by Carol Fredrek

A common myth in our culture is that women in midlife do not experience body dissatisfaction or disordered eating. It is often minimized, which is evident by its lack of visibility in the media.  However, many studies show quite the opposite.

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. Furthermore, another study of women aged 50+ found that 71% were currently trying to lose weight.

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?

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.

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.

Physical Changes

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 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.

Emotional Impact

Depression

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.

Anxiety

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.

Isolation

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.

Shame

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

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.

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.

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.

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. 

The internalization of these messages is often one of disgust, feeling trapped.  The social pressure can be overwhelming.  Challenging these messages becomes vital.  Find other women who are actively making change for themselves.

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.

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.

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.