Society and the media have a unique way of framing the idea of the ‘aging female’. In most instances, aging is seen as this horrible decline into feebleness and grumpiness. Think about all the greeting cards that remind us that our hearing, vision, and bodies are not what they used to be or the sitcom with the cranky grey-haired grandma. These negative stereotypes can play directly into the hand of a distorted body image as we age.
How many of you have looked in the mirror and said “Ugh! I really hate my (fill in the blank)” or have compared yourself to some young, fit, beautiful actress or model? Don’t feel bad if you have…it is human nature, but when these thoughts become a main focus in your daily life or you have an unrealistic view of your body, then you may be suffering from a negative body image.
Negative body image is a very complex problem and it can go beyond the characteristic misperception of your appearance or weight. It may also include your misunderstanding of how your body moves, your culturally driven belief of what your body should look like, and your feeling towards your body. Body image issues have typically focused on younger females but research is showing that these same worries are also present in more mature females with the added concern of aging. Unfortunately, lower body image satisfaction is associated with decreased social engagement, lower health outcomes, and overall quality of life in older women (Sabik, 2017).
Research has shown that many older women experience displeasure with their bodies, especially their appearance and weight, due to impractical beauty standards that emphasize anti-aging and ageist ideals (Jankowski et al.,2016). These unrealistic standards can be reinforced any time you open social media or a magazine and see the ads for anti-wrinkle creams/serums or the latest diet plan. This issue becomes more entangled as many times our inner and outer-self do not connect, meaning our outside look may not reflect our inner feelings or abilities. We are making meaningful contributions to society through work or volunteerism, we feel young and vibrant, and we love experiencing new challenges, but because we have a few lines around the eyes, a little grey in our hair, or we slip on reading glasses, we are identified as old by others. No wonder, the beauty industry makes billions of dollars each year as we try to synchronize our inner self and outer self.
In addition to changes in our appearance, body dissatisfaction may also come about due to the natural changes that occur in the body with aging. As we age, we may have a loss of health, a loss of vitality, and/or a loss of identity (retirement, divorce, death of a spouse, empty nest) that can easily be viewed negatively and affect our body image (Carter, 2016). However, research shows that women who have accepted their aging appearance and emphasize their nutrition and exercise habits as a means to protect their health as opposed to improving their appearance, enjoy a more positive body image (Bailey et al.,2016).
Promote Living A More Body Positive Lifestyle.
Changing a negative body image means more than changing your body. It means changing how we think, feel, and react to our body. In order to turn that body image frown, upside down, remember these tips.
Squash negative self-talk
We can be our own worst critics when it comes to our bodies. Our self-talk happens in the privacy of our own minds and when we say or think negative things about our bodies, it reinforces that negative body image. It will take practice to stop those negative thoughts and re-frame them into something more positive. Try highlighting your unique talents or abilities. In the beginning, you may even have to fake it a bit but if you stay consistent, you will reap the benefits. A few simple sayings include, “I am strong!’, “ I am able’, “I am good enough’ or “I am thankful for my body and what it can do for me’.
Focus on your health
Exercising and eating healthy on a regular basis can boost your body image. Try setting nutrition and exercise goals that relate to your health as opposed to your appearance. What’s the difference between the two types of goals?
Appearance goal: I want to be able to complete 25 pushups in order for my arms to look more toned.
Health goal: I want to be able to complete 25 pushups to improve my strength for lifting my grandkids.
When we set an appearance goal, it can lead to negative outcomes with body image…I am now able to do 25 pushups but I don’t think my arms are as toned as they should be. Our focus stays on the external outcome which has been shown to decrease our satisfaction with our bodies (Vartanian, 2012). When we focus on a health goal, improving strength to lift our grandkids, we associate the positive outcome to our internal self…. I now can do 25 pushups and lift my grandkids, I am superwoman!
Social media: friend or foe?
Social media has been shown to contribute to both negative and positive body image. Research has shown that there is a link between spending more time on social media platforms or engaging with more appearance-related content on social media and greater body image concerns (Holland & Tiggemann, 2016). One of the biggest suggestions on how to handle the negative influence of social media is to disconnect! Put down the phone and engage in activity. However, if you can’t do that then choose to follow body positive influencers who focus on improving and sustaining positive, joyful self-care behaviors for all body types or accounts that use information supported by science to promote healthy living. Also, unfollow or unfriend accounts that try to sell you products with their ‘perfect’ bodies.
If you choose to engage in anti-aging beauty and body work, such as hair dye, creams, serums, Botox, or even surgery, do so proudly! There is no shame in these practices. In fact, women who have engaged in these practices, simply covering their grey hair to undergoing cosmetic surgery, report improvements in their self-esteem, confidence, and body image as it has helped to merge their appearances and their sense of felt identity and felt age (Hurd Clarke et al.,2007).
Bailey, K. A., Cline, L. E., & Gammage, K. L. (2016). Exploring the complexities of body image experiences in middle age and older adult women within an exercise context: The simultaneous existence of negative and positive body images. Body Image,17,88–99.
Carter, C. (2016). Still sucked into the body image thing: The impact of anti-aging and health discourses on women’s gendered identities. Journal of Gender Studies, 25(2), 200–214.
Holland, G., & Tiggemann, M. (2016). A systematic review of the impact of the use of social networking sites on body image and disordered eating outcomes. Body Image, 17, 100-110.
Hurd Clarke, L. and Griffin, M. (2007). The body natural and the body unnatural: Beauty work and aging, Journal of Aging Studies, 21(3), 187-201.
Jankowski, G., Diedrichs, P. C., Williamson, H., Harcourt, D., & Christopher, G. (2016). Looking age-appropriate while growing old gracefully: A qualitative study of ageing and body image among older adults. Journal of Health Psychology, 21(4), 550–561.
Sabik, N.J. (2017). Is social engagement linked to body image and depression among aging women? Journal of Women & Aging, 29, 405-416.
Vartanian, L.R. et al. (2012). Appearance vs. health motives for exercise and for weight loss, Psychology of Sport and Exercise,13 (3), 251-256.