Ever complimented someone on looking young for her age, or pointed out a peer who is aging poorly? Called attention to the very beginnings of wrinkles on your forehead or a stray gray hair? Have the words “I need a facelift,” ever escaped from your lips? If you answered yes to any of the above, you’re guilty of “old talk”—and you’re not alone.
As women age, they are increasingly likely to talk disparagingly about looking old or wishing to look younger. That kind of language has the potential to do serious damage to how women feel about themselves and their bodies. There’s been a lot of research on the demoralizing impact of fat talk, the negative comments we make about our own weight. But old talk is just starting to enter the conversation.
“Until now, we have used the term ‘the thin ideal’ to describe what the ideal woman in our culture looks like,” says Carolyn Black Becker, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. “What we’ve typically not paid attention to is the fact that she’s also quite young. Old talk is basically speech that implicitly or explicitly reinforces the young aspect of the thin-young ideal standard of female beauty.”
Old talk can range from self-deprecation (“I have so many wrinkles.”), to craving youthfulness (“Should I get Botox?”) to despair disguised as flattery (“You look so young, what is your secret?”). And old talk is not just for the old. Young people who fixate on the faintest signs of aging and use products designed for older women do it, too.
Dr. Becker is the lead author of the first study investigating old talk among women of various ages. The study, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, was based on answers to a questionnaire sent to 914 women from 18 to 87 years old. Becker and her team found that while fat talk decreased slowly with age, old talk increased. And the more people engaged in old talk, the worse they felt about their bodies. (The researchers allow that the increase over time might owe to generational differences, not just aging.)
Rampant old talkers were anxious about looking older and they internalized the thin-young standard of beauty. The correlation extended beyond age concerns; they also tended to objectify themselves, strive for thinness and displayed attitudes and behaviors associated with eating disorders.
While this study doesn’t prove that old talk leads to body dissatisfaction, just a few minutes’ worth of fat talk has been shown to have a direct, negative effect on body image, so it’s likely that old talk does the same. “I would be very hard-pressed to find evidence that it has a positive effect,” Becker says.
So where does the impulse come from? “I think when you live in a culture that’s telling you you’re supposed to look forever young, it’s a natural outgrowth,” Becker posits. “I suspect some of it is born out of anxiety, and people are possibly seeking some reassurance.”
Heather Quinlan, YouBeauty’s Self-Image Expert, suggests that sharing that anxiety with friends and one-upping each other (“I have so many more wrinkles than you do!”) serves as a way to bond with one another. “I don’t think it’s a healthy type of bonding, but it’s a type of bonding.”
Constantly pushing the thin-young ideal is “really serving to reinforce a standard that’s not achievable,” Becker says—that is, eternal youth.
“It’s important to look at the message that society is sending people, but also the messages within families and social groups,” Quinlan says. When you hear women your own age or younger old talking, you can try to reverse the negativity and be a model of self-acceptance.
“There are a lot of people out there feeling really bad about themselves as they’re aging. We need to move away from using that as a sole means of self-definition.” she says. “Women of all different ages can learn to define themselves in other ways, rather than believing, ‘All I am is a face with wrinkles.’ ”
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