Body Image Realities Change With Age

As women get older, we also get wiser. We approach the problems that plagued us in childhood and adolescence with a broader perspective. While older and wiser doesn’t mean problem-free, we can look back and share our discoveries with those in the thick of some of life’s most difficult challenges. If we’re lucky, here are some valuable lessons we’ve learned by adulthood.

#1 You are not what you weigh.

Societal messages tell women that value comes from being attractive, thin, and sexy. Regardless of whether we're overweight, underweight or somewhere in the middle, many women are still influenced by the media. As we get older, we may still have hang-ups about the way we look, but are able to recognize and challenge those distorted thoughts.

Perhaps you achieved your ideal weight at some point and realized it didn't change how you felt about yourself. Or you may have gained weight steadily with each passing decade yet found that other accomplishments boosted your self-esteem despite the number on the scale. Maybe you stopped waiting to be thin and finally started living life. Whatever the course of events, many older women recognize that their value extends far beyond looks.

#2 You probably look better than you think.

Body dissatisfaction begins to emerge as early as age 5 and increases with age. By age 13, one study found that 53% of American girls are unhappy with their bodies. By age 17, 78% are dissatisfied.

Too many young people go on a diet in childhood and begin a lifelong struggle with body image. Years later, these same youngsters look back at photos and are stunned to realize they weren’t fat at all. This pattern continues as we age. At age 40, pictures of you at 30 look far better than you once thought. With this broader perspective that develops over time, we can embrace how we look in the here-and-now without longing to fit someone else’s ideal.

#3 Today's concerns matter less and less as you get older. 

In adolescence, few things seem more important than looking good and fitting in. Teens may spend hours on social networking sites sizing up friends, comparing weight, and checking out clothes. As we age, these concerns fade into the background as many women begin to focus more on family, career, and overall health.

#4 Body acceptance can be learned.

The good news for those who struggle with body image is that self-image often changes as women grow older and build confidence in ways that are unrelated to appearance. In studies, the importance of body shape, weight, and appearance decreased as women aged. Just as self-image is learned from family, friends, teachers, the media, and other influences, body acceptance can also be learned. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean worshiping every ounce of your body, but rather being realistic about your strengths and weaknesses while accepting that everyone has both.

#5 Developing a healthy relationship with self is a lifelong process.

Age alone doesn’t guarantee self-acceptance. In fact, studies show that many women struggle with poor body image throughout life. Those who continue to struggle with a negative body image in adulthood have many resources to draw on from therapists to eating disorder programs to self-help support groups.

Learning to love and accept oneself is an ongoing process. For those fortunate enough to learn these lessons, aging can be a wonderfully empowering process. By sharing these revelations with younger generations, there’s hope that youth will not have to wait for firsthand experience to embrace a more realistic body image.

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Dr. Carolyn Ross is an internationally known physician, author and speaker on addictions, obesity and eating disorders. She serves as a consultant to The Ranch's eating disorder treatment program in Tennessee, maintains a private practice in Denver, is the author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook: An Integrated Approach to Overcoming Disordered Eating as well as The Joy of Eating Well and also hosts a weekly radio show, The Vital Life. 

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