Feb. 20, 2013 at 8:01 PM ET
We know better than to call ourselves -- or each other -- fat. (That doesn't mean we don't do it, but we do at least kinda know better.) Now, new research introduces an additional rule for better body image: Don't call yourself old, either!
A study published today in the Journal of Eating Disorders finds that women of all ages complain about being old, and that calling yourself old can make you feel as bad about your body as calling yourself fat. The research links so called "old talk" to greater levels of body dissatisfaction, which can in turn lead to higher rates of eating disorders, anxiety, depression and more physical and mental health problems.
Carolyn Becker of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, led the study, which surveyed more than 900 American, British and Australian women ranging in age from 18 to 87, asking questions about fat talk, old talk and overall body dissatisfaction. They found that women of all ages reported engaging in at least some "old talk," which was defined as any kind of speech that indicates an aging appearance is unacceptable. Sixty-six percent of the women surveyed said they least occasionally engaged in "old talk, " and the women who were 46 or older did the most of it. That's not terribly surprising, but this is: Almost half of the youngest women surveyed, those aged 18 to 29, said they at least occasionally called themselves old.
What's more, the women who were most likely to engage in "old talk" were also more likely to report eating disorder diagnoses and decreased body satisfaction. (The study included only women because Becker suspects this is less of a problem for men, "because men are allowed to age," says Becker, a psychology professor at Trinity. "You just look at aging male celebrities – they become 'distinguished' or 'handsome' in this older way where as women are not really allowed to do this.")
The idea seems obvious: We know we're a culture obsessed with youth, so it makes sense that fixating on wrinkles and gray hairs can make you hate your body. And fixing the "flaws" caused by aging is big business in the U.S. Just yesterday, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons released new data showing that 14.6 million cosmetic surgery procedures were done last year, up 5 percent from 2011. Anti-aging procedures led the uptick, with Botox rising 8 percent and fillers up 5 percent from the year before.
But the effect of "old talk" is something that researchers who study body image haven't explored, until now. "It's everywhere, but there's no research on it," says Becker.
The idea of avoiding "fat talk," on the other hand, has started to catch on: In 2008, the Tri-Delta sorority started a "fat talk free" week, and the campaign has gained traction online, with Shape magazine and the women's health blog Blisstree participating last year. And Aida Zorrilla, who owns Studio A Pilates in San Antonio, Texas, has banned "fat talk" in her studio for years -- and by doing so, accidentally inspired this new study of "old talk."
Zorrilla "had worked really hard to reduce 'fat talk'," says Becker, a regular at Zorrilla's Studio A. But one day in 2011, Zorrilla asked Becker, "Now, what the heck do I do with old talk?"
"I was like, you know, I’ve never heard that phrase, but I immediately knew what she was talking about," Becker says.
One likely reason the idea of "old talk" hasn't been studied until now: Most research on body image, and in many areas of social science in general, centers on undergrads. "We study convenient samples, and those are, typically, college women," she says.
Of course, it's not like it's always a bad thing to talk about getting older. It only becomes problematic when the way you talk about it implies that it's always better to be young.
"I don’t know if 'old talk' is any easier to change than 'fat talk'," says Zorrilla, the San Antonio Pilates studio owner who helped inspire this new direction of research in body image. "It might even be more challenging. Because one could make certain changes in their lifestyle whether it’s eating or exercise to [alter] how they feel as far as their weight is concerned. But when it comes to our age, the years, the numbers are going to increase every year. And so the only thing we can change there is our attitude. The numbers are not going to reverse. Every year they’re going to increase, but our attitudes can be younger."