Older women and eating disorders

So fifty is the new forty, they say.

There’s an upside and a downside, it seems to me about that. I’ve read a few articles about older women asserting sexuality post menopause. Yay. I think the upside is obvious–sex doesn’t belong to the young–but the downside is troubling.

All the anxiety about body issues that one experienced throughout one’s life and angst about appearance can now continue post menopause too.

I was very unhappy to read about rise in cosmetic surgery post menopause but also unhappy to read about less drastic solutions, such as living in a state of semi starvation.

See Eating Disorders Spike Among the Middle Aged.

“When you hear the term, eating disorder, many people may typically think of a perfectionistic adolescent girl heavily into sports or dance, being raised by an over-controlling parent. By starving herself or binge eating and purging, she is rebelling against the prison of her home.

However, an increasing number of middle-aged and older women are suffering from eating disorders, as well. It’s really no wonder when you consider our culture’s obsession with thinness and unrealistic bust-waist-hip combinations. You can’t thumb through a magazine without catching sight of a waifish figure or hit the highway without a seeing a perfect body in a bikini sipping a beer.

Statistics may lie about just how many women develop eating disorders later in their lives because the illness often goes undiagnosed by doctors. Weight loss and changes in appetite are common complications of another illness or side effects of certain medications. And physicians certainly aren’t looking for anorexia or bulimia in older age groups.

The Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Clinic published information about an Australian study that is among the first to investigate poor body image and eating disorders in older women. Karen Swartz, M.D., Director of Clinical Programs at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, writes:

Investigators surveyed a random sample of 475 women ages 60 – 70 about their eating behaviors, weight history, and attitudes toward their bodies. Around 90 percent said they felt very or moderately fat, and 60 percent reported being dissatisfied with their bodies. The majority of women had a body mass index (BMI) of 25, which is considered just slightly overweight, and wanted to have a normal-weight BMI of 23. Over 80 percent of the women made efforts to manage their weight.

Four percent of the women (18 total) met the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder: One had anorexia nervosa, two had bulimia nervosa, and 15 had symptoms of an unspecified eating disorder that did not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia. In addition, another 4 percent of the women (21 overall) reported a single symptom of an eating disorder, such as using laxatives, diuretics, or vomiting to lose weight, or binge eating.

Typically, it has been assumed that as women age, these problems become less common, but this study suggests that the desire to be thin never fades. Some of the women may actually be experiencing recurrences of eating disorders they suffered from in their teens, 20s, or 30s. Others may have had continuous problems throughout their lifetimes. And still others may have developed the problems anew in their later years.”


I’ve written about aging before. See On not growing old gracefully.

There I quoted with approval Krista Scott Dixon on a model for aging well.

“Aging also helps us grow into ourselves. We start to know what we like and don’t like. We stop giving a fuck what other people think of us.Imagine, younguns, a world where you just don’t give a shit about looking stupid or what your friends think or falling down in public or impressing the Joneses or having to go along with the crowd to do things you hate. Imagine how awesome that would be. The liberation. The joyous freedom. The glorious sense of possibility. Well, if you’re lucky, that’s what getting older is.” Krista Scott Dixon, In Praise of Older Women

That’s the attitude I recommend.

I know that not everyone shares the view that older bodies can be beautiful bodies. I’ve written a post about that too. See Aging, bodies, and revulsion. I find that attitude very sad.

Personally I like Betty White’s attitude to birthdays.

“Now that I’m 91, as opposed to being 90, I’m much wiser. I’m much more aware and I’m much sexier.” 


5 thoughts on “Older women and eating disorders

  1. And the fashion magazines, like More which targets women over 40. Ironically they always feature lovely women with make-up, etc.

    We need to remind ourselves difference definitions of physical and mental vibrancy as we age.

    I never thought of 50 as the new 40. It’s inescapable I will turn 55 in a few months next yr.

  2. Menopause can really change the way our bodies look and it’s usually in the direction of heavier. Menopause messes with our thyroid, our metabolism changes, hot flashes can sometimes induce rabid appetite surges. I experienced that myself. “My waist disappeared,” said one of my friends. Women who were thin all their lives become heavier overnight, or at least that’s how it feels, and that weight doesn’t come off easily. It takes getting used to this new look, even though we might objectively look healthier with more meat on our bones.

    This is not to contradict your post at all, which is timely and important. Rather, post-menopausal weight gain may be a trigger for the resurgence of eating disorders in some older women. It’s crazy for us to torment ourselves with unrealistic physical expectations…there’s so much left to do, and so little time in which to do it!

    1. True. I hadn’t thought about menopausal weight gain as a reason to go back to old disordered eating habits. But you’re right. I can see how that would be a trigger.

  3. I read the Australian study when doing my senior thesis on women’s body image and was shocked because as stated that’s not the mental image one has of someone suffering from disordered eating. In that paper or another I read they do directly address the issue of menopausal body changes as the primary trigger especially as exercise doesn’t have the same ability to alter body shape/composition as you age. I also went through a whole pile if fashion magazines and used the images in my final presentation – my tagline for MORE was “It seems to be okay to age if you’re beautiful and thin.” None of the models in the issues I examined were anything but trim, fit, and vibrantly beautiful able bodied women. This to me means an additional layer of pressure as you age that you must do so while graceful and fit even if you’re changing body chemistry does not make that likely.

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