Fat Talk Free Zone: What is the Impact of Fat Talk on Body Dissatisfaction?

There has been a veritable explosion of “anti-fat talk” movements in the body image and eating disorder prevention realms over the past few years. Indeed, campaigns like the Tri-Delta Sorority Fat Talk Free week have become relatively well known. Events like the “Southern Smash,” where participants literally smash scales are other iterations of this social phenomenon encouraging a more positive conversation around bodies.

I am, of course, a fan of the idea that we shouldn’t put our bodies down; I’m a huge proponent of the need to avoid putting our own and others’ bodies down. I think that initiatives like Fat Talk Free week are good practice as they help move conversations in more productive directions and help to redirect our focus from bodies as our only source of value.

One of my concerns about these initiatives is that in signing up to do a Fat Talk Free week or smashing a scale, we start to think that we are “doing enough” to prevent eating disorders. Here is where nuance comes in: do I think that these initiatives might be effective in reducing poor body image? Yes, I do. I think that they help people become more comfortable, at least in the short term, with the idea that we can actually value other aspects of ourselves. I’ve written about the difference between being media literate and loving our bodies elsewhere, but in general I am hesitant to be too critical of initiatives that might be experienced as empowering.

However, do I think that these kinds of initiatives are effective in preventing eating disorders? Not really, to be honest. While some people’s eating disorders may have a great deal to do with body image, this is certainly not a universal experience. At the very least, the body image-eating disorder tie-in is more complex than a direct causal link between disliking one’s weight and shape and developing an eating disorder.

Importantly, this link is muddled by a number of other factors, and shaped by personal history (biological and experiential) and social context. So, where I think the danger comes in is that by engaging in these kinds of events, other work around changing the sociocultural conditions that might lead to either actual prevention or early intervention and treatment for eating disorder might get swept under the rug.

All this is to foreground an exploration of a recent study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders in which Sharpe, Naumann, Treasure & Schmidt (2013) explore the link between fat talk and body dissatisfaction. Given that this study was published in an eating disorders specific journal (and that I am now writing about it on an eating disorders blog), I think it is important to note that the authors specifically refer to the links between fat talk and body dissatisfaction, not eating disorders per se- this is another level of linkage.


The authors conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies looking at the links between fat talk and body dissatisfaction. In order for the study to be included, it needed to:

  • Be published Jan. 1990-Jan. 2013
  • If it was cross-sectional (i.e. participants measured at one point in time), the study needed to measure both fat talking and body dissatisfaction
  • If it was prospective (i.e. measuring at a time point and looking for an outcome later), the study needed to measure fat talk at the first point in time and to measure body dissatisfaction at the first time point and at least once in the future
  • If it was experimental (i.e. participants were assigned to groups), the study needed to change fat talk exposure and assess body dissatisfaction before and after exposure to the fat talk

They searched databases for “fat talk” (a term coined in 1994 by Nichter & Vuckovic) and “appearance conversations.” From an initial 68 studies, they narrowed their review to 24 studies that fit their criteria. Of these:

  • All were published between 2003-2013
  • 14 had all female samples
  • 8 had mixed gender samples
  • 2 had all male samples
  • None used random sampling, which the authors note could mean that their results may not be generalizable to the whole population

Measures used to assess fat talk in the 24 studies included:

  • The Appearance Conversations with Friends Scale, which asks participants about the frequency and content of their body-talk with peers (13 of 24)
  • The Fat Talk Scale, which presents scenarios and asks participants to evaluate how often they encounter these (2 of 24)
  • The Fat Talk Questionnaire, which asks participants to rate (on a 5-point scale) how often they engaged in fat talk (1 of 24)
  • The Negative Body Talk Scale, which asks participants (on a 7-point scale) how often they say specific fat talk statements (1 of 24)

Measures used to assess body dissatisfaction included:


Overall, the authors concluded that there was not a great deal of strong evidence that fat talk leads to increased body dissatisfaction. While some of the long-term studies showed increases in body dissatisfaction, these effects were not pronounced. Where links did exist, they were much stronger among adults than children. As the authors note, this may be because children are less likely to have these kinds of conversations.

This points to an argument that fat talk might percolate in people’s minds for a while before impacting how they feel about their bodies. On the other hands, the authors highlight effects from experimental studies indicating that fat talk could provoke body dissatisfaction right after exposure, presenting conflicting evidence for how long it takes for fat talk to “sink in.”

Interestingly, though Sharpe et al. suggest that there is not strong evidence for causal links between fat talk and body dissatisfaction, they also note that the effect sizes from the studies are actually similar to those of thin-ideal internalization and perceived pressure to be thin on body dissatisfaction (i.e. effect sizes found in Stice et al., 2003). I can’t help but wonder whether fat talk and “perceived pressure to be thin” are really discrete constructs or whether they are actually tied into one another? A rose by any other name…


The authors are appropriately skeptical about the connections between fat talk and body dissatisfaction in the face of somewhat lacking evidence. They also do not try to make any claims that stopping fat talk will actually reduce the incidence of eating disorders.

So, to me, this begs the question: if stopping fat talk is not going to reduce the incidence of eating disorders, why is it such a big focus of prevention efforts?

I’ve discussed my skepticism about eating disorder prevention efforts in previous posts (here and here). At the risk of coming off as a pessimist, I remain unconvinced that our efforts to prevent eating disorders and body dissatisfaction are having much impact. Mostly, as I mentioned earlier in this post, I am concerned that by wrapping up our efforts and money in the kinds of “feel good” initiatives like anti-fat talk and scale smashing, we will feel like we are “doing enough” to prevent eating disorders.

I want to be crystal clear that I do not think these efforts are without value. I absolutely think we need to be doing all this and more to change the conversation around bodies and weight. More than that, I think we need to see more conversations about how to remove the morals and values placed onto different body types, and not just looking for a “new skinny.” We need to advocate for body acceptance, certainly. Whether or not it leads to an eating disorder, body dissatisfaction is neither fun nor without implications for mental and physical well-being.

We also need to engage in meaningful conversations about other factors that might contribute to the development of eating disorders, beyond the proliferation of thin bodies and conversations about bodies. We need to make space for people to express what they personally feel contributed to the development of their distress around food, weight, and shape, whether that is body dissatisfaction or genetic predisposition.

The conversation around fat talk is an interesting one, and one that represents broader social factors: the fact that it is hard to imagine a body that is not scrutinized, the fact that we more easily accept certain bodies (i.e. bodies of a certain race, class, size, and ability) as bodies that “can have eating disorders” and “can recover” (and what recovery looks like and how weight complicates this picture), the fact that weight stigma is so proliferate that it can seem like everyone from your neighbor to your doctor imbues your body with moral characteristics linked to your exterior appearance.

So, what I’m getting at here: working against fat talk is an important enterprise, but it isn’t enough, in my opinion. Where they may be more useful is in helping to combat weight stigma, if done effectively, deeply, and at a systems level.

What do you think, readers?


Sharpe H, Naumann U, Treasure J, & Schmidt U (2013). Is fat talking a causal risk factor for body dissatisfaction? A systematic review and meta-analysis. The International Journal of Eating Disorders, 46 (7), 643-52 PMID: 23818118

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Andrea is a PhD candidate focusing on individual, familial, and health care definitions and experiences of eating disorder recovery. She has an MSc in Family Relations and Human Development and a BA in Sociology. In her Masters research, she used qualitative and arts-based approaches (digital storytelling) to explore the experiences of young women in recovery from eating disorders. Andrea has recovered from EDNOS. She can be reached at andrea[at]scienceofeds[dot]org.


  1. Hi Andrea – thanks for a great post! I always cringe whenever ‘body image’ and ‘anti-fat talk’ are equated with ‘eating disorders/prevention’. Given this, how do you think organizations can make eating disorders awareness events the most effective (esp. in a general college setting)? “Eating disorders awareness month” often seems like it should be called “body image and weight stigma awareness month”.

    I’m planning EDAM at my college this year, and have read a lot about various ED prevention and awareness programs. Honestly, I’m skeptical about a lot of it, but since we are going to have one, I’m trying to find the more realistic and effective, and least cringe-y programs. What do you think?

    • I think the shift in language you suggest might be a good idea. I think this is especially true because when issues like body dissatisfaction and fat talk are ONLY linked to eating disorders, people forget that these aren’t good for people in general! I’m sure I’m not saying anything newsworthy when I say that not everyone who struggles with body dissatisfaction has an eating disorder, just like not everyone with an eating disorder struggles with body dissatisfaction. But I think it bears repeating, even though I sometimes feel like it is obvious.

      I’m not sure what I think would be a better approach. That’s actually my biggest issue in critiquing these programs- I don’t have great solutions for moving forward and moving beyond what I think is a simplistic approach. I think that making sure that at least some of the content focuses on broader social pressures, rather than only working to make change within individuals, is an interesting avenue. And I don’t mean just talking about how media images are unrealistic, though that’s a part of it- I mean being pragmatic about how the way our society is structured means that there are other forces behind the perpetuating of this ideal-image-saturated market- neoliberalism, capitalism, etc.- the things that drive the engine of “the body beautiful.” I don’t think that fat talk free etc. is without value; I think these kinds of things can be helpful for people at least in the short term… I just think we also need to consider those other realities that shape our worlds and drive our relationships with our bodies.

      I think it is worth acknowledging that there are reasons we fat talk, feel uncomfortable in our bodies, etc. that are tied into a feeling of not knowing what the limits are on “healthy eating” messages, etc. I think a germane avenue might also be to unpack some of the anti-obesity messages that circulate, to foreground the fact that of COURSE people struggle (whether or not they have eating disorders). There are billboards out there telling children their bodies are the problem. We live in a world where a tiny sliver of bodies in between ‘too fat” and “too thin’ are welcome.

      Oh dear, this has become a giant ramble. I have no practical suggestions, beyond making sure that the programming clarifies that which I said at the beginning of this diatribe, that it the not-so-obvious-obvious fact that not everyone who struggles with body dissatisfaction has an eating disorder, just like not everyone with an eating disorder struggles with body dissatisfaction.

  2. Reading this, and thinking about this… it’s a good point. Anti fat talk was something I ran into here and there but it did nothing to stop my ED or curtail it. It was a temporary feel good moment but then I was right back in TN email ED.

    That said, being in active recovery, it helps a lot. So perhaps the goal of these movements is prevention but the actual outcome is they serve a major part in recovery instead.

    • You make a good point about the short-term feel-goodness of the messages. I wonder if there is a way to make avoiding scrutinizing our own and others’ bodies more normative, for a better “stick”? Then again, perhaps while actively engaging in eating disorder behaviours it also falls into the camp of things that you know would be better not to do but it’s not so much under your sustained volitional control.

      I agree that a refocusing on the value of such things in recovery might be appropriate. Someone on Twitter pointed out how these messages were helpful in recovery, too. This is pure speculation but ties into the idea that anti-fat talk isn’t really just tied to eating disorders, but maybe in recovery we face similar kinds of pressures as anyone struggling with body dissatisfaction (e.g. someone who is uncomfortable in their body but never developed symptoms of an eating disorder that was clinically diagnosable) might, and these messages help to saturate the field of messages with an alternative way to think and talk about bodies?

  3. This is great! I agree with so many of the ideas expressed here. The media, the “thin ideal,” “fat talk,”… these are the easy targets. Definitely a worthy goal to promote body acceptance and diversity, as you wrote, because too many people struggle with dissatisfaction about their bodies in ways that impact their quality of life. But an eating disorder is not “just” a diet, bad body image, fat talk, etc. It is much more complex and multifactorial, and I hate that every NEDA Week, there are so many banners that say “8 in 10 third graders would like to lose weight” etc. I mean, that is horrible, BUT not all 8 of them will develop eating disorders. What can we do to prevent those 8 (or the other 2, who are also at risk), from developing an eating disorder other than promoting positive body image? And unfortunately, the answer to that question is not easy and not really understood.

    It seems that in eating disorder prevention efforts, body image is public enemy number one. Interesting that body image takes up a huge amount of eating disorder prevention resources, even as to those with eating disorders, negative body image and focus on food/ weight loss take up a huge amount of time and becomes all-consuming, allowing us to avoid focusing on any other life concerns. In my eating disorder, my world shrinks down so that “fat” and “food” are two major concerns and that they seem to be at the root of my distress. As I work in recovery, I learn that they distract me from focusing on my worries, my joys, my life, my friends and family, and nearly everything else I hold dear. Seems that the prevention dialogue suffers from a similar narrow-mindedness in choosing to discuss what is tangible rather than what is unknown.

    • I wonder when it was that the field began to so closely intertwine body dissatisfaction and eating disorders? Was it right away, or a bit later on, when Stice et al. (2000) [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10657894] identified body dissatisfaction as one of the “modifiable risk factors” for eating disorders? I’ve been doing an actual scholarly review of prevention literature to explore other avenues and these modifiable risk factors seem to come from other work by Stice et al. in 1996 actually looking at bulimia specifically and suggesting that sociocultural pressures toward thinness played a role in provoking negative affect and dietary restriction (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005789496800426). Earlier prevention work seemed to focus on teaching of the actual dangers linked to EDs in the hopes that this knowledge would dissuade people from developing eating disorders (the problematic nature of assuming that people could simply choose not to develop eating disorders is beyond the scope of my ramble here but worth acknowledging…). I wonder if one of the reasons people have latched onto this connection between EDs and body image is because body dissatisfaction continues to be one of the only evidence-based modifiable risk factors. I think perhaps people get overwhelmed by the inability to actually modify other things that could contribute to disordered eating (and perhaps rightly so). So of course, this focus trickles through into popular understandings of what causes eating disorders, and gets taken up with vim and vigour by those interested in feeling some degree of agency in preventing something so devastating as an eating disorder.

      You make a really interesting point about the parallels between the all-consuming focus on body image as “public enemy number one” and the focus on fat & food during the eating disorder. And in both cases, as you suggest, this glosses over potentially deeper roots to these manifest focuses.

      Again, I lack a concrete thesis to my comment response… suffice to say, thanks for your comment & for your insights.

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