Years ago, I conducted a cross-cultural study on body image when the bulk of the research in this area focused on adolescents and young women, who were the most prone to life-threatening eating disorders. We know that eating disorders often stem from being at odds with our physical appearance; usually our weight. Adolescent girls are more likely to acquire a negative body image than are their male peers and here’s why: When girls hit puberty, their bodies become curvier as Mother Nature adds some padding here and there as part of normal healthy physical development. Boys at the same age start to become taller, leaner, more broad-shouldered and start to grow facial hair. Considering we live in a culture that up until recently (and this is only just beginning to change) worshiped thinness as the ideal for girls, and broad-shouldered masculinity for boys, many girls at this age compare themselves to impossibly thin “ideals”, and realize it is unattainable for the majority of us. While boys get closer to society’s ideal for them at this stage, female puberty brings girls further away from their “ideal”. Thus begins a cycle of body dissatisfaction, or Body Image Disturbance (BID) depending on the severity, and an adversarial relationship with our body affects our everyday life. Serial dieting, binging, purging, seeing distorted reflections when we look in the mirror that don’t correspond to the reality, critical self-talk, and many other maladaptive behaviors begin to spring forth.
While a handful of studies have found that to a certain degree, women like their bodies more when they get older, the majority of findings tell a different story. Just as a girl, through the natural developmental process, gets more distance to the youth beauty ideal of the advertising or cosmetics industry, think of what happens as a woman ages. Now she is told to wear stretch undergarments so she can smooth out her post-menopausal padding, turtlenecks to hide her “turkey waddle” neck, long pants in the summer to cover her “elephant knees” and loose tunics that camouflage our “muffin tops”. Honestly, I don’t know who come up wit these names!
The truth is, many women hate their appearance all of their lives. That’s a long time spent loathing what we should be grateful for. What we should be proud of, as there is beauty in every age, just like in every season in Nature. Some older women even suffer from eating disorders. Or drain their wallets and bank accounts on a desperate quest to try and look 25 again. Instead of aging with dignity and confidence, we feel marginalized and unattractive. As men age, there is some research to indicated that with the gradual physical decline that comes from age—no so much the change in appearance—men start to be dissatisfied with the way they look too (remember, society’s ideal of masculine strength).
So why is a positive body image so important? Because the way feel about our body is connected with our self-esteem and that relationship doesn’t weaken with age.
It is time to establish our own standard of beauty, attractiveness, confidence, and meaning. While this website is no substitute for professional counseling if you need it, in my opinion we can start doing two things now to start making friends with the woman (or man) in the mirror.
First—take care of the body you live in. We should all try to look and feel our best through good nutrition and regular exercise. These to things alone will help you feel better and more attractive.
Beyond that, I am all in favor of whatever skin cream or procedure that you have researched, read reviews on, and think would make you (not society) happy. Just don’t do anything because you were led to believe you could chase down a time travel fantasy, or because you hate your body.
Second—Write down 5 things you can do every day to start developing a positive body image. Emphasize the functionality, not just the appearance of the body. Think of all the things your organs, senses and limbs do for you each day. Our bodies really are miraculous and deserve to be treated with respect and appreciation.
The time to make friends with the image you see in the mirror is NOW. Stop browbeating yourself. Instead, shake hands with your reflection and your reflection will meet you half way.
Baker, Lucie & Gringart, Eyal (2009). Body image and self-esteem in older adulthood. Aging & society (29) 977-995.
Mautner, R., Owen, S.V., & Furnham, A. (2000). Cross-cultural explanations of body image disturbance in Western cultural samples. International Journal of Eating Disorders .
c Raeleen Mautner 2018