Only 12% of women aged 50 and over report satisfaction with their body size. That means that 88% of women prefer to be a different body size than the one that they currently inhabit. I find those numbers to be staggering. And I don’t believe that the picture would look much different for women under 50. Despite the pressures of aging in our youth-obsessed culture, it has always been common wisdom (or wishful thinking) that women become more comfortable in their own skin as they age. Even as a psychologist specializing in disordered eating and body image, I’m shocked and disturbed by those numbers. I always imagined that there were women out there who were happy with their bodies; it is just that they aren’t walking into my office.
A research study conducted by Cristin Runfola, Ph.D. and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina, published in the current issue of the Journal of Women and Aging, found that 12.2% of women over age 50 are satisfied with their body size. But this study wasn’t just about the prevalence of body image satisfaction in women. The authors also wanted to study that elusive 12% of women who actually are satisfied with their body size to find out their secret. What resilience did these women exhibit that protected them from the body dissatisfaction that was present in the other 88%? The disappointing answer: nothing. Weight and shape still played a primary role in their self-evaluation. While these women were satisfied with their body size, 50% did not like their stomach or face and 70% did not like their skin. They were fearful of gaining weight (40% stated that a 5 pound weight gain would make them moderately to extremely upset), weighed themselves at least a couple of times per week, and exercised frequently to stay slim. In short, these “satisfied” women were holding on by a thread.
Body hatred is the new normal. Teens measure their “thigh gap” and read diet books borrowed from their mothers, many of which were handed down from their mothers. Body talk is rampant. Women greet each other with “you look great, you lost weight. What is your secret?” while the other responds “thanks, but I still have a ways to go until I reach my goal.” Many of us don’t even think twice when a friend asks: “Do I look fat in this?” or tells us about the juice detox she is on because it has become so pervasive. Now is the time! Let’s not wait until there is no woman left unscathed (there must be one or two still remaining, right?) by our body-hating culture. I propose that we all say “ENOUGH” and start to work towards a culture of body acceptance and self-love. Refuse to live our lives enslaved to the scale! Because once we have the freedom from the bonds of dieting and body-hatred, we can start directing our energies towards really changing the world.
Dr. Conason is a clinical psychologist and researcher in New York City. To learn more about mindful eating and Dr. Conason's practice, please visit her website at www.drconason.com