Body-Image Wars: Fighting “Fat Talk” with Fat Photos

Our expert says we should stop the fat-talk cycle. Like, now.

You: “Do I look awful in this dress? Be honest.”

Your friend: “No you don’t! Do you see my hair? It’s heinous.”

You: “Your hair looks fine! Ugh, I hope it’s dark at the party and no one can see me.”

Sound familiar? This is “fat talk,” folks, an exchange between two people, often female, that probably brings back memories of high school … and college … and a night out with friends last weekend. It goes like this: one person puts him or herself down and the other person responds with an equal, or more self-critical, response.

The New York Times posted an article this week about how fat talk “compels but carries a cost”—the cost being that people who do it are less liked by those around them. Author Jan Hoffmann looks at a new study out of the University of Notre Dame and offers an interesting window into the current state of our culture, particularly within close friendships and relationships. The research examines the complexities of body image in conjunction with communication styles between two or more people.

This theme is especially compelling in the age of social media where fat talk extends beyond just a dressing room. We now see it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more. There is legitimate anxiety for many when someone posts pictures publicly; it is not uncommon to hear, “Take that picture down, I look awful!” or “Don’t tag me, I look huge!” which inevitably is followed by the vicious cycle of empathic “fat talk” and self-deprecation discussed in Hoffmann’s article. This communication nuance between individuals often exists in both a conscious and subconscious effort to make a friend or loved one feel good and to maintain what I will call “emotional equilibrium” within the relationship.

The self-image anxiety is real for many, and is not limited to just females. The advice in the article to shift the focus away from being negative about oneself in response to a loved one’s self-criticism, despite the urge to appear empathic, is very good. But some people are doing more.

There’s a new movement called “Bad Picture Monday” that aims fight against denigration of self. Founded by activist Sonya Renee Taylor, it seeks to empower individuals to own one’s whole self, taking control over and power of who we are and what we look like through the posting of “bad” self pictures. Counterintuitive to many at a time when use of airbrushing and Photoshop is rampant, the mission of “Bad Picture Monday” makes its point clear: we must be kinder to ourselves.

One thing is for certain: The culture of negative self-talk as a way to make another feel better needs to shift to a healthier and more accepting place. The alternative is a slippery slope. I’ll take some steps today to work towards a culture of positive self-talk and acceptance, starting with simply saying, “Thank you” the next time I hear positive feedback and disengaging from a cycle of “fat talk” with friends and loved ones. I challenge you to give it a try, too.

Just say “thank you”. You’re welcome.


Dana Careless is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Pennsylvania and is certified in Mental Health First Aid. She is also a certified indoor-cycling instructor. Dana is committed to reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and to exploring the use of fitness as a means to maintain and support mental wellness.

Photo: Shutterstock