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Fat Talk

Fat Talk

What Girls and Their Parents Say about Dieting

Mimi Nichter

ISBN 9780674006812

Publication date: 12/14/2001

Teen-aged girls hate their bodies and diet obsessively, or so we hear. News stories and reports of survey research often claim that as many as three girls in five are on a diet at any given time, and they grimly suggest that many are “at risk” for eating disorders. But how much can we believe these frightening stories? What do teenagers mean when they say they are dieting?

Anthropologist Mimi Nichter spent three years interviewing middle school and high school girls—lower-middle to middle class, white, black, and Latina—about their feelings concerning appearance, their eating habits, and dieting. In Fat Talk, she tells us what the girls told her, and explores the influence of peers, family, and the media on girls’ sense of self. Letting girls speak for themselves, she gives us the human side of survey statistics.

Most of the white girls in her study disliked something about their bodies and knew all too well that they did not look like the envied, hated “perfect girl.” But they did not diet so much as talk about dieting. Nichter wryly argues—in fact some of the girls as much as tell her—that “fat talk” is a kind of social ritual among friends, a way of being, or creating solidarity. It allows the girls to show that they are concerned about their weight, but it lessens the urgency to do anything about it, other than diet from breakfast to lunch. Nichter concludes that if anything, girls are watching their weight and what they eat, as well as trying to get some exercise and eat “healthfully” in a way that sounds much less disturbing than stories about the epidemic of eating disorders among American girls.

Black girls, Nichter learned, escape the weight obsession and the “fat talk” that is so pervasive among white girls. The African-American girls she talked with were much more satisfied with their bodies than were the white girls. For them, beauty was a matter of projecting attitude (“’tude”) and moving with confidence and style.

Fat Talk takes the reader into the lives of girls as daughters, providing insights into how parents talk to their teenagers about their changing bodies. The black girls admired their mothers’ strength; the white girls described their mothers’ own “fat talk,” their fathers’ uncomfortable teasing, and the way they and their mothers sometimes dieted together to escape the family “curse”—flabby thighs, ample hips. Moving beyond negative stereotypes of mother–daughter relationships, Nichter sensitively examines the issues and struggles that mothers face in bringing up their daughters, particularly in relation to body image, and considers how they can help their daughters move beyond rigid and stereotyped images of ideal beauty.


  • [In] Fat Talk: What Girls and Their Parents Say about Dieting, the alleged silence of girls is penetrated by adults asking relevant, open-ended questions that play to the characteristic self-centeredness of the adolescent years… Nichter’s careful listening confirmed the contemporary generation’s preoccupations with ‘body projects.’ But it also penetrated beneath all the dissatisfaction and frustration to determine if young girls really were dieting, and what purposes ‘fat talk’ actually serves. The answer is that dieting is neither consistent nor extreme among teenagers, and that fat talk is a form of ritualistic speech used by girls as an idiom of distress, a call for support, a marker of group affiliation, and a way of establishing honesty, vulnerability, and humility… Nichter’s insight that fat talk is actually part of a larger pattern of female self-deprecation is important.

    —Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Chronicle of Higher Education


  • Mimi Nichter is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

Book Details

  • 286 pages
  • 4-13/16 x 8-15/16 inches
  • Harvard University Press