Second Wave of Body Image Issues: Older women
“Honey, I just don’t give a shit about my body image anymore! I’m just glad it still works.” This is the response from women in their 80s when I tell them that my work focuses on reclaiming body image.
Unfortunately, when I talk to women in their 40s and 50s, the response is usually quite different. “I finally got comfortable with my shape and size, and now this whole aging thing pops up.” Or for those single 40 year-old women its, “I didn’t realize I would have to get naked again in front of someone new again. It’s a whole different thing at this age.” Occasionally, I’ll hear women, most of whom where slender in their 20s and 30s, say something like, “I never got the whole “body image” thing…but now I get it.”
It’s clear, many women experience a second (or third) wave of body image issues as we enter into our 40s and 50s. And just like it was a struggle to empower ourselves around it during puberty or pregnancy, we find the same thing repeated now.
Yet, there it is. Lurking in our daily conscious thoughts and often driving many of our decisions and choices -- how we dress, how we feed ourselves, how we show up sexually, and how we honor and nurture ourselves. But remember, disliking these fabulous, magnificent, complex, and magical bodies is not something we are born with. It is something we learned.
What taught us to be dissatisfied with aging in these bodies?
If you were from another planet and had to learn about America from a magazine, you would think we were all white, thin, flawless and 20. We are bombarded with 1000s of images each and every day, and almost all of them are women in their early 20s or younger – sometimes advertising wrinkle cream! These are not real images. They are enhanced in 1001 ways with makeup, lights, and photoshop, giving the impression of something that doesn't really exist in real life.
The few images we do see of older women (and men) -- usually advertising retirement planning, gated communities, plastic surgery, or Viagra -- are similarly altered to idealize youth. They may have a shock of white hair, but not a wrinkle, roll, or sag in sight. The real life humans seen in movies are altered in other ways - Botox, boob and butt lifts, tummy tucks, lip enhancements, chemical peels, hair extensions, and a army of personal trainers and chefs.
Older women are told to " age gracefully." which is simply another way of saying, “Hey baby, don’t change too much. If you have to change, please be pleasant about it and definitely try not to be too vocal about the unpleasantness it might bring.” It’s the same message we get during pregnancy and menstruation. “Hurry up and get back to being a powerful, beautiful, maiden-like woman”.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to this rule. We do hear about the 89-year-old weight lifter, the 100-year-old yogini, or the notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsburg). These are badass women, and yet the message is still clear - stay young and retain your youth-like vigor.
All of these are actually just symptoms of something going bad at the root. The predominant culture n American (as if there is just one) doesn't honor aging. We see older people as a burden, irrelevant, or even stupid. (Studies show!)
Traditionally, in more ancient, earth-based cultures, when a woman hit their 40s and 50s she took a rite of passage, and stepped into a new role. No longer a mother (of children or projects), she stepped into a circle of women who were the leaders of the community. They kept the ancient stories alive – those myths passed along from one generation to the next to teach the children well. They became the peace keepers and rulers of justice, probably because they had been around the block a few times and knew a thing or two about temperament. They were the visionaries, because they had the time to walk up the mountain, pray, and listen for the reply. They wielded justice, power, and passion. They were revered, honored, and taken care of.
Imagine we still lived in such a culture? Would we fear our wrinkles if we knew they were leading us to a place of wholeness? Would we remove laugh and frown lines if we knew they would entice people to listen with greater respect? Would we hide the soft belly rolls and angry hot flashes if we knew they took us into a deeper, second sense of purpose?
Youth offers us brilliance, but so does age. If we want to embrace these aging bodies, then we really need to embrace age too. Maybe we need to reclaim the word crone, just as we have reclaimed the word pussy! There are millions of young girls following us, and they need these aging shoulders to stand on. We need it ourselves.
So, how do internally reframe the story? How do we learn to look in the mirror and celebrate the laugh lines? Stand in the shower and embrace the stretches and sags? Move and dress these bodies to express ourselves rather than constrain ourselves?
Let us know some of the ways you have learned to embrace your aging body in the comments. And, let’s not wait until we are 80 to say, “I love this body.” Let’s start today.
By Jackie Dobrinska