Are You Struggling to Have a Healthy Body Image After 50?
Have You Been Happy With How You Feel In Your Own Skin Or Like Most Women, Have You Spent Way Too Much Time Thinking About How You Look?
Being a woman means you’ve probably suffered from body image issues at some point in your life. It may have happened occasionally or plagued you all the time. Our expectations of how our bodies look don’t always, or even often, meet the exacting criteria we pick up from the messages around us. Reconciling how we think our bodies should look with how they actually look is an ongoing process.
When I was 16 years old my creative writing teacher gave me an assignment to write about what I liked and didn’t like about my body. It was a painful experience to assess how I really felt about my body because I’d been feeling overweight ever since I was 11 years old. I learned that I didn’t want to examine my body too closely because I felt overwhelmed by failure – failure to have a perfect body, failure to conquer temptation (I loved sweets), failure to live up to what I believed I was expected to look like. Like many teenage girls, living with a less-than-perfect body took its emotional toll. In retrospect I should have relaxed and spent that energy on more important things. But hindsight is 20/20. Now that it’s 2022 I’d like to think that teenage girls are wiser, however I rather doubt that is true. A study run by Girlguiding UK found that 36% of girls aged 7-10 years believe looks to be paramount. By the time they are teenagers the societal messaging only gets more intense.
PRESSURE TO BE THIN ENOUGH
The pressure to be thin enough continues throughout our lives. We may say we just want to be healthy, and to some extent that is true. We may also lie to ourselves and say you can be overweight and healthy, patently ignoring medical evidence to the contrary. Some women suffer from body dysmorphia. According to the Mayo Clinic, body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance - a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others. In extreme cases, your perceived flaw and the repetitive behaviors cause you significant distress and impact your ability to function in your daily life. Treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy and medication. Eating disorders are much more common than we used to think. As per the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders affect at least 9% of the population worldwide and often require professional medical attention.
Even if you don’t suffer from body dysmorphia or an eating disorder, your daily relationship with your body can absorb a lot of your emotional energy. How do I feel in my jeans today? Will I look good in this outfit? Shopping for clothes can be enjoyable if you like your body, but torture if you don’t. Have you ever tried on a bathing suit in a dressing room? The lighting is abysmal and there is no way anyone, no matter how beautiful, will look good enough. And there it is – what, exactly, is good enough? Are we at a healthy weight, do we feel fit and in good shape? More likely the underlying concern is do I look attractive enough to be accepted and loved?
LIKING OUR BODY VS. OURSELVES
Most importantly, do we like ourselves on the inside? We could benefit from focusing on the other aspects of our lives with the same intensity we do about our body images. Success is achievable. Speaking from personal experience, it’s taken decades, but I am happy to attest that it is possible to like your body. In part, it’s because I like who I am at this stage of my life. I also happen to be in better shape now than in previous years. I’m no longer battling myself about food, exercise and expectations. At last, I have confidence that I won’t eat enough to turn into the Pillsbury Dough Boy or qualify to be on the TV show about people who are 600 lbs. I am motivated to keep the pants I already own in my closet and not have to buy a bigger size (haven’t we all bought pants at various sizes in our adult life? It gets expensive and takes up valuable closet space).
A FEW SIMPLE RULES TO LIVE BY
1. Try not to eat unless you’re hungry. Most of the time this works, but I admit there have been some social situations in which I’ve definitely eaten (and eaten well) because I wanted to be part of the action.
2. Moderation is key. I believe it’s fine to eat most anything (I don’t have food allergies or other restrictions – modify this advice as needed) as long as you don’t eat too much of it or too often.
3. Lifestyle is the answer. Dieting makes you feel deprived and cranky; therefore you’ll blow it. So never diet, just pay attention to how much you eat vs. how much you’re exercising. It has to be sustainable for your entire life.
LIKING ME (EVENTUALLY)
I remember trying to recover my body after pregnancy and hating those women who had already lost the baby weight. After my second child it took several years to reclaim feeling normal, followed by years of sometimes feeling good and other times feel crappy about my body. A constant roller coaster ride.
Finally, I paid attention to what I was doing with my life in between those ups and downs. I looked at my work life, my social life, my parenting, and the ways I restore myself. Granted by the time I was able to work on this my children were adults, so I was freed from the exhausting life of working full-time while raising children. While it’s easier to focus on these aspects later in life, it’s never too soon to start. When I stopped worrying so much about my body image I had better emotional resources to direct towards coming to terms with who I am and who I want to be. Interestingly, I began to feel better about the way I looked physically. Nice bonus.
WHAT WE CAN DO FOR GIRLS
If I had daughters instead of sons, I’d like to think I could pass on my wisdom. However, we all know how reliably that works (not very!). I’m reminded of a thin friend who has an obese daughter and I understand just how hard it is for my friend not to be able to get through to her daughter. Nothing will change until her daughter is ready. I know from my own experience. That said, we can do more to improve the atmosphere in which our girls are growing up. As adult women we can learn to accept and like ourselves and be strong women role models. We should be mindful of how we talk about exercising to be strong (not thin), and when we talk to our daughters about how improving one’s body is important we should stress it is because we want them to be ready for whatever life has to offer, rather than simply to be attractive. We want to focus their attention on their intellects, on getting education and gaining valuable life experience. Let’s give them a better start than many of us had when we were younger. At the very least, they’ll have happier moms!