Is Old the New Fat?

“Old talk” has replaced “fat talk” as a way of diminishing us, and it’s even worse for our psyches

By Monica Corcoran Harel

Back in my early twenties, I had a friend in New York City with thighs like baguettes and jutting hipbones. Over dinner in a café—with a mouth full of frisée—she would whine, “Ugh! My butt is huuuuge.” As if on cue, I would ante up with my own woe and call out my man calves. We were anything but overweight and thought nothing of bitching about our taut, young bodies.

But a social anthropologist named Mimi Nichter at The University of Arizona saw it differently. She studied the way hundreds of young women bemoan their physicality and she coined the term “fat talk” in the mid ‘90s. And now, decades later, women of all ages have found a new way to bond over self-deprecation. They’re complaining about their laugh lines and crow’s feet. That’s right. Old talk is the new fat talk.

Carolyn Black Becker is a professor of psychology at Trinity University in Texas and the co-author of a 2013 study that examines this new trend. Her inspiration to do the research is pretty fascinating: When the owner of a Pilates studio in San Antonio banned fat talk, she overheard her clients say, “I look so old” to each other instead. Becker couldn’t find an academic take on old talk, so she polled 914 women (from ages 18 up to 87) and found that a whopping 66% engaged in it—including the dewy 18 to 29-year-old set.

It may sound sad and ridiculous to think of yourself as over the hill before you sprout your first gray, but I get it. Especially since I live in L.A., where one casting director for big budget films recently told me, “Actresses in their 30s typically play the mom to younger stars. The cut off for ingénues is mid-20s.” Thankfully, career opportunities outside Hollywood don’t shrivel up before you’re legit to rent a car at 25.

Still, I recall zeroing in on the little sidewalk cracks around my eyes around the age of 34. At the time, I had just broken off an engagement and felt like I was stuck at some seedy rest stop, watching everyone zip by on a freeway to happiness. And even though many of my peers weren’t yet married, it still bothered me that my mom had two kids and a five-bedroom house by the time she turned 32. Irrationally, it seemed like everyone was getting ahead whiled I just aged.

I should have slept around and splurged on shoes. Yet weirdly, not having a mortgage to pay or a husband to placate made me feel old—which, in turn, made me see myself as old. Nowadays, it doesn’t help that Instagram and Facebook feel like cutthroat adult versions of the classic board game, Life. Scroll through your feed and you might find that your former colleague just sold her fashion app for $12 million. Or that your ex-boyfriend is now on his third kid.

Whether driven by seeing a few age spots or feeling like an underachiever, the real problem with old talk is two-fold for females: it’s contagious and counterproductive. Whereas men tend to brag in a group, women often mirror each other. And as Becker says, “Any speech that idealizes youth and disparages anything that deviates from it only makes you more anxious about aging.”

Knowing that, I vowed to cut out old talk—and old thoughts—a few months ago. (FYI: I gave up fat talk after I had my daughter in 2010 at the age of 42.) At first, it was hard as hell. But now, if I’m at a dinner party and age comes up in a negative light, I say, “This is depressing. Let’s drink more wine and talk about sex.” Then, I quickly explain how I squandered all that breath—and self-esteem—on fat talk in my youth and add that I’m determined to break the cycle. My friends respect my rule and a few of them have even adopted it.

The bonus of blowing out one more candle every year is the boost of confidence and stronger sense of self that comes with each cake. (And don’t ever skip the damn cake!) At 48, my identity is no longer sullied to my career, my outfit or my latest accomplishment. Instead, I define myself by the fantastic relationships I have racked up over the years and my quality of life. I don’t feel the need to brag about “being so busy.” Instead, I simply say, “Life is good. I’m happy.”

Also, I rarely question my taste in fashion, friends or late night splurges on eBay that are fueled by a Pinot Noir or three. When I walk into a cocktail party alone and don’t see a familiar face, my pulse doesn’t quicken. I just seek out the most interesting people in the room and gamely introduce myself. The self-certainty that comes with age is a lot like a new, gorgeous YSL bag—everyone secretly wants to know where you got it.