A New Wrinkle on Old Research


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Feb. 21, 2013

A New Wrinkle on Old Research


'Fat talk' studies linked to fresh research on negative body images as women age


'Fat talk' studies linked to fresh research on negative body images as women age

SAN ANTONIO - Previous body image research has revealed the negative effects of "fat talk" in girls and young women, but new research by psychology professor Carolyn Black Becker of Trinity University and others suggests that the dissatisfaction with a woman's self-image may become more complex as she ages and move increasingly to a focus on age and "old talk."

Psychology professor Carolyn Black Becker of Trinity University

"Fat talk" includes any speech that reinforces the thin-ideal standard of female beauty. Examples are: "Do I look fat in this?" and "Wow, you look great! Have you lost weight?" Such comments, or "fat talk," have been targeted by international campaigns aiming to reduce the frequency and instead promote a healthier body image.


However, body image researchers and advocates may have been too narrow in their focus. New research supported by the London-based eating disorders charity, the Succeed Foundation, and published in BioMed Central's open access journal, Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests that talking about looking old, or "old talk" also may be associated with problems related to body dissatisfaction. Examples of "old talk" are: "Look at these wrinkles!" "I'm too old to wear a swimsuit" or "You don't look your age; tell me your secret."

Becker, leader of the "old talk" study, noted, "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."

Body dissatisfaction is known to be correlated with, and often predictive of, physical health problems as well as mental health problems such as eating disorders and depression.  Higher than normal levels of negative body talk can be a good indicator of body dissatisfaction.

·         The survey covered 1,000 women from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia, ranging from ages 18 to 87.

·         Results showed that both "fat talk" and "old talk" occurred throughout women's lives; however, engaging in "fat talk" decreased with age, while "old talk" increased.

·         Women who reported higher levels of "fat talk" and "old talk" also reported more problems with negative body image.

·         "Old talk" was particularly associated with body dissatisfaction in women 46 years and older.

·         Body dissatisfaction is known to be correlated with, and often predictive of, physical health problems as well as mental health problems such as eating disorders and depression. 

·         Higher than normal levels of negative body talk can be a good indicator of body dissatisfaction.

Participants also reported being exposed to a high degree of both "fat talk" and "old talk" via friends and the media. Previous research indicates that even small (as little as five minute) doses of "fat talk" can significantly increase body dissatisfaction.

Study co-author Phillippa Diedrichs, a senior researcher at the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of West England and head of research at the Succeed Foundation, noted that "this study suggests 'old talk' may have similar negative effects on women. It also indicates that we should begin to explore the effects of media driven 'old talk' and 'fat talk.'"

Becker added, "Overall, our results suggest that researchers need to broaden their understanding of body image and eating disorders to include 'old talk,' particularly when studying midlife and older women."

Karine Berthou, founder of The Succeed Foundation, said, "This is just the beginning of our research into the impact of negative body image in adult women. We need to reduce the negative messages adult women may be passing on to the younger generation."

Trinity University is a nationally recognized liberal arts and sciences institution noted for its exceptional faculty and commitment to the comprehensive preparation of its talented student body. It is a learning community that has charted its course with a steadfast commitment to excellence since it was founded in 1869. For more information about Becker's research in "old talk," contact her at cbecker@trinity.edu or 210-999-8326.

The Succeed Foundation was founded in 2010 by Karine Berthou, who has personal experience of anorexia and bulimia. The charity's mission is to highlight the gaps in support and service provision for eating disorders in the U.K. and to produce evidence-based solutions for those affected. For more information, visit wwwsucceedfoundation.org, email press@succeedfoundation.org, or call the London office at 0207 052 9203.

-- Susie P. Gonzalez