Body positivity is everywhere. Changing models, mannequins and Gen Z. And while we nod vigorously, we also can feel conflicted about the resulting micro-jiggle.
We teach our kids that all bodies are beautiful. But we were taught it’s not true. Our generation was told that only certain sizes and shapes are beautiful, and they’re all young. We were diet cultured to pinch every inch. We were served self-criticism for breakfast, lunch and sensible dinner. We were kids pre-girl power, cleavage deep in T&A flicks where being the "babe" was the highest honor.
Midlife body image is a whole new territory.
As changes after 40 and beyond roll in, we confront our own feelings about our bodies like never before.
It’s complicated. The dread and even grief for our younger bodies can be as strong as our intellectual beliefs. We “know” that weight does not equate to worth, and that metabolism and bodies change as hormones, stress and life do.
Yet we may be stressing about the dreaded midsection “menopot.” Or existentially concerned that a larger jeans size will set us up for judgment and lower earnings. Because the pressure is real.
So maybe it’s no surprise that the top concern of this life stage isn't mood or hot flashes or brain fog—it's typically weight.
Now with Ozempic, coolsculpting and fitness influencers everywhere, the pressure only increases as our metabolisms decrease. The fear is rational. And under fear is the training to criticize and see the flaws that need fixing instead of celebrating the strength, ability and beauty of what our bodies can do. The training to see our bodies as parts and pieces, not as “us.”
The body shame is heavy.
And then there's the shame about the body shame. Why aren’t we past it yet?
We want to accept ourselves. And in some ways or sometimes, we can and do.
It’s not all bad. Looking at the research, there’s an overall ambivalence about our midlife bodies. It aligns with an overall ambivalence about a lot of things that often hit in our 40s or 50s.
Studies show midlife women do grow in acceptance as we focus more on our internal experience of our bodies. We accept some change is inevitable. And we realize that looking like the 25 year old influencer isn’t our goal.
On the other hand, we still wrestle with the pressures to look thin and fit, i.e., young. We still succumb to media pressures and other social pressures.
For some, it never really ends
In a study of women over 50:
62% said body image, weight and diet concerns “occasionally to often” impacted their lives
63% thought about their weight daily
79% said weight was a moderate to “the most important” measure of how they saw themselves
70% were actively attempting to lose weight.
The pressures of aging, perimenopause, weight gain and mood pressures and more are not gentle. One study found more than 50% of “normal weight” women with a BMI under 35 report increased unhappiness with their bodies into their 50s, sometimes even more acute than in their 40s.
Perhaps most staggeringly, women ages 61-92 reported their greatest concern about their bodies was not health, not mobility—but their weight. Up to age 92!
And eating disorders are on the rise for midlife women. About 25% of women at in-patient eating disorder clinics are now over age 45.
Some theorize that the hormonal changes of perimenopause actually make this more likely for some, especially women who battled it in the past. Like perimenopause itself, the signs of eating disorders can be overlooked in midlife women and attributed to something else so they may not get appropriate treatment.
Comparison is the thief of life energy
Researchers found what we already suspect: Women’s body image is deeply rooted in the fight for social status and standing (and we’d add, an unhealthy dose of misogyny). So the element of competition and comparing is baked right in.
Her breasts are bigger, but are mine perkier?
Her arms are looking really toned, why did I quit yoga?
I’ve gained weight, but at least I haven’t gained as much as her.
We are particularly concerned with how our bodies compare to our peers, not necessarily to 20 year olds. More media exposure—social media included—is related to body dissatisfaction, aging anxiety and more time and money invested in appearance.
We compare ourselves to our younger selves
Our bodies don’t match up society’s beauty standards for women - and worse yet, they don’t stand up to how our bodies used to be. Whereas younger women have only idealized bodies to compare themselves too, we also have our younger bodies.
A 2012 study found that midlife women often compared their current bodies to their own younger bodies, and found them lacking. Women were particularly unhappy with their stomachs, arms, thighs, overall body shape, skin, weight and faces. That doesn’t leave much out, does it?
Relatable? We think so. While many women celebrate their “tiger stripes” of pregnancy, many of us think of what will never come back, no matter how many planks or even procedures we do.
Partners and kids
Interestingly, the toughest influence? The judgment and comments from a spouse or romantic partner, parents and a woman’s own children. Criticism from family members and closest kin seem to sear women in this age the most.
Imprinted by our youth
Turns out we don’t just get imprinted by the music of our youth - we get imprinted by the body standards too. Studies of midlife women show that we feel less pressure to conform to the current standard of the moment (we don’t aspire to Kardashianhood) yet hold ourselves to the standards held when we were young (Kate Moss, supermodels, the cast of Saved by the Bell?)
And remember this: In 1991, about 12% of the U.S. was obese. In 2021, it was nearly 42%. So in our minds, we likely believe we should belong to a thinner world.
Acceptance is freedom, and possible
Overall, older women appear to reach a level of satisfaction with their bodies and the importance of appearance decreases for this group over time. As women move through their 60s, one study found we tend to see ourselves different. We accept change and know other women are going through the same experience.
And many viewed themselves as younger and thinner than they actually were. And the more they saw themselves this way, the more they remained engaged in life and activities they valued.
Studies also show midlife Black women are more accepting and positive about their bodies than white women. In research, they also rated themselves with lower BMI than they actually had. They saw themselves as thinner than they really were.
But not everyone has a rose-colored mirror. The more engaged we are in media, the more we grew up and held appearance as a core value through adulthood or dieted or had disordered eating in the past, the harder we are on ourselves. Again, no surprises.
Tips on building a more compassionate inner voice
Ok, so how can we combat these inner demons?
Rewire the critic - When you catch yourself criticizing your own body or the body of another woman, stop. Ask yourself why you’re doing it. Rephrase the thought, from “It looks like she’s gained weight.” to “It doesn’t matter what weight she is.” The more you do this, the easier it will be.
Journal - Write down what you appreciate about yourself and your body as part of a gratitude practice. Envision what you want your life to look and feel like in 10, 20 or 30 years and what you want to be doing, not just how you want to be looking.
Eat for health - If dieting and diet culture has been a part of your life, read up on eating and exercise for brain health, strong bones and longevity. Try to bring those messages into your regimen vs punitive eating only about size and shape.
Shop lovingly - Shop clothing brands that work with your body. Realize sizing is wildly inconsistent and manipulated, so the number or letter is irrelevant.
Weed your feed - We’re still influenced by the media in this life phase, but generally by women who are closer to our own age, not those who are much younger. So choose who you follow, read about and listen to carefully. Seek out body positive voices. Jamie Lee Curtis is a great follow, as she’s actively and loudly combats body shame and unrealistic standards for women.
Find other passions and, maybe, people - This goes for your “real” feed too. If you have a friend who focuses on weight, ask to redirect the conversation. When you find yourself obsessing about weight, find something more positive to read, listen to, do.
Question unkindness - When you see or hear unkind comments online or in life about other women’s bodies, “not aging well,” etc - combat it just as you would a racist, ageist or ableist remark. It’s ageism and misogyny. And often, the comments come from women.
Talk to yourself - When the inner critic or outer critics are loudest, put your hand on your heart, take a deep breath and say "thank you," "I love you," or simply, "This is me."
If the mood swings and feelings of midlife are taking a toll on your self-perception, try our Perimenopause Support supplement or the zen of our Calm and Collected drink. By helping to balance hormones and mental energy in this life phase, you can help ease the emotional pressures, too.
A good life goal: make peace with our bodies.
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This article is intended for informational purposes and is not intended to replace a one-on-one medical consultation with a professional. Wile, Inc researches and shares information and advice from our own research and advisors. We encourage every woman to research, ask questions and speak to a trusted health care professional to make her own best decisions.