in fat talk reported higher levels of self-reported state body dissatisfaction and guilt, compared to participants who did not engage in fat talk (even when controlling for pre-existing trait body dissatisfaction). Participant fat talk mediated the effect of condition on both state body dissatisfaction and guilt. Additionally, correlational analyses revealed that participants with higher levels of trait body dissatisfaction (assessed at a pre-test) were more likely to engage in fat talk (regardless of condition).

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Acknowledgment

This paper is based on the first author’s senior honors thesis completed at Northwestern University. Thanks to Megan Calhoun and Heather Waldron for their assistance and to Steven A. Miller for his assistance with mediation analyses.

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Correspondence to Rachel Hannah Salk.

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Salk, R.H., Engeln-Maddox, R. Fat Talk Among College Women is Both Contagious and Harmful. Sex Roles 66, 636–645 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-0050-1

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Keywords

  • Fat talk
  • Body image
  • Body dissatisfaction