Women tend to be hypercritical about their appearance, especially when it comes to their bodies. Sure, being unhappy with body size is common across all ages and genders, but by the time we reach midlife, does how we view ourselves change? Or are we still unhappy about the way we look?
According to a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill published in the Journal of Women & Aging, just 12.2% of women at midlife are satisfied with their body size.
“Midlife women satisfied with their body size seem to have made a conscious effort to achieve and sustain this satisfaction.”
Using a sample of nearly 1,800 U.S. women aged 50 years or greater from the Gender and Body Image (GABI) Study, researchers had participants report body size satisfaction based on a silhouette system.
Of nine silhouettes ranging from very thin to very large, women were asked to choose the silhouette closest to their current body and the silhouette closest to their preferred body size. A discrepancy between the two selections was an indicator of body size dissatisfaction.
Respondents also answered a wide range of questions about eating disorder symptoms, dieting and weight control behaviors, weight and shape concerns, and quality of life.
The results showed that there were some major differences between women who were satisfied with their bodies and those who were dissatisfied. For example, satisfied women had significantly lower body mass index (BMI) at an average of 21.4 versus 28.3 for dissatisfied women; fewer satisfied women were categorized as overweight or obese.
Satisfied women were also unlikely to exhibit core eating disorder symptoms such as binge eating or purging. They also checked their bodies far less frequently, but both groups of women weighed themselves often, with 38% of satisfied women and 40.2% of dissatisfied women reporting this behavior.
In addition, fewer satisfied women were trying to lose weight at the time of the study and fewer of them reported dieting in the 5 years prior to the study. Instead, they reported exercising for more hours per week than women dissatisfied with their body size.
Being satisfied with body size did not equate to complete satisfaction with their appearance, however. Many of the satisfied women reported being unhappy with other features, with particular concern expressed for the stomach (56.2%), face (53.8%) and skin (78.8%). Almost half stated they would be unhappy if they gained five pounds or more.
Still, appearance-altering behaviors such as cosmetic surgery, the use of Botox and other anti-aging products, and the use of hair color remained similar in both groups.
Researchers note that these results show satisfaction may not come easily. Midlife women satisfied with their body size seem to have made a conscious effort to achieve and sustain this satisfaction.
Study author Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, distinguished professor in the UNC School of Medicine, and professor in the UNC Gilling School of Global Public Health said the findings “underscore the need for a multifaceted approach to studying and assessing body image in women as they mature, as their bodies undergo constant age-related change.”
The Bottom Line
It’s no secret that most things in life that are worth pursuing require effort. This seems particularly true for women who want to feel good about themselves and their body. Emotional eating, anti-depressant use, and a whole range of other panaceas are all used to help us “feel good,” but research has shown time and time again that happiness and health are irrefutably linked.
Sure, there’s no way to stop the effects of time, but finding a balance of healthy eating habits, exercising, and watching our weight is the best way to be happy about our bodies, no matter our age.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.