body image · fitness

Body image, aging and the need for recognition

Content warning: This post mentions studies on negative body image, suicidal ideation, self harm, and negative self-esteem.

Now to the post proper:

The Mental Health Foundation Scotland released a report recently about body image, which included a poll about how Scots feel about their bodies. It was covered in the news here.

The poll – which was published as part of a report “Body Image: How we think and feel about our bodies” – also found that just over on third of all adults said they have felt anxious because of their body image. 

And a quarter adults have felt “disgusted” because of their body image in the last year, while nearly a quarter said they had felt “shame”. 

The poll found that body image issues affected women more than men, with 11 per cent saying they have “deliberately hurt themselves” because of their body image, compared to 4 per cent of men.

One thing the report talks about in more detail that the news article doesn’t is how aging affects body image. The research shows a lot of different and complex results. On the one hand, older adults express more interest in body functioning than appearance. On the other hand, many adults (20–23% in the Scottish survey) express anxiety or depression around their body image.

This is not surprising news to any of us. But what’s underlying these feelings?

In a large 2017 qualitative study on women, aging and body image, researchers wanted “to capture the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that women at middle age have about their bodies and the experience of aging.” Here’s what they found:

Four primary themes emerged: 1) the physical and psychological experience of aging; 2) the injustices, inequities, and challenges of aging; 3) the importance of self-care; and 4) a plea for recognition of the need to maintain a contributory role in society.

I really like this quote from their interviews:

I think we all believe that we are young from our side of our eyes. We don’t look it, maybe, but ask anyone if they feel any different than they did when younger. We are women, we are sexual beings, we are capable of love and compassion, and we don’t want to be checked off because of a few wrinkles or white hair. I have always felt that when your hair turns white you become invisible.

And I love this one:

We are beautiful, sexy, mature women who have much to give to society and to the younger people. We have vast knowledge, experience and the ability to teach many things if you would listen.

Yes yes yes to this! What I want for myself as I continue to age is to be seen. To be seen as relevant. To be seen as functional. And to be seen as beautiful. There, I said it. It’s what I want. And I’m not alone in this.

When do I feel relevant and functional and attractive?

  • doing yoga
  • cycling
  • dancing
  • doing social things
  • doing helping or socially relevant things
  • doing professional things

For me, being out in the world and active helps me recognize that I matter, and it helps others recognize it, too. And– the extra added bonus– it helps others realize that people who are older, with older and varied bodies, matter.

What helps you feel seen, recognized for who you are– yourself in all your specific glory? I’d love to hear from you.

3 thoughts on “Body image, aging and the need for recognition

  1. I’ve never really thought about this, Catherine. Partially because except for my partner, I seldom cycle with anyone..and so I don’t worry about my body/competence.

    I totally agree while working in paid jobs, is doing something professional does give recognition, etc. Especially when one is teaching/presenting. Perhaps that is part of the solution: developing good verbal communication skills to present/make a point in public/large groups as one ages. It is always impressive to hear an aging person speak well, clearly, gracefully and to the point, with useful example and to speak with confidence/energy. This surpasses what a woman looks like and how she may dress if she can command that type of attention to be listened to with respect.

    I think of my partner’s mother who seemed to draw young people to her….she had a style that was non-demanding, gentle and calm, yet willing to listen.

  2. Sorry, this doesn’t seem to answer your question about becoming invisible when one has increasingly grey hair.
    I’m thinking of more personal style and who I’ve admired in women over the years. Self presentation isn’t just about body shape/image, fashion, exercise/body movement….it is very much about communication style and body language.

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