Western Mail Profiles: Dr Sarah Riley

‘Women need to change the way they talk about bodies’

Sarah Riley is a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Aberystwyth University, where she teaches qualitative methods and is part of the team designing its new MSc in Health Psychology.

RESEARCH suggests that most women talk negatively about the size and shape of their bodies.

This kind of talk has been given the name “fat talk”.

One of the interesting things about fat talk is that fat people generally don’t do it – slim people do.

So how have we ended up in a place where slim people complain about being fat?

As a critical psychologist interested in health and social issues, I answer this question by thinking about people’s talk as a social process that has psychological and social consequences, rather than a simple description of how people think or feel.

In relation to fat talk I’m therefore less interested in if a speaker really thought they were fat and more interested in the psychological and social functions of this talk.

In relation to fat talk there seems to be several functions – because it’s something that women do, doing it can make you feel like a woman.

And, since women often have back and forth conversations saying how fat they are, but how their friend isn’t, fat talk is a vehicle for female bonding.

Fat talk also allows women to draw attention to their bodies, inviting others to look at them, but because they are doing it in a critical way, this invitation to look, and perhaps admire them, can be done without them being accused of showing off.

In other words, fat talk lets women bond, feel feminine, be admired and call attention to themselves, all in a culturally acceptable way. No wonder so many women do it.

But despite the apparent positive consequences of this kind of talk, it is psychologically damaging.

Research suggests that fat talk increases body dissatisfaction and therefore reduces well-being.

It also focuses women’s sense of self onto their bodies, encouraging women to consider their bodies to be their most important feature, but a feature that will never be good enough.

So it’s important to change the way we talk about our bodies.

My focus group-based research on how to change the way we talk about our bodies suggests that although giving up fat talk is a positive step, it can leave women feeling isolated from other women who are still doing it.

My participants’ solutions have been to talk about fat talk with their friends, making pacts with them to try something different.

Change is always easier if we have others with us, so perhaps today, speak to someone you know and do a deal with them– no more fat talk!

You can contact Sarah at scr2@aber.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 10th December 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.