For men who are in decent shape, the idea of having a fat funny friend may have Hollywood appeal, but it’s unlikely to work out. New social scientific research suggests that “fat talk,” conversation about bodies and the experience of having them, is particularly difficult for men, who struggle to relate to a diversity of experience.
“Fat talk, self-disparaging conversations about one’s body size, has mostly been studied in women and viewed as a highly feminine phenomenon,” a team of researchers from Arizona State University wrote in the journal of Psychology of Men & Masculinities. “Using a picture-based elicitation technique (discourse completion task), we clarify that U.S. men recognize and respond to fat talk uttered by other men.“
Studies confirm that men care about how their bodies look and also that self-perception affects them in a different way than women. That’s because masculinity is not just a gender identity, but a status that needs to be performed, proved, and earned. Maintaining an ideal size, weight, and shape is one way men participate in this hierarchy and data indicates the preferred male bodies are tall, lean, and muscular, but not too muscular. Due to this tie between status and size, men are more likely to judge people who are overweight and obese harshly. Many men even view weight loss as a moral issue.
Fat talk in women — which includes phrases such as, “Does this make me look fat?”, “I need to lose some weight,” or “I hate my thighs!” — has been found to have positive and negative effects. On one hand, it opens the door for social interactions that could make them feel better about their bodies, but depending on who’s responding, these conversations can also make people feel much worse. The concern in regards to men is that there is no conversation at all.
To better gauge the potential effects of fat talk on men, social scientists had 251 adult men assess four different scenarios, or discourse completion tasks, where men of similar and different sizes participated in fat talk. Each scenario started with the first speaker prompting the fat talk, saying “I need to lose weight,” and participants had to report how they would respond, based on each other’s BMI, which was either 25 (overweight) or 30 (obese). Results revealed that men were generally compassionate about fat talk overall and tended to reassure the person saying they need to lose weight — these results looked similar to results from women. However, men were more prone to giving advice about weight loss than women. Essentially, they were more likely to try and solve the problem, but only when they were in the same or better shape. When participants were responding as the fatter guy, they were more likely to negatively compare themselves (“I’m the one who needs to lose weight.”). Likewise, when men were responding to fat talk as the fitter man, they tended to confirm the speaker’s need to lose weight indirectly (“If that’s how you feel.”), deflect completely (“Interesting…”), or generally react uncomfortably.
The long and short: Men handle conversations about weight fairly poorly.
Given that this is the first study to examine the relationship between masculinity and fat talk, more research is needed to draw any firm conclusions. Still, masculinity seems to be an important difference between how men and women interact about their bodies. Since men use size to assert dominance, they may better at interacting with men on their level, or close to it, than men who are significantly fatter and skinnier. That’s not to say fat men and fit men can’t still be friends, but if they want to talk about their bodies it might get weird pretty quick, study authors concluded.
“In this case, it appears that men do reply in some manner but no consistent pattern in replies was found, leading to the conclusion that marked differences in body size may lead to difficult and awkward interactions,” wrote the researchers.