Feeling Fat, Feeling Old: No Age Limit For Bad Body Image

(NCI/Wikimedia Commons)

(NCI/Wikimedia Commons)

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

“Look at these wrinkles.”

“I would do anything to look younger.”

“Do you want to come to a Botox party?”

You don’t have to read scientific journals to know that bad body image plagues women of all ages. There’s no getting away from the fact that, even before girls develop curves, self-perceived “figure flaws” are a deep source of distress for the vast majority.

Of course, there’s no shortage of scientific evidence confirming this sad fact of modern life. Just this month, a new study in the Journal of Eating Disorders confirmed what has become painfully obvious: bad body image knows no age limit.

If you missed that study, here’s the research recap: Trinity University psychologist Carolyn Black Becker and colleagues asked more than 900 American, British and Australian women between the ages of 18 and 76 about “fat talk” and “old talk” — complaints about feeling fat and old. All ages complained of feeling fat, but, surprisingly, even the youngest women worried about looking old.

To make sense of this surprising finding, I tracked down Becker and asked her why so many young women engage in “old talk.” Here’s what the San Antonio eating disorders expert told me:

“We live in a culture that constantly tells us that we should strive for an appearance that is not just perpetually young, but perpetually and abnormally line free. We are bombarded with these messages, and many are designed to increase appearance anxiety so that we will buy products companies are hoping to sell us. Given this environment, it is not surprising that old talk is trickling down to younger women.”

If commiserating with your girlfriends about sagging breasts and spreading hips strikes you as harmless, think again. While “old talk” and “fat talk” may make you feel better in the moment, if you keep talking the talk over time, you’re more likely to struggle with anxiety, depression and disordered eating, among other mental and physical health problems.

Rather than commiserating, consider doing as the “old talk” researcher says: “Imagine a world where we focused our energy and money on simply making sure we’re taking care of our bodies and minds from a functional perspective. Think about how differently people would feel about their bodies if we gave up the belief we should all look as young as possible for as long as possible. It would make it a lot easier to be comfortable in one’s own skin.”

You might also consider the increasingly popular solution of swearing off body bashing. Easier said than done, especially all by your lonesome. Which is why women’s groups are doing what Tri Delta sorority started doing five years ago — declaring “fat talk free” weeks.

Short of that, take a moment of body kindness. Simple suggestions for giving your body, your whole self, a break are available on my blog here.

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.” Her website is www.jeanfain.com.

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