“If We Talked to Our Friends the Way We Talk to our Bodies, We’d Have No Friends.”
--- Marcia Germaine Hutchinson
Have you ever thought about the way you’ve been trash talking your body for decades? Do you look in the mirror and say horrible things to and about yourself and your body? Has it seemed to get worse, not better, as you age? So many of us not only use “fat talk” to ourselves, but with age, we also use “old talk.” It’s so sad that we’ve spent our lives in a battle with ourselves.
In studies done on the relationship that older women have with their bodies, the statistics stay consistent with our dissatisfaction and with our continued attempts at dieting throughout the years: we’re still hoping that we can achieve the unachievable no matter what our age. When my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer at 69 (from smoking — first as a diet aid at 16 and then smoking 3 packs a day from there on) she said to me: “Screw it! I’m now going to eat whatever I want.” I was shocked and so upset. It was only when she was facing imminent death did she feel like she could give up the battle — not just of life but of dieting.
In one of the larger studies done on women 50+ and eating disorders, 71% of women 50+ were trying to lose weight and 79% felt that their weight or shape played a “moderate” to “the most important” role in their self concept. This is a lifelong battle with ourselves; girls as young as 6 want to be thinner and by 8 they’ve started dieting. And decades later, they’re still dissatisfied with their bodies.
As much as we know that diets don’t work, we continue to seek out anything that sounds promising. For many women — clients, friends and myself included — these months and months of being home during COVID — stressed, bored, overwhelmed, scared — has raised a whole panoply of feelings and emotions that bring us back to earlier coping mechanisms around food. We’ve reacted much as my mother did: Screw it, “I’ll deal with it when this is over.” “Will it ever be over?” “I deserve this….”(fill in the blank). And then there’s the endless search for the perfect diet that will reign us in and make us feel better. For a little while.
What makes it so hard for us to trust ourselves and to listen to our bodies to tell us what we need? If we’re in a constant battle with our bodies, how can we trust them?
When my daughter was around three years old, I started my training in Eating Disorders. I would ask her if she were hungry when she wanted something. I let her choose what she wanted to eat and when she wanted to eat it. She learned to trust her body to tell her what it needs. This was normal for her. At 18 I took her and her friend to a diner for lunch. Becky scanned the menu and said “do I want something smooth or crunchy or…” Her friend jumped in and said “what the hell are you doing?” I cried out in joy “it worked!!”
It was a lot easier for Becky since she was raised this way but we can all start to talk to our bodies as though they are the friends that they are. They keep us going and sometimes they break down but if we learn to treat our bodies/ourselves with compassion and listen to what we need, we too can break out of not just the dieting cycle, but the trashing cycle — no matter how old we are.
Leslie received a Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University and a doctorate from Teachers College at Columbia University in Family and Community Education. She has spent four decades as a psychotherapist specializing in women, body image, and trauma, and runs a private practice in New York City. Today, at 71, she is twisting her plot by starting consciousness raising conversations for older women who want to change the way they see, think and feel about their bodies. You can listen to her here on an episode of Twisting The Plot.
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