by Nicole Christina, LCSW
Imagine this scene: You are at the coffee shop with a few of your female friends who are talking about their current diets, whether or not they were “good” over the weekend, and their successes or failures according to their fitness apps.
Or this: You are at your favorite clothes shop with your best friend, trying on dresses. Your friend comes out of the dressing room looking lovely in a colorful dress that suits her bubbly personality. You exclaim, “I love it! It’s you!” and she replies in a disgusted tone, “Are you kidding? It makes my butt look enormous!”
Body Shame For Women Over 50 Is an Epidemic
Body shame is epidemic for women, and even after countless attempts to lose weight throughout our lives, many of us are still trying in our later years. We might reason that we want to “be healthy.” Sometimes it’s an attempt to get back the younger body we’re mourning. It’s a loss to see our bodies changing in ways that our culture tells us is unattractive and undesirable. Especially if we had received a lot of attention for our looks, our body’s aging can be downright traumatic and feel like a betrayal. The messages are not subtle: Unless you are slender, you have a body that’s wrong and needs to be fixed. And shame is the natural reaction to feeling wrong or bad.
The focus on weight and body in our 50’s makes perfect sense. Much like adolescence when eating disorders often develop, there are major transitions, adjustments and losses in life after 50. Mothers who have spent so much of their time and energy parenting are sending their kids off. Parents and friends may be ill and need caretaking. One’s identity is in flux and there are many unknowns. We may feel great loss and emptiness. Chronic dieting is a great distraction from these anxieties.
Diets Give Us a Sense of Control and Safety
Diets help us put our lives in a safe container; instead of allowing ourselves to feel invisible, sad, or jealous, for example, we can focus in on carbs, points, calories or pounds. Dieting brings all of the ambivalence and discomfort into a realm we can control. They help us feel like we’re a project to be improved upon, and we’re making progress. Eating less carbs may help us feel powerful, disciplined and even smug. This sense of control, however illusory, is welcome at a time when everything feels in turmoil.
Our 50’s are also a time when many women realize that their partnerships are not what they need or want in this phase of life. The “breakup diet” begins in response to the stress of divorce when we might unintentionally lose weight. But then we receive praise and compliments like, “You look great! How are you doing it?” That’s hard to resist for anyone. It feels great to feel a sense of accomplishment. The desire to maintain that attention is seductive. We may adopt restrictive eating rules to maintain the new, lower-weight body. If we are looking to begin dating again, we tell ourselves that being thinner is necessary because the competition is rough. We may diet to compete with younger women. Adopting diet trends, such as gluten-free or low carb, may help us feel relevant in the face of feeling invisible. There’s nothing sexy about eating fresh foods that you like in moderation, and moving for pleasure, not punishment. Yet that is exactly what keeps us sane and balanced with food and exercise.
The Power of the Diet Industry
The diet industry’s sole purpose, of course, is to convince us that we’re unlovable in our current bodies. If you’ve absorbed the current message that losing weight increases your health, you might be surprised to know that that’s a gross oversimplification. This is a myth that is rampant, yet the scientific research simply does not support this. Check out the book Body Respect by Linda Bacon, and prepare to have all of your beliefs about weight loss and health turned upside down. Approximately 98% of diets fail, and many people find they actually gain weight. Yo-yo dieting is proven to create health problems. Sadly, physicians still prescribe exercising more and eating less, as if it’s that easy. That advice is not sustainable nor based in science. It’s a setup, and we end up feeling like a failure. Our body shame is compounded by what we perceive is a lack of willpower.
Eating Disorders Are on the Rise Among Women Over 35
It’s important to we ask ourselves who benefits from our body shame. Some argue that dieting is a means of oppression of women. It’s not such a stretch. The Renfrew Center–the gold standard for eating disorder treatment facilities–reported that in the past decade, there has been a 42% increase in the number of women over the age of 35 who sought treatment at their clinic. And because eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality than any other mental health diagnosis, this is tragic.
Have we considered the emotional cost of body shame and loathing? How that constant negative orientation towards the very body that houses us erodes our confidence? Steals our energy? Pulls our focus from using our talents and skills? When is the last time we thanked our body for what it does so well–keeping our internal temperature at a constant rate, manage the billions of bio-chemical reactions that keep our system balanced? Run across the tennis court to chase down a ball?
Just for fun, see if you can notice when you are body shaming yourself or someone else, and focus instead on how the body serves you. I think you will feel a weight lifted.
Nicole Christina, LCSW, is a psychotherapist of 30 years, specializing in food and body issues. She’s the creator and host of the popular podcast Zestful Aging, which is heard in 53 countries worldwide. To find out more, go to NicoleChristina.com.