What to Do When Your Friend Talks Negatively About Her Body

New research reveals the best ways to respond to negative appearance talk

Posted May 13, 2019

Photo by Mentatdgt on Pexels
Source: Photo by Mentatdgt on Pexels

"I’m so fat!” “My thighs look huge in these jeans!” “Ew, I look hideous in that photo!”

These are all examples of “negative appearance talk,” more commonly known as “fat talk,” which occurs when a person makes disparaging comments about his or her appearance. Given that our society holds negative attitudes about fat, these comments usually revolve around weight, hence the name “fat talk.”

Research shows that negative appearance talk is bad for you: Perhaps unsurprisingly, making negative comments about your body will make you feel worse about your body. Interestingly, even just hearing other people engage in negative appearance talk has a negative effect on you, too.

Although the adverse effects of negative appearance talk have been known for a while now, what we didn’t really know is: When you hear someone make a negative comment about his or her body, what is the best way to respond? A new experiment from the Cairnmillar Institute in Australia can provide answers.

The research

In the experiment, 191 college women were asked to write about a situation where they had engaged in negative appearance talk. Afterward, the women were randomized to one of four groups, where they were asked to imagine how their friend would respond.

In the Challenge group, the women imagined that their friend challenged their comment by criticizing societal appearance ideals. The focus was on identifying the problem with society, not with their friend or her body (e.g., “The media and society want you to believe that your appearance is the most important thing about you, but it isn’t – the kind of person you are is much more important”). In the Reassure group, the women imagined that their friend reassured them (e.g., “You look great just the way you are!”). In the Reciprocate group, the friend also made a negative comment about her own appearance (e.g., “If you think you’re fat, I must be humongous!”). Last, in the Ignore group, the women imagined that their friend ignored their comment and changed the topic.

At the beginning and end of the experiment, all women completed questionnaires to measure how they felt about their body, as well as how supported they would feel by their friend.

The findings

The clearest finding was this: Ignoring your friend’s fat talk is the worst way to respond. Women who imagined their friend ignoring their negative comments felt the least happy with their body and felt unsupported by their friend.

The other findings were less clear-cut. The women who heard their friend reciprocate the negative comments felt the most happy with their body. The women who heard their friend challenge their negative comments, or who were reassured by their friends, did not experience any changes in how they felt about their body. But, they felt the most supported by their friend.

The take-home message

Reciprocating negative appearance talk might make your friend feel happier with her body. Yet, research also tells us that engaging in negative appearance talk is bad for us. Therefore, a better response is to challenge negative appearance talk by pointing out how society is to blame for harmful appearance pressures that make her feel inadequate, and how who she is is more important than how she looks. It will also be helpful to reassure your friend that she is acceptable just the way she is. Whatever you do, though, don’t ignore your friend’s negative appearance talk.

Last, it is important to note that this experiment was conducted with college women, so it is unclear how the findings apply to people of other genders and age groups. Hopefully future research will continue to investigate this important topic.

For more information, check out the original research article here.

References

Mills, J., Mort, O., & Trawley, S. (2019). The impact of different responses to fat talk on body image and socioemotional outcomes. Body Image, 29, 149-155. 

Shannon, A., & Mills, J. (2015). Correlates, causes, and consequences of fat talk: A review. Body Image, 15, 158-172.