By Katie McLaughlin
Grants Coordinator, YWCA York
A few weeks ago a friend called me to share what she deemed to be very disturbing news. “Today is a terrible day,” she moaned. “I found my first gray hair!”
“Guess it’s time to find a good hair colorist!” I replied without thinking.
Recently I was reminded of our exchange as my YWCA York colleague and I chatted about our agency’s upcoming Girls on the Run season – our biggest yet. Throughout the fall, our staff and volunteers will work with hundreds of pre-teen girls to encourage self-confidence, positive body image, and an appreciation of health and fitness.
And yet here I was commiserating over a gray hair.
New research led by psychology professor Carolyn Black Becker of Trinity University labels my conversation with my friend “old talk.” Old talk is distinct from yet connected to the more widely-acknowledged “fat talk,” a phrase used to describe denigrating conversation related to one’s body weight. Think comments like “Do I look fat in this?” and “I hate my thunder thighs!” Old talk, on the other hand, highlights our cultural obsession with both thinness and youth, leaving women fretting over wrinkles and gray hairs in addition to their weight.
The study, which was published earlier this year in the Journal of Eating Disorders, surveyed over 900 women between the ages of 18 and 87. Participants reported on a variety of measures including age, weight, body satisfaction, engagement in fat talk and old talk, and eating disorder behavior. The researchers found that, while younger women tend to bash their bodies through fat talk, older women engage in similar negativity through old talk. Of all women surveyed, a whopping 81% reported fat talking at least occasionally, and two-thirds reported old talking.
Additionally, Becker’s research found that women who engage in frequent fat talk and old talk also reported greater struggles with low self-confidence and negative body-image. Such body dissatisfaction – be it due to weight, age, or both – is associated with a variety of physical and emotional health problems, including low self-esteem, depression, and eating disorders. Research compiled in the YWCA’s 2008 report “Beauty At Any Cost” highlighted that in the U.S., nearly 10 million women suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.
As YWCA York gears up for our next Girls on the Run season, I can’t help but wonder how many of the girls we will serve – girls who are already faced with a cultural standard of beauty glorifying the size zero – have overheard their adult role models grumbling about a new wrinkle or some sagging skin. How many of them have even heard their YWCA mentors using such language?
“We certainly hear anecdotally from young women that they are influenced by the things they hear adult women saying,” noted Becker.
Why are we so dedicated to ending fat talk among girls and yet engaging in old talk ourselves? The problem, according to Becker, is that old talk has become so normative – so commonplace – that most of us don’t even realize we’re doing it. Sarah Blake, LCSW, who has worked in the treatment of eating disorders for over 15 years, agrees. “It’s quite amazing just how prevalent old talk is, and nobody bats an eyelash,” she commented.
Nobody, that is, except the girls who overhear and internalize the contradictory messages we’re sending them.
If we want to instill self-acceptance in the young women we serve – if we truly want to show them that all sizes and ages are beautiful – then we need to start with our own thoughts and speech. Becker points out that “we pay lip service to the idea that all bodies are accepted, but every time we engage in old talk or fat talk we are personally expressing confirmation of the thin-young ideal.”
That needs to change. But how do you stop doing something that’s so deeply embedded in our minds and in our culture? Here are three ways to start.
1. Become mindful of your body-bashing thoughts.
It’s pretty hard to squash negative thoughts when you’re not even aware you’re thinking them. According to Blake, mindfulness is about “paying attention to what is going on within your head” to increase that awareness. “We have so many thoughts within a single minute,” she explains, “and most of them we don’t pay conscious attention to. But they’re still there.” When you start paying attention, you’ll soon begin to recognize when a self-disparaging thought – “I’m way too old to wear a bathing suit!” – pops into your mind.
2. Keep your lips sealed.
Once you’re aware of your negative body-image thoughts, you then have the power to choose what you do with them: share them with others or keep them to yourself. The next time your brain says, “My neck looks so old!” or “Look at all my ugly sun spots!” make a conscious decision not to express those sentiments to anyone else. “It’s about not engaging in [old talk] yourself,” says Becker. “A lot of people will say to me they can’t turn it off in their heads, so you start by turning it off behaviorally, by not saying it out loud.”
3. Speak candidly with others – including young women – about negative body-talk of all kinds.
The YWCA’s “Beauty At Any Cost” report highlighted that more than 80% of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. To combat these widespread feelings of inadequacy, we need to speak openly with our friends, family members, and – perhaps most importantly – the young women we serve in our programs about the negative effects of fat talk and old talk.
If your sister starts complaining about her big butt, explain to her why you’re choosing not to join in. When a girl in your program asks about Botox, emphasize that there is nothing inherently wrong with having wrinkles. Creating a positive dialogue about body image will help everyone start using more self-affirming language.
Recently the mother of a Girls on the Run participant wrote YWCA York a letter commending our program. Of the young women we served, she wrote, “No matter how they looked on the outside, [after the season] they possessed a stronger sense of self-determination on the inside.”
As we prepare for the start of our fall programs, let us all work to instill that kind of confidence, both in the girls we serve and in ourselves.
For more information, check out the following resources:
- Girls on the Run – a transformational physical activity-based positive youth development program working to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy, and confident.
- Operation Beautiful – a book and blog working to end negative self-talk and encourage self-acceptance.
- The Body Project – an empirically-based eating disorder prevention program.
Katie Markey McLaughlin is the Grants Coordinator at YWCA York in York, Pennsylvania. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Lebanon Valley College and a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies from Towson University. She is passionate about fundraising and advocating on behalf of women and girls across the country and around the world.