“Old talk” is as dangerous as “fat talk”

We have long known that “fat talk” – any speech that reinforces the thin ideal standard of female beauty – has a negative effect on women’s self-image. A recent study conducted by a psychology professor at Trinity University suggests that “old talk” is just as damaging.

According to psychology professor Carolyn Black Becker, this type of negative talk is often a precursor of both physical and mental health issues: “Until now, most research has focused on the negative effects of the thin-ideal and speech such as ‘fat talk’ in younger women, but we need to remember that the thin-ideal is also a young-ideal which additionally may contribute to negative body image, particularly as women age” (Trinity University). The study showed that ‘old talk’ leading to body dissatisfaction was particularly prevalent in women age 46 and older, and body dissatisfaction can often lead to eating disorders and depression (Trinity University).

I have to wonder what connections might exist between the findings of this study and other recent findings related to older women, including the rise in prescription drug abuse and suicide risk, and the increase in eating disorders among this population. The abuse of opiates and other medications prescribed for insomnia and anxiety has been well documented among older women. Between 2005 – 2009, emergency room visits for attempted overdoses by women age 50 and older taking prescriptions for anxiety or insomnia rose 56%, and ER visits for women taking prescription pain relievers rose 30% during that same time period. Even more concerning is the 67% rise for women taking hydrocodone, and a startling 210% increase for women taking oxycodone (SAMHSA News Release).

According to The Renfrew Center, a leading eating disorder treatment center, there has been a 42 percent increase in the number of women over age 35 who are seeking treatment for eating disorders (The Renfrew Center). Eating disorders kill more people than any other mental illness: “Between 5 to 20 percent of anorexics will die of heart arrhythmias, brain damage, and other effects of long-term starvation. Bulimia and compulsive overeating — disorders that are even more common among midlife women — can also often have severe and even fatal health consequences, from permanent intestinal damage to sudden heart stoppages” (“When Diets Turn Deadly”). Because of the misconception that eating disorders only affect adolescents and young adults, many adult women who suffer from eating disorders do not seek help.

Why are so many middle aged women suffering? The major causes of depression in older women seem to be stress related, and include being overwhelmed by childcare and work, being involved in unhealthy relationships, having to care for aging parents, and experiencing hardship as a result of divorce (NIMH). Now it seems we can add “old talk” and body dissatisfaction to the list. In a society that is youth and beauty obsessed, it seems that middle aged women are taking to heart the message that women over 40 should just go away (Miss Representation).

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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