Women come to midlife with a variety of experiences with their bodies and appearance.
Some may have struggled with their bodies from a young age, while others got extra attention for how they looked. And yet others may have had a more neutral experience.
But it doesn’t matter because at midlife this central question comes up for everyone: how am I going to choose to live in this body as I age?
Of course, many women never consciously ask or answer this question, but they risk ending up in “in-between land.”
That is, they move back and forth from resisting their midlife body and embracing it.
Even though the latter leads to more robust health and happiness, many will not get there. So, it pays to really consider the pros and cons of both resisting and embracing one’s body at midlife.
But first, let’s consider this new road and how body image gets complicated at midlife.
A New Road
Lisa Petty completed her Master’s thesis on the eating experiences of midlife women. After conducting interviews, she concluded, “Collectively, the women feel betrayed by their bodies concerning an unspoken agreement not kept; that somehow the precedent set by years of youth, beauty, strength, and power meant they were entitled to enjoy those attributes forever.”
That’s how it can feel at midlife. We are going along our merry way and boom, there’s a blaring sign we are on a different road. We vaguely heard of this road but until you’re on it, you can’t possibly know how bumpy it is.
And it’s a normal reaction to want to get back on the road you do know, the one that’s predictable and familiar.
The resistance many women feel is normal and to be expected because we just spent many years in one adult life stage.
Think about it. Despite pregnancy for some women, not that much changes developmentally from 20 to 40. The last major stage we went through with these kinds of changes, was puberty!
Body Image Gets Complicated
Despite major changes going on in the body, a woman’s body image doesn’t necessarily worsen with age, but it does get more complicated.
For example, in addition to “fat talk” that women commonly engage in, women may start to engage in “old talk.”
As a study in the Journal of Eating Disorders puts it: “Old talk can appear to be either critical (e.g., “She’s looking really old.”) or seemingly complimentary (e.g., “You so don’t look your age! Tell me your secret.”)
It’s a way of talking that is in line with the young, thin-ideal standard of female beauty in western culture. So now in addition to the pressure women have always felt to maintain a certain body shape, they have the pressure to look young. It’s a double whammy.
Beyond the double whammy of the cultural ideal is the change in social status. Women at midlife are transitioning to becoming a non-reproducing woman. Many women mourn the loss of fertility while others may welcome the absence of periods that come with menopause.
Women may find they are less noticeable feeling invisible in society. These changes add another dimension to feelings about our body not to mention symptoms associated with changing hormones including fat redistribution mentioned in this earlier post.
Media Doesn’t Help
A 2019 study examined body image and appearance evaluation throughout the lifespan in people 16-78 years old. Body image and appearance concerns did not change with age in women but scores of body appreciation increased.
On the one hand, body dissatisfaction doesn’t change much even though bodies are changing a lot. And women tend to appreciate their bodies more.
This can produce a kind of guilt when we aren’t happy with our bodies as one 58-year old lady from the Gender and Body Image Study (GABI) said: “I am ashamed of my aging body and ashamed that I am ashamed. I believe women pay an enormous price for cultural biases related to gender and age.”
Even though women over 50 make up to 20% readership of popular magazines like Elle and Glamour, pictures of women over 50 are much lower, range from 2.68% to 9% (most in the lower percentage).
Yet older men are shown in much higher percentages, up to 34%. And most of the photos of older women were taken at social gatherings or for companies advertising anti-aging products.
When older women are celebrated in the media it’s usually for how well they age, like that viral picture of Helen Mirin in a bathing suit and Jennifer Lopez described as the midlife woman who “defies aging.”
“There’s pictures of her [Jennifer Lopez] all over the internet looking like she was 35, 25, you know what I mean? So what kind of message is that?” said one woman in Petty’s research. “Is it a positive message or is that a negative message…? I don’t know.”
The Fight Your Body Route
In Mothers, Daughters and Body Image, Hillary McBride, Ph.D., therapist and body image expert, describes different paths women can take as their bodies age. One of these paths is to work really hard to maintain youth, putting time and energy in the project of their bodies and appearance to remain youthful.
This is like trying to change roads despite the constant reminders from your GPS to make a U-turn.
One way women combat body changes is through focusing on weight. In fact, worry about weight drives 80% of midlife women to “try to lose weight.”
Yet according to a large review in Obesity reviews that looked at 78 studies, people that perceived themselves as having a weight problem were more likely to attempt weight loss via healthy and unhealthy practices.
However, weight loss attempts were not linked to regular physical activity or healthy eating. And those same individuals were more likely to gain weight over time.
Sixty percent of midlife women say that eating, weight, and shape negatively affect their lives “occasionally” and “often.” And more than a third spent half of the five years trying to change their body through dieting.
There’s nothing wrong with making healthy changes that result in weight loss, but its the negative energy put towards the body that is not time well spent. Fighting our body has costs that can negatively affect health and well-being.
For her doctorate dissertation, Hillary McBride interviewed midlife women who not only survived menopause but felt they did really well with it. These were women who accepted and embraced the changes in their bodies and somehow felt better for it.
“The participants believed that doing well did not mean having perfect physical health or making drastic changes to their lives to maintain a certain physique,” she said. “Rather, they experienced doing well as both accepting their aging bodies and paying attention to their physical health.”
This has to do with the other path women can choose at midlife mentioned in McBride’s book. Instead of resistance and the fight to stay young, women can work on themselves to a certain extent, but choose to age naturally and accept their aging bodies.
Yet a subset of women take this a step further and actually find freedom in moving further away from the cultural ideal for women.
“They saw it as an invitation to see the world a new way, to see themselves a new way instead of something that needed to be fought,” she said during our podcast interview. “That aging and the transition in the body feels like a spiritual pathway into more wisdom, more letting go, more agency, more freedom.”
This path is about cultivating a whole new relationship with your body. If you’re not resisting anymore, you can move closer to acceptance.
“Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean our bodies line up with the cultural ideal,” adds McBride. “But perhaps means that we are allowing ourselves to see who we are and our bodies as they are without moving into the critique or the evaluation.”
Steps to Take
The first thing women can do to embrace their body is to practice embodiment. McBride defines embodiment as “the subjective experience of engaging with the world as a body.”
Young children do this well as I wrote about this post when my daughter was three standing in front of a mirror naked. She was not only fully present in her body, she had no judgment about it.
“The practice of embodiment for many of us as adults is the remembering of our body,” McBride said. “It’s not becoming a body for the first time but remembering we have always been bodies but we’ve been convinced to leave them.”
This is why movement such as physical activity is so important. In one study on intuitive eating, a midlife woman said a change of focus made a big difference: “The most moving part for me was that meditation about accepting your body. I cried. It’s a COMPLETELY different way of thinking about your body than the one our culture seeks. Just appreciating the health of your body. I’m a really fit, active person and I love being active. I really forget to value that.”
Next is to use mindfulness which means paying attention to your body without judgment.
“Instead of stopping the conversation at ‘I love,’ or ‘I hate’ move on to curiosity,” McBride said. “Ask on what criteria am I evaluating myself? And what would it be like to not evaluate myself?’
Also, get curious about where these beliefs came from. It’s often the stories we are given that ends up being the lens in which we view the world.
And most of those stories are from the media. In the book, The Body Project historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg examines the diaries of women from 1830 to 1990. She found that around the 20th century the goals changed from an internal focus to be more externally and body focused. It’s no coincidence that TV was introduced in 1927.
This leads to the vital importance of practicing media literacy. Media likes to tell women how they should look as they age. In one study, midlife media exposure including TV and movie increased the likelihood of disordered eating, size misperception, and stricter food choices around others.
Make it a habit to question every image you see. McBride recommends catching yourself when you are having a critical body moment by saying “my culture has trained me to be frustrated with that part of my body.”
Don’t miss my podcast interview with Hillary McBride: “Overcoming Body Image Challenges at Midlife”
It’s Not All or Nothing
McBride makes it clear that women can have both a positive and negative body image because there are so many components to it. Yet there are so many benefits to spending more time in the positive realm.
Midlife is the perfect time to develop a deeper relationship with our bodies while rejecting the cultural ideal which brings nothing but pain (at any age!).
That’s because midlife women have lived experience and wisdom. We can look back on the past and forward to the future. We feel more comfortable with who we are, and we can extend that to our whole selves.
We understand that we want to get a lot more living out of our bodies and the decisions we make today will have a big impact later in life. As McBride says it’s “Feeling ourselves from the inside out instead of seeing ourselves from the outside in.”
We don’t have to play that same old game we have the power to create our own. And that’s not only a game we can win, it’s one we that can bring great satisfaction, joy, and better health.
How are you choosing to live in your body as you age?