Before reading on, answer this: Which woman do you think was considered most likable?
Dr. Corning professed to be surprised by her result, but I'm not surprised at all.
The most likable woman chosen by the students was overweight and quoted as saying: “I know I’m not perfect, but I love the way I look. I know how to work with what I’ve got, and that’s all that matters.”...Fat talk is — we're told — "airless and scripted." One person exclaims about her fat and the other responds with an equivalent exclamation about her fat. So it's really small talk, social etiquette like "How are you?"/"Fine. How are you?" But Corning portrays the interchange as a problem to be solved — a "hungry cry for affirmation," met with a "toxic" reciprocation.
But, she acknowledged, her experiment had limitations. “Are the students really liking these women the most? Or are they saying it because they think they should?” said Dr. Corning. “They might like them more, but would they really want to hang out with them?”
Dr. Corning said that to break the cycle, a person shouldn’t engage. But particularly for younger women, it’s hard to say something like, “Hey, no negative self-talk!” or “Why do we put ourselves down?”I suspect there's a positive side to the "negative self-talk" that's hard for older folks to hear. For one thing, in the script, the second speaker is declining to lie or to reinforce the first female's negative opinion of herself. Instead, she shifts the focus to herself, but in the friendly way of offering company: I'm fat too.
Corning seems to be about examining the presumed problem of low self-esteem among females, so she doesn't consider — as far as I can tell from this article — whether what's really going on with this "fat talk" is a kind of mutual comforting and camaraderie in the denial of what is a health problem. Ironically, the psychologist is joining in this activity with her self-esteem talk.
(Note: The linked article — "'Fat Talk' Compels but Carries a Cost" — is by Jan Hoffman, who wrote my all-time favorite NYT article.)