Old talk. Do you know what that is? Fat talk. How about that one? I’ll bet you engage in old talk and fat talk on a regular basis. I do, and have for as long as I can remember. It’s common in women of any age, and for many, even more so as we age.
Here is an example of old talk. You’re socializing with a woman friend and you notice an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a few months. “Maybe I should invite her to my Botox party,” you say, brightly. “Laura is so pretty, but a little freshening would work wonders.”
Now, Botox parties aren’t part of my world. I don’t know if they’re part of yours. But here’s another variation, as you couch your “old talk” in a backhanded compliment.
“Wearing those rosy tones makes you look so much younger!” you say to your girlfriend, who’s been sighing and muttering about the changes in her skin since turning 45. She smiles at what is offered as praise — with a tinge of unconscious put-down.
This next scenario that involves self-talk?
It’s all too familiar.
You’re staring into the mirror as you’re shopping with a friend. “I can’t believe how old I’ve gotten,” you murmur. Or maybe “Look at these wrinkles. I can really see them in this light.”
You may be standing in front of that mirror in the bathroom, entirely alone. You aren’t saying the words aloud, but they’re ringing in your ears. Lately, your inner dialog is full of “old talk” qualifiers.
And, much as you hate to admit it, feeling shame in the very fact of your aging.
Fat talk, as you might expect, runs along similar lines. “She’s too heavy to carry that off” or “Those jeans are better suited to someone who’s less, well… curvy.” Or, as you extend a compliment: “You look fantastic! Did you lose a few pounds?”
There’s the stereotypical loaded question posed to a spouse or child: “Do these jeans make me look fat?”
And still staring into that mirror, you may whisper under your breath: “I can’t believe how fat I’ve gotten. If only I could drop some weight.”
And now for the frosting on the cake, also referred to as the “thin-young ideal,” and something I’ve muttered to myself a time or two: “Damn. I’m getting old and fat.”
Now imagine that you’re saying those words to someone else. You wouldn’t do it, right? So why would we be so much kinder to a friend or stranger than we are to ourselves? Where’s the compassion to focus on who we are and what we’re doing, rather than make disparaging comments using loaded terms that do little but hurt?
Women, Old Talk, Fat Talk, Body Image
The Journal of Eating Disorders references a fascinating and sobering study that explores the phenomena of body image in mature women — our preoccupations with weight and body shape, along with awareness of aging, and how this is expressed through “old talk” and “fat talk”.
Before reading this study, I didn’t realize the extent to which I represent both pieces of this equation, and likewise, one who internalizes the thin-young-ideal I once thought I shed, and far more than I anticipated.
As the Journal article reminds us:
… limited research on body image in older women suggests that body dissatisfaction is relatively comparable in younger and older women…
Why exactly is the issue of fat talk and old talk so important?
Many believe that language shapes behaviors and self-image. I certainly believe it. We have only to think of our own experiences of being on the receiving end of language that is verbally abusive. We internalize negative voices and perpetuate their words; our views of ourselves become distorted. But there’s more to examine — a social dimension that is both helpful and detrimental.
Can’t We Connect in More Positive Ways?
As the Journal of Eating Disorders study points out, fat talk is used for
… impression management (i.e., to increase social likeability and decrease perceptions of arrogance). Fat talk is hypothesized to increase a sense of inter-connectedness between girls and women; yet at the same time, fat talk reinforces the thin-ideal and decreases the opportunity for girls to interact in more meaningful ways.
Think about it. We’re busy trashing ourselves before others do; we’re diminishing ourselves with language as our tool, and doing so as a means to connect to others; we’re wasting time and energy on superficial attributes rather than substance.
How many times have you said “I’ve gotten so fat” in front of a friend, partly to prevent her remarks or to somehow “explain yourself” as if not being your usual size requires justification? Perhaps you soften the delivery with what you hope is humorous, as you commiserate with a few friends complaining of gaining weight and you say: “I’m right there with you; pass the ‘wide load’ sign and I’ll hang it over my rear end.”
Ah, the female body politic — our obsession with how our bodies look rather than what our bodies do for us. So much time wasted, yes wasted, on the pursuit of the thin-young ideal.
Yes, appearances matter. Yes, I’m subject to the same influences as you are. Yes, managing the extent to which I give them power is a challenge.
Using language that reinforces a negative self-image?
We can change our words, with practice. And it’s time we do just that.
So let’s try — at least try — to reshape our own messaging, and consequently to reshape our mindsets. I plan on putting those beliefs to the test, and practicing more positive statements about myself — and without qualifiers.
No more “you look okay for your age,” but rather, “you look okay!” and better still, “you look great!” and best of all “you feel healthy, you feel strong, and it shows — you look great!”
Catch Me As I Fall
I’m planning on paying careful attention to my inner voice, especially around body image and in particular as I continue on a slow-and-easy healthy mode of eating to lose some excess weight. I hope to catch myself if I fall into former self-limiting language traps. Care to do the same?
- Catch yourself in your inner dialog if making disparaging remarks about your appearance — weight or age. Do the same as you speak aloud to friends or a romantic partner. Likewise, in front of your kids. Remember that they absorb not only our language but our behaviors.
- Catch yourself when speaking to or about others, women especially. No more “She looks good for her age” but instead, “She looks good.” No more “That jacket would work better if she lost a little off the derriere” but rather, “The color of that jacket is perfect for her.”
- Pay attention to the words that slip out in front of others, even if you place them in a humorous, self-deprecating context.
- Don’t undermine self-esteem with “old talk” and “fat talk!” Just as important, consider the proportion of focus on appearance versus substance. Is it out of whack?
Sure, this is about language. It’s also fundamentally about respect. And self-respect. We know appearances matter, confidence matters, and confidence is enhanced by comfort with one’s appearance. Our challenge: finding that reasonable, realistic, healthy balance of becoming our best selves from the inside out, just as we might wish to from the outside in.
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