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Body Image

Body Image Issues Are Not Just for Young Women

One size does not fit all.

Key points

  • Women over 50 have challenges with body image, research shows.
  • Older women have more such problems than much younger women.
  • Age 54 is the age at which females are most dissatisfied with their bodies.

Most of us believe that many older women are content to age gracefully, and they don't get their knickers in a twist over a few added pounds or a few more wrinkles.

Not so.

“Feeling fat is an insecurity many women don’t grow out of,” says Dr. Cynthia Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program at the North Carolina School of Medicine. “62% of women over age 50 reported that their weight or shape negatively impacts their lives, 79 percent said that it affected their self-perception and 64 percent said that they thought about it daily — and many have eating disorders.”

The common belief that eating disorders are for adolescents and younger women is clearly wrong. Women in their 50s are most likely to report weight and eating issues, but the behaviors are reported in women over 75 as well. Feeling “too fat,” surprisingly, is more of a problem for a fiftyish granny than for her teenybopper granddaughter.

It’s also more of a female problem than a male one. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that nearly one-half (49.1%) of adults tried to lose weight. But 56% of women were in that group, compared to 41.7% of men.

Our culture views aging in men more generously than in women. Sean Connery, in his 60s, was labeled “the sexiest man alive,” while female actors over 40 are downgraded to roles as judges and funny mothers-in-law and told to consider Botox. At 60, it’s on to “Driving Miss Daisy.”

While the bulk of research still focuses on the weight concerns of young people, recently attention has turned to those of older women. Dr. Bulik noted, “We know very little about how women aged 50 and above feel about their bodies…An unfortunate assumption is that they ‘grow out of’ body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, but no one has really bothered to ask…our goal was to capture the concerns of women in this age range to inform future research and service planning.”

Indeed, as America was having a love affair with ever-thinner women, the U.S. became “the most obese country in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Some 38.2% of American adults, ages 15 and older, are obese. Just 3.7% of adults in Japan are obese.”

The North Carolina study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, included 1,849 women, average age 59, from across the U.S. “Overall, the vast majority — 79% — said their weight or shape affected their self-perception, and more than 70% said they were trying to lose weight. Two-thirds of women thought about their weight or shape daily: 41% checked their body daily and 40% weighed themselves a couple of times a week or more. Their attitudes and behaviors put them at risk for full-blown eating disorders, the authors said. Indeed, about 3.5% of women reported binge eating, nearly 8% reported purging and 36% of women reported spending at least half their time in the last five years dieting.”

A driving force is “the intense cultural pressure to look forever young. As a society, we are placing so much pressure on women over 50 to not look like they’re aging,” says Bulik. “There are ads saying, You should buy these products or get this surgery or make these changes, so the world doesn’t have to see your wrinkles. It’s pushing women toward unhealthy weight-controlling behaviors.”

As reported by Bulik, “Weight and shape concerns don’t discriminate on the basis of age…In fact, fifty-four is the age at which the average woman is least satisfied with her body.”

More specifically, “Most women in midlife rate their ideal figure as smaller than their actual size and want to be thinner even when they are within the healthy weight range. Appearance is just as important to ‘self-concept’ — or how women view themselves and their worth — in 35 to 65-year-olds as it is to those in younger age groups.”

While the thin-body goal remains constant over time, the challenges to attaining that goal vary with age.

“Given that women in midlife experience significant alterations in their bodies, including an average weight gain of 5-10 lbs…it is perhaps not so surprising that so many develop body image concerns at this stage...”

One large study of women 50 and older, showed a very high prevalence of body image dissatisfaction. “Of the participants:

  • 71% were currently trying to lose weight.
  • 79% felt that weight or shape played a “moderate” to “the most important” role in their self-concept.
  • 70% were dissatisfied with their weight and shape compared to when they were younger.
  • 84% were specifically dissatisfied with their stomachs.

The national and worldwide face of women who struggle continuously with weight issues, Oprah Winfrey, shares very publicly her insecurities about weight gain: She hates being “fat.”

This feeling sent Oprah on a bumpy ride after she lost 67 pounds with the help of a liquid diet and daily 6.5 mile runs, only to gain it (and more) right back.” It became a story played out publicly on TV and on magazine covers.

At 67, she is still “sharing the gritty details of her relationship with food and weight since the 1980s.” Oprah has helped make weight loss a multi-billion-dollar industry after she purchased a 10 percent stake in Weight Watchers for $43 million, in 2015.

Yet, Weight Watchers’ new program, aimed at teens, is a campaign to push the obsession with thinness at ever younger ages. “In 2018, the company announced that teens between 13 and 17 could join at no cost. At 17, membership will cost the adult rate: $3.99 per week for the ‘OnlinePlus’ program, which includes online tracking tools but no in-person meetings; $8.99 per week for access to meetings and weigh-ins; and $10.77 per week for a coach who provides unlimited one-on-one phone sessions and personalized goal plans.’”

However, there is some good news among the gloom.

Not all middle-aged and older women are dissatisfied with their bodies. Among the protective factors are:

  • “Being in a consistent relationship
  • Being in a long-term relationship
  • Having children, and
  • Having job security.”

These factors “seem to divert women’s attention from their body image and reduce the pressure which they perceive to attain the ‘thin ideal.’”

But there’s a catch to the good news. Many women in this age range are widowed, and, therefore, “vulnerable to feelings of body dissatisfaction.” According to a 2016 American Community Survey, “among those 75 years or older: 54% of women and 20% of men were currently widowed, a significant difference between the sexes,” making this stage of life particularly difficult for older women.

So, Miss Daisy may keep on driving — straight to Weight Watchers.

More from Rosalind C. Barnett, Ph.D., and Caryl Rivers
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