Life is all about change. Rarely is anything static as life marches on. And as time moves forward, we move forward with it.
In this piece, we’re going to explore one area of change that is not just psychological in nature, but also spiritual and physical: self-identification.
First, a little background on the study from which this topic was drawn. In a study published by Women’s Midlife Health, the authors found five general themes that point to some of the challenges women experience in midlife (ages 40-65).1 A total of 81 women took part in “The Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study.” Those who did the study answered the question, “Since you have been in our study (since 1990 or 1991), what has been the most challenging part of life for you?” The study ran up to 23 years for some. This helped give the researchers the ability to really look at the changes that occurred over this time scale.
In examining the general theme of “self,” the researchers found six sub-themes:
- Health strains
- Existential issues
- Returning to school
- Menopause changes and experiences
- Personal changes
As a matter of note, which may be surprising, of the 81 women who were in the study, only four stated that menopause was the most challenging aspect of aging.
For now, let’s take a look at a subject that’s important throughout life, but can be hard to embrace: self-esteem and self-acceptance, especially about the changes in our bodies.
Self-esteem and changes in women’s bodies over time
As women’s bodies age, it may become harder to really embrace one’s self. Wrinkles appear more regularly, hair may become grey, cellulite may appear in unwanted spots. All of these can have an adverse effect on a woman’s self-esteem.
The British Social Attitudes Survey conducted a survey in 2013, and found that 69% of respondents over age 65 reported being “satisfied with their appearance”.2 But, 20% of respondents said they felt anxious, and 23% felt depressed because of their body image, whether actual or perceived.
Women’s body image and health
People in later life also tended to have an increased association with body functionality – how well their body works, and their general health – and body image. As the study said, “For some, there may be a tension between this increase in focus on health and functionality, and a desire to maintain appearance.”
Pressures on women’s body images from society
Pressures stemming from society also can have a detrimental effect on women’s self-esteem. For example, ideas of glowing, young skin, as well as a lack of older people in media, all are part of these pressures. And when “seniors” are depicted on screen, it’s often in a light that makes them look ridiculous, or helpless. Even discussions centred on aging, and how youth is the supposed ideal, were shown in the British study to evoke feelings of worry, and “increased body image disturbance.”
The importance of being active
An important point coming from the study was the fact that people with lower body esteem were also less socially engaged. People should not be ashamed of their appearance simply because they’re of a certain age, or how they look. Being active and engaging with a supportive group of friends can help ease worries about aging and the changes in our bodies. After all, when you’re with a group of like-minded people, they too will be able to empathize with everything you’re going through!
Self-esteem tips as we age
A psychology clinic offers tips for helping one’s self-esteem/self-acceptance as we age. Here are a few:3
1). Love and forgive yourself, don’t put yourself down: It’s easy to be self-critical, but it often leads to a bad cycle. We are critical of ourselves, try to change, and if the change doesn’t come, we become even more critical. Learning to love ourselves as we are, and forgive ourselves, are crucial.
2). Be mindful of the things that bring joy. The clinic calls this “practic[ing] gratitude,” but whatever you call it, being grateful for the things that get you through the day can do a lot of good. We begin to focus on daily blessings rather than focusing on pressures.
3). Reward yourself. Have that dessert, light some candles, stay warm under the blankets a bit longer. Small pleasures can lift mood and help do away with stress, even if it’s just for a few hours. We can’t run away from problems, but little joys can bring a well-deserved smile.
Self-acceptance is a challenge throughout life, and it can be even harder as we progress in age. It’s so important that we love ourselves for all we are, with our wonderful imperfections. We are so much more than wrinkles or appearance, we are loving, strong, compassionate individuals who deserve the same love and support that we give. Love yourself, and seek out those who understand and care for you. You deserve no less.
Mitchell, Thomas, and Woods, Women’s Midlife Health, The challenges of midlife women: themes from the Seattle midlife Women’s health study, June 15, 2018. https://womensmidlifehealthjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40695-018-0039-9
Mental Health Foundation (UK), “Body image in later life,” in Body image: How we think and feel about our bodies, May 13, 2019. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/body-image-report/later-life
Franco, Giselle and Galperin, Dr. Silvina, CBT Psychology for Personal Development, 6 Tips to Boost Self-esteem After Age 50, https://cbtpsychology.com/6-tips-to-boost-self-esteem-after-age-50/