One Woman’s Mission to End Negative Self-Talk—And Why it Matters

A new movement to change the conversation about women’s bodies is beginning. Dari Ya/Shutterstock.com

While women are bombarded with messages on the value of self-love, and even just self-acceptance, few actually practice it. In an experiment on negative self-talk conducted by Glamour in 2011, 97 percent of participants had at least one disparaging inner thought about their bodies over the course of one day—and, on average, the women studied had 13 negative thoughts about themselves a day, or one for nearly every hour they were awake, the magazine noted. Another study, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly nearly replicated these results, with 93 percent of participants engaging in negative body talk.

Many women evoke that inner critic unconsciously, but this behavior is far from benign. “Much of what women say to themselves, they would never say to someone else—not even someone they did not like,” says clinical psychologist and perfectionism expert Elizabeth R. Lombardo, Ph.D., author of the bestselling book Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “It’s a huge problem because it can lead to giving up, procrastination, depression, anxiety, fear, and health issues.”

These effects are not only ones that Lombardo has seen working with clients, and they are reinforced through various studies on negative body image and its effect on women. In 2012, the National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research published a paper finding that negative self-talk correlates to depression, decreased body satisfaction, and a perceived pressure to be thin.

These sobering facts, and personal experience with negative talk, led Los Angeles-based writer, activist, and wellness expert Katie Horwitch on a mission to change the conversations women have about their bodies and themselves. Her website, WANT—an acronym for Women Against Negative Talk—aims to provide the tools they need to do it.

WANT’s blog, newsletter, and social media channels promote self-care techniques, spark discussions, and advocate for women to fully contemplate who they are and what they stand for. By supporting individualism, the site is all-inclusive, allowing those who take part in the WANT community the chance to interpret and personalize the techniques and ideas presented in ways that work for their own lives.

“I saw people getting worked up over the idea of change, but no real change happening,” Horwitch says on what prompted her to launch WANT in the first place. “I thought…there needs to be a platform that gives women a toolkit to shift their negative talk patterns in a lasting way: tips, tools, and resources along with inspiration.”

 

A number of body-positive and self-love campaigns do already exist. But they focus on the external need for change by encouraging women to have confidence—no matter their shape or color—by promoting images of so-called “real” women. And they advocate that the media should stop perpetuating unrealistic images of women, namely those Photoshopped celebrity photographs that render actresses nearly beyond recognition.

This is important work: While women (and girls) logically know these “perfect” bodies are not attainable, the sheer volume of such images challenges that message. According to data collected by the NYC Girls Project, for example, 63 percent of girls realize that the images presented by the fashion industry are not realistic—and nearly 50 percent believe these images look unhealthy. Yet, over half of still compare themselves to these idealized bodies and just over 30 percent admit to going to extremes to try to lose weight to look like them.

But simply campaigning against these pervasive depictions of the “ideal” woman doesn’t focus on the root of the issue, which goes far deeper than the glossy magazine pages and runway shows. Indeed the very fabric of American society communicates to women that they are not good enough, by promoting and selling a variety of products that not only offer the chance to look better, but to feel better—not to mention to have perfectly put-together houses, cooler cars and more exciting lifestyles.

“Capitalism is based upon the requirement that we all feel some level of insecurity at all times,” explains Anne L. Wennerstrand, a licensed clinical social worker, who’s worked as a therapist in private practice for over 20 years and is on faculty of the Women’s Therapy Center Institute. (It should be noted that men, and members of the LGBT community, are also constantly met with expectations and images challenging how they should look, act, and dress.)

In this way, Wennerstrand explains, “our bodies are ongoing works in progress rather than peaceful places to live in.” And while everyone interprets and experiences media and culture differently, this feeling that one can never measure up remains: “There’s a hyper-vigilance of how a person is relating to herself, almost like a bully in her head,” she says.

Lombardo agrees. “That inner critic loves to point out all the places you are not performing at 100 percent,” she says. “A great example of this a former of mine client who was focused on losing weight. She had missed a few workouts and her perfectionist inner critic told her ‘You will never lose the weight. You will always be a fat loser.’ To help reduce her stress, she reached for a bag of chips, which just lead to greater weight gain.”

But this seemingly inescapable, crushing inner dialogue isn’t just ruining women’s relationships with themselves and their bodies, it’s now also defining our relationships with other women.

“Negative talk is like a language, and a primary way we learn this language throughout our lives is from others,” Horwitch explains “Young girls will hear their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and other women in their lives say negative things about themselves—about their bodies, habits, capabilities, the list goes on—and they’ll adopt that language as their own vernacular. We’re taught that negativity is an easy bonding tactic.”

In essence, this common practice limits the potential of our friendships and familial bonds.

“Body snarking takes away lots of social conversation time,” Wennerstrand says. “Sometimes I wonder what would we talk about if we weren’t talking about how much we hate our bodies. What would be we dreaming about? What would we be creative about? I think there’s a lot of potential there that gets lost.”

Given how persistent negative talk is, real, lasting change must come from within. So, rather than solely blaming society, or the media, or the current standards of beauty—which are not controllable—Horwitch is committed to providing the tools women need to change the conversation in their own heads.

“I urge everyone who asks me about negative talk to listen for the casual negativity in their lives the seemingly off-the-cuff negative comments we make about ourselves that have become ingrained in our psyche,” she says. “Often we’ll use casual negativity to bond with others, picking apart our bodies, exercise habits, romantic life, and so on. There are so many other ways we can connect with one another besides over our problems and perceived limitations.”

Despite her work with WANT, Horwitch still struggles with her own inner critic, noting that “trying to get rid of it usually leads to guilt and more negative talk—completely perpetuating the cycle.”

 

Instead of trying to silence that negative voice, women should reframe it as a way to understand their true underlying motivations, Lombardo advises.

“Negative self-talk about your weight, for example, is motivated by the desire for you to have an attractive and healthy body. Beating yourself up for messing up a sentence when giving a presentation is motivated by the desire to be successful at work,” she explains. “So, women can use the positive underlying motivation of the negative self-talk to inspire them to take steps to be even better—but they must be diligent in what they say to themselves. Taking time to focus on gratitude—what they appreciate in themselves and their lives—will help them strengthen their positive self-talk too.”

To this end, Horwitch encourages women to find their true sense of purpose, be in tune to their needs and have more awareness about their own negative thought patterns. In short, it’s up to each woman to commit to empowering herself. (One tool she recommends is called the “defining your through line” exercise, which helps women find the common thread that runs through everything they love and discover their true purpose.)

“Many times, when we’re wishy-washy on purpose or feel like we’re not using ourselves to our fullest potential, the negative voices will come on in,” she says. “Unless we learn to dive in and dig deep when it comes to how we tick, challenge our norms, build on what serves us and let the rest fall away—we’ll stay stuck in the same loops that ultimately lead us to limit ourselves when it comes to how we fit into the world and how we not only pursue who we want to be, but who we are at our core already.”

The impact, Horwitch believes, of collectively raising self-esteem among women would not only be life-changing, but world changing. In many respects, accepting the challenge of overcoming—or learning to deal with negative talk in a positive way—is one of the most feminist acts a woman can take to raise both herself and others up.

“Can you imagine how much we could accomplish if we didn’t hold ourselves back by smack-talking ourselves?,” Horwitch asks. “We’d set the example for generations to come and create a chain reaction of living as the people we’re meant to be and the purpose we’re meant to fill.”