There’s been a lot of press in the past few years about older women (meaning me and up) struggling with body image problems and eating disorders. Headlines include: An Older Generation Falls Prey to Eating Disorders ,
Eating disorders are common in older women, study shows, and
Face Of Eating Disorders Changing: More Older Women Struggle With Disorders .
Though the articles are well-written, well-researched and in many ways validating, I couldn’t help thinking: this is no surprise. I know women of all ages who are affected by how they view their own bodies–enough for things to cross the line into a full-blown eating disorder. I’ve known women who have moved from their twenties into their thirties, who cannot release themselves from an adolescent standard of thinness, who struggle with infertility as a result. I’ve known women who develop body image issues for the first time at the onset of menopause.
So … Why do Older Women Wind up with Eating Disorders?
One reason is relapse.
Now, it’s common knowledge that teenage girls have body image problems. (Not all, and yes: we now know that boys do too, but when we think of eating disorders, we tend to think of teenage girls. When we watch a TV show in which someone has an eating disorder, that someone is usually a teenage girl or a woman in her very early twenties.) But you don’t just “get over” an eating disorder because you hit thirty. Eating disorder specialists know that making the illness go away and stay away is a grueling, often lifelong process. Therefore, it is not a surprise that many of these “older” women developing eating disorders had them when they were teens.
The psychic reverberations of eating disorders are likely to be felt when stress runs high. I’ll use myself as an example. While I never starve myself any more, while I never binge and purge, if I’m really struggling with my work or otherwise going through a rough patch, my positive body image is the first to go. I can look at myself in the mirror and be perfectly content, then an hour later, after tossing outa whole chapter that just wasn’t working (though I’d been revising it for days), I can look in the same mirror again and see something completely different. A distorted version of myself that in younger days I called huge. I wasn’t anything like “huge” then. I’m not now either, but it was my word for uncertainty. I was convinced that “fixing” my weight (erasing my own hugeness) would make the rest of my life—if not perfect, manageable.
In the olden days (my tweens, teens and early twenties), it was almost as if calling myself something harsh would neutralize my anxiety. My Punishing Self was in charge and would whip me—my body, my coursework, my dancing—into shape. I wouldn’t feel so out of control.
At this point, I’ve been in recovery for so many years, I know what my triggers are: mostly worries about not being good enough in some area of my life. I know how to get through the trigger situations without taking it out on my thighs, but it still happens. Not the eating disorder itself, but the feelings of self-doubt that once evolved into one. As a therapist, I’ve had enough training to know how to counter the negativity, to stop myself, to walk away from the mirror and get on with life. But I can easily see why the recidivism rate is so high among eating disorder survivors.
Another Reason is Holding onto Who We Used to be.
Some of the articles describing this phenomenon mention the usual: unrealistic ideals of female beauty that become more elusive with each passing year. One mentioned that older women should have more role models with realistic bodies. I found that a little hard to swallow. I don’t think at our age we’re looking at the big screen or the small screen for role models. I also think many of us are surrounded by realistic, healthy. diverse images of female beauty: our best friends, our sisters, our neighbors—we come in all shapes and sizes and the “perfect-looking” girls we were intimidated by in high school are hard now fewer and farther between.
In any case, I just don’t think most women over forty are trying to look like (who’s hot now?) Megan Fox, or Zoe Saldana. I don’t even think most of us are looking at Kelly Ripa or Gwyneth Paltrow, and saying god I have to look like that. I’d wager though, that for some of us, the image we aspire to, hold onto, compete with and, in many cases are tormented by, is that wedding photo sitting on the mantelpiece: our younger, pre-baby, pre-forty selves. Regardless of how flawed or flawless we think we were, that image has probably evolved somewhat. Were you known for looking a certain way? Did you always get compliments for being tiny, buff, a voluptuous hour-glass? That body-reputation is part of your identity. As it ages, the changes can be unnerving. Who am I now? Accepting a different body image may be part of the life cycle—for some, a hard part.
Coping with Stress: Reaching for another Cookie, or—on the other hand—Refusing to Get off the Elliptical.
Being busy, holding ourselves to high standards in every area of our lives gets brutal sometimes. Some women use food as a refuge (I’m treating myself, I don’t have time for a nap or a pedicure). Others get carried away with dieting to “get healthy.” Decreasing numbers on a scale can be addictive: evidence that we’re accomplishing something, getting results—no matter what else we may be struggling with.
We women seem to put on new hats with each passing year—between work, children, spouses and ex-spouses, caring for aging parents, commitments at our synagogues or churches, book group, cooking, laundry. With our kids entering adolescence (or wrapping it up and fleeing the nest) we’ve got just as many variables as they do, just as many balls in the air, with menopause fast approaching (or having come, gone and left its mark). Food is often the one area where we retain some control (who shops in your house?).
As mothers, we are responsible for feeding our families—making it taste good enough for kids and partners to gather ’round the table, but keeping it healthy enough for us all to enjoy each other for a long time to come. As women, our bodies are changing (yet again), and like it or not, many of us feel responsible for controlling that. Compulsive over- or undereating for stress relief is not uncommon.
Sometimes it’s Easier to Make a Teen go to the Doctor than to Seek Help Yourself.
I think teenagers are more likely to get help for disordered eating patterns primarily because they are still children and, to some degree, being looked after by parents. Also, friends are talking about eating disorders, looking for symptoms in one another and seeking the help of adults (hopefully). Adult women don’t necessarily have that support. If it’s up to us, we may muddle through until something drastic happens, like collapsing on the treadmill. That actually happened to a friend of a friend, who’d been feeling victorious about losing thirty pounds, much of which her doctor—and husband–wished she’d kept. The important thing is for friends, sisters, cousins and partners to look out for one another, for women who suspect their own behaviors around food are changing in destructive ways to seek help: an individual therapist or a support group.
So, Your Body Changes; You’re still You.
Our bodies are inextricably connected to our identities, I don’t think there’s a way of getting around that, but it’s imperative to remember that the shape we’re in is only a small part of who we are. As women we are all individually diverse, multi-talented, and beautiful in our own unique and ever-changing ways.