*This blog post was authored by Dr. Carolyn Dunn and edited by Casey Collins
We may think of negative body image as something that mostly impacts young people. As someone in their 60s who has experienced decades of society telling me what my body should look like I know that negative body image can continue well after youth has faded. I did think, however, that at some point in our lives, we would relax and understand that our bodies are just fine the way they are. As long as you are healthy, let your body just be that—YOUR body. Several recent experiences proved to me that negative body image is alive and well in older adults.
My mother-in-law who is 88 and incredibly fit, not just for 88 but for any age, has dementia. She recently transitioned to an assisted living facility. One evening while helping her shower she said without hesitation “I know you are looking at me and think I am fat!” Even at 88 with dementia, she is still concerned about a made-up body image ideal. Since spending more time visiting this facility, I noticed my mother-in-law was not the only resident with these ideas. Another resident who is 90 was talking with a friend and discussing what she should and should not eat that night because “I need to lose a few pounds.” Yet another resident commented that “Sarah is thin but she could be really skinny if she didn’t eat all of her meals.” A new resident in her 90s was struggling to eat and had finally eaten a roll. When an encouraging nurse asked if she wanted another roll she said no because she should not eat too much bread.
Even in an era where body positivity is more popular than in my youth—or the youth of 80 and 90-year-olds—we continue to be barraged by media images of unattainable and unhealthy thinness. My hope is that someday whole-body health will win over society’s outdated idea that thinness equates to health. Perhaps the younger generations embracing body positivity will be less burdened over their lifespan by these antiquated ideas. The sooner we realize that the body we have should not be judged by unhealthy standards controlled by media hype the better.
Changing your inner monologue about your own body image can be complicated. Here are some thoughts that may help.
Appreciate what your body can do.
Think of all the miraculous things that your body can do physically. Walk, jump. Play with your children or grandchildren.
Avoid comparisons to others or your younger self.
No two bodies are alike. Your body is unique, comparing it to anyone else’s just sets you up for negative thoughts. Also, our bodies change as we grow older, and it is normal to not look like you did 5, 10, or 20 years ago.
Focus on the positive.
Instead of looking in the mirror and only noticing what you think are your negative traits, focus on the positive aspects of your body. If you wouldn’t say it to your friends, don’t say it to yourself. Treat your body like your best friend!
Think about your positive traits that are not physical.
Chances are when someone describes you, they don’t only list physical traits. In fact, they probably don’t list physical traits at all. They may say you are funny, smart, a good friend, a mother, a father, or any number of things that have nothing to do with your body.
Evaluate your relationships.
This is a tough one but a necessary one. If you have a friend or family member who is constantly saying negative things about their body, your body, or other people’s bodies, evaluate how you can distance yourself from this person. At least distance yourself from the talk. I have a relative who is constantly talking about her aging body and asking questions like “Why is this happening to me?” “I used to be so skinny and now I have a fat stomach.” I simply remove myself from the conversation or quickly change the subject to something non-body or food related.
* If you need further help or if negative body image is controlling your thoughts, please seek professional help as you need. The National Eating Disorders Association can provide resources.
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