Body Image and the Elderly

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Typically we think of body image concerns as a problem that affects adolescents and young adults, but this is not always the case. As several new studies show, the elderly, and in particular elderly women, are increasingly concerned about body image and physical appearance. If you work with the elderly or simply have a beloved senior in your life, keep these factors in mind to better understand their relationships with their bodies.

Life events

Recent studies have found that some events that tend to happen later in life, like going through a divorce or experiencing the death of a loved one, can have an impact on one’s body image.

This makes sense. Body image is related to our sense of self-worth and the feeling that we are safe in the world. When major life events challenge those beliefs, it is natural that we might change how we think about our bodies – and that we might try to restore a sense of safety and self-assuredness by changing our physical appearance.

Going through these life changes can also get us thinking about how time has changed us, and one of the places where those changes are most visible is in our physical bodies. These reflections can lead to a variety of emotions directed towards our bodies – some positive and some negative.

Health issues

Health concerns that impact us as we grow older can affect our body image as well. Diabetes, for example, and other chronic illnesses can affect our attitudes toward our bodies and our confidence that our bodies will continue to do all that we ask of them. When illness changes how our bodies feel every day, it is easy to see how that can change how our bodies look in our own eyes.

In addition, and especially when it comes to women, hormonal changes can cause weight loss or change, muscle loss, thinning hair and variations in bone density. These actual changes in physical appearance can be distressing to those who feel pressured to live up to an unrealistic, youthful idea of activeness and beauty.

Fear of aging

Often, the simple fact of getting older is enough to cause body image anxieties. In a culture that increasingly values youth, it is clear how aging can make a person feel less valuable. And this fear of aging itself, as another study suggests, can even be associated with disordered eating.

Effects on health

One important implication of body image concerns among seniors is how their efforts to change their bodies impact their health. Some research indicates that women under the age of 30 are at the greatest risk of being dissatisfied with their bodies, and then their satisfaction level improves between 30 and 65, only to dip again later in life. This means that women over the age of 65 have body dissatisfaction levels similar to those of women under 30. While they are less likely to diet or take other measures to lose weight than young women, those who do are at a greater risk of negative health impacts, like bone and muscle loss, kidney failure, and even death.

What does this mean?

The incidence of body image challenges among the elderly indicates that as a culture, perhaps we have the wrong priorities. It is not right for any person to feel pressured – by the media or anyone else – into feeling that they are not enough, that they need to change their bodies in order to be loved and accepted. But it is easier to see how this happens with young people, who are the primary target demographic of large companies and media outlets, and who often have yet to establish a secure sense of self.

We hope that as we grow and mature, we come to realize that we are valuable regardless of physical appearances. Our experiences in life should give us a greater sense of confidence. The fact that this hasn’t happened, for many of us, even by the time we reach our senior years suggests that the amount of intense pressure we’re placing on ourselves to prioritize our physical appearance over everything else is often insurmountable. That many of us spend a lifetime feeling inadequate and missing out on opportunities for joy because we don’t think we’re thin or pretty enough should be seen as unacceptable.

So how do we change this? It starts with true self-love, which is often a radical act in a culture that tells us only to respect ourselves if we meet its unrealistic standards of beauty. If we can begin to try to love ourselves exactly as we are right now, we can then encourage others to do the same. And we can take a step of evolution toward a culture in which our elders feel valued for who they are and honored for all that they have done in their lives — not rejected for how they look.

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