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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Thick Description, Fat Talk: An Ethnography of Embodied Interactions Between Women in a “Plus Sized” Clothing Store


When and how do female-female interactions work to promote boundaries rather than cohesion between women? Because mainstream American society holds strong aesthetic preferences for female thinness, a shared “fear of fatness” might create common ties between women as they recognize shared pressures to conform to a slender ideal. Yet, given the wide range of body sizes and sub-cultures among American women, this same mainstream cultural preference may work to define boundaries between thin and fat women, and between women who ascribe to mainstream (white) beauty culture and those who do not. The current investigation builds upon previous research identifying a social norm for women to engage in “fat talk”, a term which refers to ritualized verbal exchange during which women express body dissatisfaction to each other. Previous work conceptualizes “fat talk” as a normative interaction that reinforces social bonds between women, yet this research has drawn upon interactions occurring in either experimental conditions or amongst primarily white, middle-class women of average weight. To more completely understand the meaning and function of “fat talk”, this investigation draws upon over 200 hours of ethnographic fieldwork and participant observation of “fat talk” in a racially diverse “plus size” women’s clothing store. Results indicate that “fat talk” often reinforces cohesion and shared experiences and understandings among women of similar body types and ethnic/class backgrounds. However, attempts at ritualized “fat talk” between women of different body types or ethnic backgrounds tended to prompt sanctioning and boundary-making behaviors. Results are discussed as they relate to theoretical understandings of inequality between women.

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