Body Image as We Age: Why Aren’t We Kinder to Ourselves?

I’d love to think I’m an evolved adult woman. And in many ways, I’ve learned a lot over my 64 years and have made some healthy improvements (like, one shot of tequila is enough – the other five won’t make me a better singer or dancer). But one area in which I haven’t grown as much as I would like to is in my perception of my “looks.” Depending on the day, the outfit, the social media influencers, the people I’m with, or the magazine I’m reading, my body image can swing from “meh, fine” to “why can’t I zip this zipper, and why are those lines in my forehead so freakin’ prominent, and when am I going to go back to the hairdresser and get a decent dye job?”

Then I keep the ball rolling by criticizing myself for even thinking those things! With all of the troubles in the world, is that really what’s important?

Let’s just say that I can dig a really deep hole for myself that starts with just. one. zipper.

As you might imagine, I’m not alone. In one Glamour magazine poll, 97 percent of women said they have at least one negative thought about their body image every single day.

Dr. Leslie Morrison Faerstein, Ed.D., LCSW, believes we can change those distorted images of ourselves. In the mid-’80s, “Dr. Leslie” founded the first New York State licensed, nonprofit mental health clinic specializing in Eating Disorders and women’s issues. Her practice now focuses on women, aging, and body issues, and she runs a weekly Body Positivity group for Sesh. Dr. Leslie shares her expertise with us in this week’s post.

NYD: Some women feel that they can’t find the perfect balance. If they “act their age” they might be considered boring, irrelevant, invisible, but if they succumb to societal pressure to remain youthful, unwrinkled, thin, non-gray, they are judged for “trying too hard.” How can women reconcile these conflicting pressures in a healthy way?

Dr. Leslie: They can ignore these constrictions and “shoulds.” There is no perfect balance and whose balance is it anyway? I think the bigger question is why do they care that “acting their age” or looking their age – whatever that means – suggests that others (men?) would consider them boring, etc.? I wonder why we try to do what we can for the “male gaze” as well as for some societal/media expectation of what women should look and act like at “a certain age.” 

I let my hair go gray several years ago. I was always blonde but started covering the gray in my late 40s. Then around five years ago, my stylist said my hair looked like it was coming in silvery or ash blonde and let’s not color it. I was all for that considering the cost. I love my natural hair – there’s almost something subversive about not coloring it and claiming my age (now 70). With the pandemic, there seems to be a “greynaissance” going on, and increasingly more women are not only letting their hair go natural, but many younger women are now dying their hair gorgeous shades of gray.

NYD: Considering the large number of women in the aging Baby Boomer demographic, and the fact that we hold the majority of wealth in the US, why aren’t advertisers understanding us and changing their narrative?

Dr. Leslie: It’s certainly puzzling when we do indeed hold the majority of wealth and there are so many of us. I’m always disturbed when older women show up in so many pharmaceutical commercials or ones for needing a supplement to “sharpen” their minds.

With so many wonderful older women actors, it still baffles me that younger women are chosen to play older women. Several years ago, Maggie Gyllenhaal was turned down to play the role of the lover of a 55-year-old man because she was too old. She was  37! She said that at first, she was astonished: “It made me feel bad, and then I felt angry, and then it made me laugh.” Recently, I watched “The Dig” a British film with Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.  Mulligan, 35 years old, is a terrific actor, but she was playing a real-life woman who was in her 50s at the time. Are there no appropriate women actors in their 50s? We can all think of quite a few. Why don’t advertisers and producers change their narrative? Ageism and Sexism.

NYD: How does family affect our body image?

Dr. Leslie: This question particularly interests me as I’ve been talking about how attitudes about our body image is passed down through the generations. I’ve written four separate blogs on this in regard to my family on my website, LeslieMFaerstein.com

We need to recognize that what our grandmothers may have passed down to our mothers and then to us is powerful. Women’s roles, how they dress and how they interact with both men and other women affects our beliefs about our bodies. I come from a family of working and professional women starting with my grandmother who was the Executive Secretary to the President of Paramount Pictures in New York in the 20s, 30s and 40s. She was known as “Sexy Sadie” and was obsessed with her body and how to look attractive, based on the fashions of those decades. 

My mother who was born in 1929 was called “Bubbles” as she grew up which, of course, she hated, and her weight was a constant concern of my grandmother’s and, of course, to my mother herself. She was a professor at Columbia University at a time when there were few women in these positions, but she was always obsessed with her weight and subsequently mine as well. She thought she had the answer to her weight, caring for two small children and getting her advanced degrees when she discovered amphetamines when working at a hospital where they were readily available. She always wrote down what she wore to each class she taught, in case she repeated an outfit and students might think she didn’t have a full wardrobe. She smoked three packs of cigarettes a day from the time she was 16.  When she was diagnosed, not surprisingly with lung cancer at 69, she said to me “Screw it – for the first time in my life I’m going to eat whatever I want.” This blew my mind and was very upsetting.  Only when facing death did she feel that the world of food was open to her.

I was also caught up in dieting and looking professional. It was only when I met Susie Orbach in the early 80s that I started to revise my thinking about diets and the world of food. Susie wrote “Fat is a Feminist Issue” in 1979. This changed my world. Since my daughter was three when I continued my training in Eating Disorders at the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, I raised her with the idea that all food is equal, you eat what you want when you’re hungry and you stop when you’re satiated. She is the one who has broken free from the bonds of dieting. She feels comfortable in her body but has also said that she lives in this culture so is aware of wanting to look good and fit. However, she doesn’t diet and has a healthy relationship with food.

So, this is a long history and way of saying: of course, our families and what our grandmothers and mothers pass down to us affect how we look at ourselves. The good news, though, is that we can break free of the generations of expectations.

NYD: Do body image issues only affect certain socio-economic groups?

Dr. Leslie: We all live in this culture, so many women from all the socio-economic groups experience body image issues. They may differ based upon the expectations of their particular culture and what their “ideal” body type may be. Anorexia and Bulimia were often thought of as privileged white women’s problems. 

Back in the 1980s, I started the first New York State licensed, nonprofit mental health clinic specializing in Eating Disorders and women who had been sexually abused. I was determined to provide good treatment for all women, regardless of whether they could pay or had public health insurance. When I went to the licensing hearing the evaluators – all white men – were hesitant to grant the license because they felt that “poor” women or women on public assistance didn’t have eating disorders and therefore, I didn’t need to receive Medicaid payments for their treatment. Somehow, this illusion persists.

NYD: Certainly, the traditional media play a part in the low self-esteem that women have about body image, but what effect does social media have? Is it equally impactful? More so?

Dr. Leslie: This question follows from the previous one. I think one of the most striking studies demonstrating the power that media has on women and their body image comes from Fiji.

Prior to 1995, television did not exist in Fiji. Then American television started to show up. By 1998 – in three short years – eating issues and body image distortions became rampant among the female population. Prior to this, women who were larger were seen as better off – they had access to food and a larger body meant well-being. However, by 1998, 11% of Fijian women and girls engaged in self-induced vomiting, 29% were at risk for a clinical eating disorder, 69% had dieted and 74% felt “too fat” (reported in “Pursing Perfection” by Margo Maine and Joe Kelly).

I do believe that social media has upped the challenge about how we feel about our bodies and our own beauty, since the images we see are of women like us but who have made themselves the arbiter of beauty – at any age – and I wonder what their own body images are if there is the desire to project themselves as the model we measure ourselves against. We believe so much of what others post and envy their lives, their bodies, their beauty. There is this belief that our bodies are plastic. The average American woman is 5’4” and weighs 164 lbs. The average model is 5’10” and weighs 107 lbs. It’s not realistic to measure ourselves against this ideal of beauty.

The average American woman is 5’4″ and weighs 164 lbs. The average model is 5’10” and weighs 107 lbs. it’s not realistic to measure ourselves against this ideal of beauty.

I am, however, encouraged by the Body Positivity movement – and the images on social media – encouraging women to feel good about their bodies no matter what the size at that moment in time.

NYD: I heard you say (in “Twisting the Plot – Twist Your Body Image”) that diets don’t work – they are made not to work, and that it isn’t an issue of discipline. Can you elaborate on that? Would you recommend this to someone who might be reading this and feeling discouraged by dieting?

Dr. Leslie: Dieting begets more dieting. The usual cycle is: “I’m too fat, I have to go on a diet” which then leads to finding a new diet. We follow this diet with its restrictions and may very well lose weight but at some point, we can’t live in a “cage,” so we break out. Once we eat something not on the diet (we’ve been “bad”), our response is often “Screw it – I’ve already blown it, so I’ll eat all the things I haven’t been able to eat.” This leads to bingeing, feeling bad about ourselves, trashing ourselves and then finding another diet that “will work.” The U.S. Weight loss/control industry is now worth $72 billion! There’s a lot riding on keeping us on diet after diet and feeling bad about our bodies.

I believe that if we identify when we’re hungry (not starving) and eat what feels right (intuitive eating), stop when we’re satiated (that’s the hard part), then we will reach our set point without dieting. The great thing is that we have multiple times during the day to work on identifying what we really want to eat when hungry. We can ask ourselves: do I want something crunchy, smooth, hot, cold etc. and then find the right match to our hunger. It is like going back to being a baby. If a mother is nursing, she doesn’t know how many ounces of milk the baby is taking in. The baby herself stops when full. It’s at the point that we introduce solid food that we put a value to it. Certain foods become particularly charged, especially those that may be considered “junk” or “special occasion” food. We don’t tell our children to hurry up and finish your ice cream so you can have broccoli. This is what I mean by all foods are equal.  It’s all food: cauliflower, chocolate, cake, chicken.  If we take away the “charge” around those foods like cake, etc. then there will be times we’re hungry and want that or just feel like having some of it for whatever reason.

I also recommend to my clients that if you’re not hungry and you find yourself looking for something to eat, then there is a feeling state going on that has nothing to do with hunger. It’s useful to try to identify that state and what is really going on: boredom, sadness, anxiety? If you realize that after you’ve eaten when not hungry, try to go back and slow down the experience from the time the idea of eating popped into your head. Look at it frame by frame and try to identify the feeling and what might have taken care of it more appropriately than food.

During the pandemic, so many people (of all ages and genders) have put on weight while home and isolating due to anxiety, depression – a host of feelings.

Food and alcohol have been one way to cope with it. We did what we can to get through this period. We’ve talked about the Covid “19” but it’s also been reported that many gained between 20-29 lbs. We need to be kind to ourselves and not go on crash diets as we start to slowly move out of isolation. So many of us have experienced this, and it takes time. I would recommend starting to get in touch with body hunger and experience the pleasure that comes from eating the right match to what your body wants at that moment.

NYD: Can you suggest any practices that will help women overcome negative body image internal messages? (Mindfulness practices, social media vacations, journaling, etc.)

Dr. Leslie: It’s helpful to talk to others who are also struggling. A Body Positivity group can help. If it’s a problem that haunts you, seeking therapeutic help is always useful. Mindfulness or Intuitive Eating is a good place to start – there are books, workbooks and courses that can teach you how to approach food this way. I find it helpful to remember “If we talked to our friends the way we talk to our bodies, we’d have no friends” (Marcia Germaine Hutchinson). That often brings us up short. Follow women who are part of the Body Positivity movement and see how they relate to their bodies. If you enjoy journaling, then by all means write down how you speak to yourself and your body – what’s going on at those times.

And it’s always delightful to see Ari Seth Cohen’s beautiful older women in Advanced Style.

My teacher, Susie Orbach said “Women are trying to change the shape of their lives by changing the shape of their bodies.” I think that’s something we should think about: what really needs to change in our lives? 

Leslie Morrison Faerstein, Ed.D., LCSW has over 40 years of experience in nonprofit administration, founding the first New York State licensed, nonprofit mental health clinic specializing in Eating Disorders and women’s issues in the mid- ‘80s. She then went on to help establish, as Executive Director, Musicians On Call, bringing weekly live music to the bedsides of patients in 6 cities. Most recently, she was the first Executive Director of amazing.community, a nonprofit organization that worked to expand the workplace for women 50+ who had a gap in their work history. She has always maintained a psychotherapy practice as well. 

Currently, Leslie is focusing on women, aging and body image.  As she approached 70 (she is now approaching 71), she started thinking and writing about issues this generation now faces. She is expanding her practice and runs a weekly group on Body Positivity for Sesh. You can find her at LeslieMFaerstein.com and she can be reached at LeslieMFaerstein@gmail.com. She is very much Not Yet Dead.

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