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The Art Of Self Talk And Losing Weight

Several years ago I happened to lose quite a bit of weight. My motivation was of a negative variety (I was under stress) and my methods were suspect too (I did massive amounts of running while skipping meals and drinking energy drinks all day). Nevertheless, the pounds and inches were melting off which was a new territory for me, who has been walking the line between pleasantly plump and overweight most of my life (and that was the only kind of walking I was used to doing, sadly).

I knew I looked different and felt different too. I knew my clothes fit differently and better and that it was easier for me to move through my workout routines. That was expected and a part of the plan. What I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t know how to handle was the way others spoke to me and looked at me now. One of my male buddies summed it all up for me once in a very pointed way.

“I never saw you as heavy, even before”, he said, as we were midway through our very first (and our very last) lunch date. “You were always awesome. It’s just that now you’re hot too”.

That simple sentence stirred up a lot of emotions in my newly skinny body. I knew that beautiful equaled thin – knew that from the time I started first grade and was asked to stand in the back for group class pictures, knew that from the time my mom explained what clothes would be more flattering to wear for my shape (I was 9), and so many other times the point was driven home throughout my adolescence. If you were not thin, it’s not that you weren’t “seen as heavy”, to quote my unfortunately tongue tied lunch partner. It’s that you weren’t seen, period.

Thinness And Fat Talk

However, in the world where female thinness is synonymous with female attractiveness, one would assume that, especially with the abundance of information on nutrition, weight management, and active lifestyle, it would be easy to create a regimen that would allow us to guide ourselves into that standard of beauty. Yet, not only do we report higher and higher rates of obesity, we also see rapidly growing incidents of body image related problems and various eating pathologies. Is there more to getting to thin than the physical steps we take? Enter the phenomenon known as “fat talk”.

Fat talk is our self-talk, shared with others, and follows four major themes. We are discussing our weight, someone else’s weight, express fears of gaining weight or looking fat, discussing diets and/or exercise and comparing ourselves to others that are a part of the conversation. Fat talks begin at an earlier and earlier age, and it is estimated that approximately 57% of adolescent girls engage in unhealthy food and weight-related activities, compared to 24% of adult women (Guerin, 2017). Fat talk conversations are negative and disparaging, specifically to oneself, and are related to food and appearance. The Same study shows that 93% of college women engage in fat talk and when asked why reported feeling more accepted and validated in their immediate social circles. By the same token, 23% of women in 1972 were dissatisfied with their overall appearance, while by 1996, that number easily doubled at 56%.

The study continues to affirm that continuously stating discontent with one’s body has been shown to link to mental health issues, including depression, low self-esteem, distorted self-view and eating disorders. When we consider that fat talk is expected to be reciprocal (we are expected to engage in it when hearing it used around us), it is reasonable to suggest that the ultimate outcome of this will be increased body dissatisfaction with related comorbidities. Guerin also proposes that women who are of average or below average weight are more likely to engage in fat talk as opposed to women who are actually overweight or obese (2017).

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It’s as if by engaging in fat talk we superstitiously try to ward off any phantom weight gain while at the same telling ourselves over and over that we are not thin enough. In my case, I remember trying on a pair of size 4 jeans and they weren’t fitting right. I turned to my size 2 friend and said, “I wish my fat backside would look more like yours!”, to which she promptly replied, “Girl, I have been bloated since last week, at least you have none of these tummy rolls”.

Staying Motivated And On Course

Sometimes fat talk is masked by the well-intentioned discussion on healthy eating and exercise. How then can we recognize that what we are saying is actually harmful? It all rests, as always, within ourselves and what we see as our motivation. If we are motivated externally, we are prone to engage in activities to obtain a reward or avoid punishment. If we are motivated internally, we are likely to do things that match up with our core values and standards, or a vision for ourselves as a whole person (not only physical, for example). Internally, or intrinsically, motivated, we pursue health, personal growth, and well-being. Externally motivated, we tend to chase things like physical attractiveness, popularity, conformity to consumer code. You can easily guess which motivation yields more long-lasting results and overall satisfaction when reaching them. As a matter of fact, when we are only motivated externally, we report lower life satisfaction and self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, stringent dieting and exercise regimes, and poor weight management (Guerin, 2017).

And it makes sense – if I only have goals of having an “attractive” body, which is a shifting target as I will try to chase down that elusive definition. Attractive to whom? What are the exact measures? Will they vary from person to person evaluating me? Will I end up seeing myself as just an object, and one that continues to fail the tests I perform on it?

But the tests become more and more stringent. It is known that when engaging in “dieting” behaviors, the results are inconsistent, relapses into bad eating habits are frequent, and the eating habits are chaotic and disconnected from the rest of the individuals’ regimen. Similarly, exercising maniacally “for my trip to Vegas” may send one’s body into exhaustion and lead to prolonged health problems. The cycle of “failing” over and over will lead to more self-shaming and consequently, more fat talk and more relapses into low quality of life behaviors.

How then do we break the cycle? Probably with a question to ourselves, and evaluating the messages we send to ourselves and others close to us when engaging in fat talk and externally motivated activities. Find your true goals and form or join a group of likeminded individuals for support. Reshape your fat talk into fit talk – avoid the temptation of putting yourself down, even jokingly. Don’t look at your body as a collections of parts, adopt a holistic view, complete with your mind, humor, personality – and work to see your own health, beauty and strength. You will likely find that while you were always beautiful, you will now see yourself as completely awesome too.

Research source: Guertin, C., Barbeau, K., Pelletier, L. G., & Martinelli, G. (2017). Why do women engage in fat talk? Examining fat talk using Self-Determination Theory as an explanatory framework. Body Image, 20, 7-15. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bodyim.2016.10.008

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Julia Hewitt, M.S. Psychology
Julia Hewitt, M.S. Psychology

Julia is passionate about helping others on their self-discovery path, be it with relationships, life's purpose, personal goals or simply coping skills. She believes in the power of words, thoughts and in the beauty of language. She holds a Masters in Psychology and a Masters in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix as well as a Bachelors from Arizona State University, and volunteers on a teen crisis hotline.

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