Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

How to Feel Good About Your Body

It helps to like other women.

Rose, a 55-year old fundraiser for a woman’s college with a sharp wit, swims every morning at a local gym and lives in a fifth floor walk-up in the East Village. She has ample hips and considers herself overweight, but she doesn’t obsess about it. “I’m kinda cute,” she says, with a wry smile. She’s also not worried about life without a man, or whether she needs to lose weight to attract one: in fact, she just ended a hot romance because the man didn’t drink or eat meat.

It helps that she’s a feminist—feminists worry less about their bodies than other women, according to a 2008 meta-analysis from Kenyon College that examined 26 studies of body image and feminist identity from 1995 to 2007. It also helps to be well-educated, or at least, to have attended Barnard: according to a recent survey conducted by Barnard graduates for their 50th college reunion, 73% are satisfied with their appearance and 17% have had cosmetic surgery.

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Less happy news comes from a new survey—“Body Image in Women 50 and Over”—conducted by the University of North Carolina. It questioned 1,849 mainly white women around the United States who were 50 or older (the average age was 59) . The survey found that 3.5% reported binge eating and nearly 8% said they purged. More than 10% of middle-aged women binging or purging?

Blame it on a youth-obsessed, sexist culture, and fight back!

Here are my personal strategies for body-peace as I round the other side of 50 with a rounder belly than I’ve ever had before:

1. Move. I like yoga class, even when I must contemplate the roll that clumps up under my eyes in my shoulder stand. I inwardly applaud much older students doing handstands and beginners of all shapes, and I admire the beauty of my teachers. (As my friend Lisa puts it, “I’ve stopped feeling bad looking at young women in tight or scant clothing. They’re like flowers. In the spring, the flowers come out.”) On my best days, I don’t compare, I concentrate and I leave calm and inspired.

2. Bond. Work on woman’s causes. Solidarity beats envy.

3.Don’t fat-talk. When you complain about your thighs and friends chime in, you may get relief knowing that you’re not the only one, but you all end up feeling worse.

4.Surround yourself with people who like and accept you. Yvonne, 45, joined Overeaters Anonymous to reduce her full hour-glass figure. Then, a few years ago, she had a stroke, which are becoming more common among younger people. Now she’s self-conscious about the limp and aphasia she acquired. BUT she completely forgets about her limp in public when she’s with her closest friends. When speaking to her inner circle, her speech becomes fluid, almost like before. Her boyfriend helps, too: “He thinks I’m very sexy and lets me know it,” she says.

5.On a “fat day” figure out what’s really bothering you. It could be something physical—or emotional. Weight can be a distraction from a scarier problem, like boredom on the job or meager retirement accounts.

6.Losing weight isn’t the key to good sex or a happy relationship. A true partner will see you with rose-colored glasses (there’s even science to back that). Notice the men squiring less than perfect women. “I’m attracted to a woman’s sense of humor,” says Steve, 55. When it comes to body parts, he likes big butts. Ran, 70, has a taste for plus size curvy women with double D cups. But “at the end of the day, I fall in love with eyes,” he says. “Eyes are a window into the brain.”

7. Look at nudes through the eyes of artists. The British photographer Melanie Manchot, has photographed her mother, dressed and nude—“Look at You Loving Me”—that is as lovely as it is tender. The Vogue fashion and portrait photographer, Irving Penn, spent his free time on nudes that recalled fertility idols. Four years before her death at age 84, Alice Neel painted her first self-portrait, in the nude.

8.Decide what’s really important. Amy, a 49-year old single mother, has gotten heftier since the birth of her son five years ago. “With the blessing of middle age and the lack of interest in a mate, I don't think about my weight. As I've told my mother, ‘I've been skinny and unhappy and fat and happy and I prefer the latter.’ If it gets to be a health concern, I’ll deal with it.”

9. Go topless or even nude at any of the many beaches in Europe and in the United States, where you'll find women of all shapes.

10. Wear good underwear and make sure your bras fit. Jamie’s metabolism changed when she hit 40, and she’s now the biggest she’s ever been. AS a trained chef, she eats healthily—and reminds herself that both her mother and grandmother had her current shape. “I’m doing the right stuff,” she says. “I have days when I feel sexy and proportioned, usually when I wear special underwear.” Weight gain is a message to take care of herself—but not a reason to obsess.

My friend Jeff puts it best, “I think the challenge for all of us is to enter into a nurturing relationship with our body, our mind and our whole being. This takes a lot of kindness, patience, gentleness, honesty and vulnerability.” He’s a sweet, handsome man of 40, with nary an extra pound.

 For editing and writing coaching, contact me at expertediting.org. 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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