Newswise — Washington, DC (March 22, 2012)- Commenting that you think you are fat may be hazardous to your mental health. Engaging in “fat talk”—the ritualistic conversations about one’s own or others’ bodies—predicts lower satisfaction with one’s body and higher levels of depression, finds a new study recently published online in the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research.

“These results suggest that expressing weight-related concerns, which is common especially among women, has negative effects,” said the study’s lead author, Analisa Arroyo, a Ph.D. student in communication at the University of Arizona, Tucson. “We found that fat talk predicts changes in depression, body satisfaction, and perceived pressure to be thin across time.”

Arroyo’s research, conducted with Jake Harwood, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of Arizona, involved two studies that surveyed undergraduate student volunteers at the university. The researchers sought to determine whether fat talk was a cause or outcome of body weight concerns and mental health issues.

The first study included 33 women and 24 men with an average age of nearly 21. Through a series of online questionnaires administered over three weeks, participants responded to questions about their body satisfaction and perceived pressure from society to be thin, level of depression and self-esteem, and frequency of fat talk. Examples of fat talk included comments about what the respondents’ eating and exercise habits should be, fears of becoming overweight, perception of their own weight and shape, and voiced comparisons with other people in these areas.

The results showed that the more often someone engaged in fat talk, the lower that person’s body satisfaction and the higher the level of depression after three weeks, according to Arroyo. The findings did not differ significantly by participants’ sex or body mass index.

Although there was no support in the initial study for fat talk being an outcome of body weight concerns and mental health issues, the second study did demonstrate this, statistical analyses found. Unlike the first research project, this larger study distinguished between saying and hearing fat talk. Again, undergraduate students with an average age of 21 (85 women and 26 men) completed online questionnaires, this time over a two-week period.

Low body satisfaction significantly predicted saying more fat talk, the investigators found. In turn, saying fat talk significantly predicted increased depression over time and greater perceived pressure to be thin. Hearing fat talk was neither a cause nor a consequence of body weight and mental health issues.

Arroyo said they found the latter finding interesting because it contradicts published media effects research, which shows that exposure to messages in the media can affect individuals' body image. “Interpersonally, however, this is not happening,” she said. “It is the act of engaging in fat talk, rather than passively being exposed to it, that has these negative effects.”

The article, “Exploring the Causes and Consequences of Engaging in Fat Talk,” will appear in the May 2012 print issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research.


About the National Communication AssociationThe National Communication Association (NCA) advances communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. The NCA serves approximately 8,000 scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, the NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems.

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Journal of Applied Communication Research (May, 2012)