Body image is often thought of as a concern for teen girls and younger women, and the abundance of resources on this topic are skewed toward those age groups.
But a new study published in the Journal of Women and Aging illustrates how few of us are happy with how our bodies look, even as we get older: Only 12 percent of women reported being satisfied with their body size.
While the number is pathetically low, it’s not surprising considering how many of us are self-critical about our appearance. Even if we are not actively dieting, our culture — and sometimes our own families and friends — make it impossible to tune out messages that we should be younger, thinner and prettier.
Researchers from UNC Chapel Hill conducted an internet-based survey of 1,789 U.S. women age 50 and older to find out more about their perspectives. Participants were overwhelmingly white (92.3 percent), and the average age was 59. Close to half (42 percent) had a body mass index (BMI) that put them within “normal” weight ranges for their height.
For the study, participants were shown silhouettes of nine bodies of various sizes and asked which silhouette most resembled their own body, and which body size they preferred. Women who preferred the shape closest to their own were considered to be satisfied with their bodies. Women who preferred a different body shape were categorized as dissatisfied.
In discussing their findings, the authors point out that women who are generally satisfied “appear to exert considerable effort to achieve and maintain this satisfaction, and they are not impervious to experiencing dissatisfaction with other aspects of their appearance, particularly those aspects affected by aging.”
For instance, many of the women who fell into the “satisfied” group were unhappy with specific body parts, including their stomach (56.2 percent), face (53.8 percent), and skin (78.8 percent) — although they reported dissatisfaction at lower rates than the women who were dissatisfied overall with their bodies.
And while the majority (88 percent) of women who were satisfied were considered “normal” weight, 40.6 percent said they would be moderately or extremely upset if they gained just 5 pounds.
Satisfaction with one’s body shape/size also does not grant immunity to negative thinking:
- A third (34.1 percent) reported thinking about their weight “daily” or “always.”
- Half (50.7 percent) expressed envy of younger women’s appearance.
- More than three-quarters (77.1 percent) reported that their shape played a primary role in their self-evaluation — about the same percentage of women who were unsatisfied with their appearance.
The women were also asked about their weight, height, ethnicity, symptoms of eating disorders, diet, and weight-control behaviors (like dieting and frequent weighing), concerns about their weight and shape, and quality of life. There was no difference between the satisfied and unsatisfied groups when it came to skipping meals or extreme/disordered weight control measures.
Satisfied women reported somewhat more exercise (average of 5.1 hours vs. 3.8 hours), and the authors note that “exercise may directly (and indirectly) enhance body esteem in women.”
Women who were unsatisfied with their bodies were significantly more likely to report that a physical or medical condition affected their weight or appetite (30.3 percent vs. 9.2 percent). The were also more likely to do frequent body checking, attempt weight loss, spend more than half their time dieting, and report having tried low-calorie diets or diet plans.
The authors were not able to determine whether these activities led to dissatisfaction, or whether body dissatisfaction more often led to these activities. The study also doesn’t address the effect that negative messages and stigma may have on satisfaction rates.
The authors recommend that health-care providers discuss weight, shape, and aging-related concerns with all mature women, and “maintain sensitivity when talking about weight management.”
For a more personal take on these survey results, read Rachel Zimmerman’s post at WBUR’s Common Health. Zimmerman reflects on how she spends an “inordinate, and frankly embarrassing amount of time thinking about food, planning meals and strategizing about how to control [her] weight.”