by Carol Fredrek
Women’s body image is not a new topic, but has typically focused on young adults or adolescents. Women’s appearance, how they view themselves and their worth, is just as important to their self-concept as it is for younger age groups.
A common myth is that women do not experience body dissatisfaction or disordered eating during midlife. It is often minimized, which is evident by its lack of visibility in the media. However, several studies suggest quite the opposite.
The Evidence is Out …
- In one study, women aged 61-92 were asked what bothered them most about their bodies, and they identified weight as their main concern.
- A study of women aged 50 and older, found that 79% felt that weight or shape had a moderate to very important role in their self-concept.
- A study showed that body image dissatisfaction in midlife, has increased from 25% in 1972 to 56% in 1997.
- A study of women aged 50 and older found that 71% were currently trying to lose weight.
- A study published in 2013, found that 88% of women ages 50 and older were dissatisfied with their body size.
- A study with 774 women suggested that 40% of the women reported that the voice in their heads did not get kinder with age.
What is Body Image?
Body image exists on many levels. It’s visual, mental, emotional, kinesthetic, and historical.
- Visual: how you see yourself when you look in the mirror or when you picture yourself in your mind.
- Mental: what you believe about your appearance.
- Emotional: how you feel about your body, including your height, shape, and weight.
- Kinesthetic: how you sense and control your body as you move.
- Historical: a lifetime of experience including pleasure and pain, praise, and criticism.
Your body image is always changing as your body changes with age or illness, hunger, or fatigue. Your feelings, attitudes and values are so easily shifted by external factors. A slight comment by someone such as “You look great today. Have you lost weight?” or “Perhaps those black pants would be more slimming” can alter your body image. Stepping on the scale in the morning can determine how you feel about yourself for the day.
NEGATIVE BODY IMAGE / BODY LOATHING is when you have a distorted perception of your shape. You are convinced that only other people are attractive and that your body size or shape is a sign of personal failure. You feel a preoccupation and dissatisfaction with your appearance. You feel ashamed, self-conscious, and anxious about your body. It arouses envy.
POSITIVE BODY IMAGE / BODY LOVE is when you have a clear, true perception of your shape. You experience a mixture of emotions, attitudes and actions that let you enjoy the way your body looks and the way it feels. You celebrate and appreciate your natural body shape. You feel proud and accepting of your unique body and refuse to spend an unreasonable amount of time worrying about food, weight, and calories. You feel comfortable and confident in your body.
Factors That Affect Your Body Image …
During midlife, it is a challenge for women to accept being different from the youthful ideal represented in advertising and media. Older women are virtually invisible in the media, and there are few positive role models. Where are the strong images of older women?
This invisibility affects women’s self-esteem. It was found that women who expressed feeling virtually invisible had negative feelings to the changes in their bodies as they aged. They were also more aware that in our culture, youthful bodies are idealised.
The thin ideal becomes less and less attainable
Unattainable Media Images
The images you see in the media, whether on TV, magazines, advertising, and social media are not realistic. Women are often air brushed and appear thinner, more athletic, and younger than they are. Some models and actors have said that the media images of themselves are not accurate.
It is important to stop comparing yourself to these unrealistic images. It only makes you feel that you need to change who you are.
Women experience significant physical changes during midlife. They include an average weight gain of 5-10 Ibs, skin changes, such as sagging and wrinkling, and changes in fat distribution. These can have a very negative emotional impact, particularly when combined with a major life change, such as divorce, children leaving home. Physical changes associated with menopause can also be triggering.
A common reaction to weight gain is dieting or disordered eating, which might include compensatory behaviors after bingeing (over exercise, restricting intake). Many older women will resort to plastic surgery in response to skin changes. Women are altering their bodies which itself can cause a feeling of shame and guilt.
The Impact of Poor Body Image …
Poor body image in women during midlife can also lead to physical and mental health problems, resulting in feelings of shame and disgust. Avoidance of any social situations is common, which can lead to isolation, when this is a time that women need to be connecting with each other.
As we know connection and support is vital during times of distress, particularly for women. This is a time to reach out and talk with other women, get involved in a support group, or contact a therapist.
Beginning to tell your story and have others witness your pain can be healing in of itself. Don’t wait until you are so miserable and overwhelmed. Experience the freedom and empowerment in sharing your story and struggles.
The emotional impact of the pressures of looking youthful, when you aren’t young brings up an array of overwhelming feelings. These are not unique to you. They are common feelings that women during midlife experience because of the many physical changes and major life changes that occur in these years.
You may feel a deep sense of sadness; low energy, that is not age related; sleep problems; or a lack of connection. Depression is also more common during times of hormonal change like menarche and menopause.
Talk with others. Talk with your health provider. They may have suggestions.
You may feel a high level of anxiousness. You may experience more worry or find yourself perseverating about things. You may have anxiety specifically with food or weight issues.
Meditation, breathing, sleep, physical activity can all help with anxiety. Learn new strategies by talking with others about what works for them.
You may find that you have less social interaction than usual. You don’t want to be around other people because of a sense of failure, or you feel fat and miserable.
You don’t need to go the gym. Join a yoga or meditation class. Find a women’s support group or get involved in a Meet Up Group with other women, or in an area that you enjoy, but with women your own age.
You may not feel okay at your core. You don’t like who you are anymore, or maybe never really have. You may feel disgusted with yourself. You aren’t comfortable with who you are.
Read about shame. Embrace your body. This is part of who you are. Find things to engage in that give you a sense of freedom, a feeling of being centered, and ones that give you a sense of confidence.
- Low Self-Esteem
If you are dissatisfied with your body, you likely don’t feel good about yourself. You lack confidence, you are less engaged in life, and your emotional and physical health are not as good as others your age.
Self-Esteem is not difficult to change; however, you need to be ready to embrace who you are. This means taking some risks and learning about boundaries to feel more secure in who you are. It is trusting yourself!
There are many life changes that happen during those midlife years, that combined with the physical changes can feel overwhelming. A preoccupation with food, weight, and you body can be a way of feeling a sense of control, but it comes with painful consequences.
- Divorce: Divorce is no longer an anomaly at a later age in life. Having stayed together for the kids, or wanting to try harder, and not wanting to feel like a failure. Even thought this might be a positive change, it still comes with loss, uncertainty, and fear. It is time to create a new future; a hopeful future.
- Children Leaving Home: Your role has changed. What do you do now? What role in life do you have now? This is a time of uncertainty. A time for redefining who you are.
- Retirement: This can lead to a feeling of fear, loss, and uncertainty. It is important to connect with others that are in the same place in life. Begin to look at those aspects of your life that are about moving forward. Doing those things that you have not had time for.
- Needs of Ageing Parents: There is a biological drive to slow down. When we have competing demands, this can lead to a sense of incompetence or inability to cope.
- Losing People: As we age we begin to lose more people, which might be parents, friends, or other family members. This will lead to significant grief, and complicated grief as you might have more loss than you have experienced in the past. your own mortality becomes of greater concern.
Food and Weight Preoccupation: Is this me?
Body dissatisfaction combined with health concerns about obesity, can make you feel bad about your body and can result in eating strategies that undermine well-being. For some women, taking control of your body is a means of controlling your life.
Do you turn to weight management practices to deal with the change and loss of youth? Common forms of this are food restriction, calorie counting, chronic dieting, and extreme exercise.
“Fat” can evoke a feeling of fear for many women. Fear might be associated with being inferior, rejected, or marginalized. “Fat” becomes a feeling or a judgement rather than a descriptive adjective.
Focus on Physical Appearance
- Marker of success
Having a fit and slender body has often been associated with perfection, control, and success. When you no longer can maintain this physical appearance, there can be a sense of failure, not having control, and certainly not successful.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The physical changes are natural. All women experience these changes. To embrace our bodies and celebrate the wisdom they carry, can be uncomfortable at first, but only because it is not familiar. The sensuality you can feel, no matter what size or shape, can be very erotic.
Women of all ages are sold products that will stave off the aging process, including cosmetics, facial products, diets, implants, face lifts and more. The message this conveys is that you need to alter your body to be appealing”.
The internalization of these messages is often one of disgust, feeling trapped. The social pressure can be overwhelming. Challenging these messages becomes vital. Finding other women who are actively making change for themselves, or are advocates for a different message through writing, speaking is important.
How to Develop a Positive Image During Midlife …
It has been found that women who accept age-related changes to their body during midlife are kinder to themselves. They are more confident, forgiving, and at ease with themselves.
Knowledge is Power
- Role Models
Finding positive role models is important to know that there are other women who don’t buy into the myths of youthful aging. They are beautiful, confident, and grounded.
It is important to identify the negative self-beliefs that your inner critic has repeated over the years. For instance, “I hate my body. I just want to have enough control to be thin again. My skin sags and have those lines around my eyes. I feel so miserable”. The negative thoughts lead to the painful feelings; shame and the guilt.
You can challenge those thoughts. You see a young woman, thin, athletic, tight skin and you think “Why can’t I be like her?” and feel you are a failure, unlovable, unattractive. You have no control.
Change those thoughts to “I am much older. I like my body as it is.” You might then feel empowered and secure.
- Body Love
Begin to look at all aspects of your body. This includes your hands, your hair, your eyes. It is exploring your body in ways that you haven’t before. Maybe you like your buttocks because it is soft and round. Your hands may show your wisdom, and that feels wonderful.
You don’t need to cover up parts of your body. Begin to explore your sensuality through photography, with your clothes on or off. Create a safe space to do this. This includes where the photography is done and who does the photographing. If you choose to wear something, be sure it feels good, sensual. Embrace who you are!
- Letter Writing
Another approach is to make friends with your body. Write your body a letter. You can respond to that letter by having your body write one back to you. You might be amazed at what comes up. Make sure you won’t be disturbed and create a safe space for yourself. It could be with incense, candles, and /or music. Make it a space that feels good to you.
Self-Compassion is about being “kind” to yourself. Being aware of how you talk to yourself should come from a place of self-compassion. How would you talk to someone you care about? Your partner, your children, your parents?
Self-Compassion is also being “gentle” with yourself. Forgive when you have harsh words for yourself. To carry anger and guilt is toxic. It is important to tell yourself “Perfection is Imperfection”.
Do nice things for yourself! This could be taking a bubble bath, going for a nature walk, doing yoga, or taking a meditation class. It is celebrating you …
Ask yourself “In what ways do I celebrate myself?”. “What would I want to do that is not on my list?” Choose one of these each week. Learn what works for you.
Women with poor body image are at high risk for developing disordered eating or an eating disorder. There has been an increase in older women asking for help with body image and disordered eating than what has been seen in the past. For some women, the eating disorder is new and others have struggled with disordered eating in the past.
According to the biological set point theory, a weight range that we inherit, our bodies will vigorously defend this set-point weight. Dieting doesn’t work! The weight is all regained, and more!
Take Action Now
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