Body Image Challenges that Accompany Aging

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
Photo by Caroline Veronez on Unsplash

A recent study revealed that Americans gained nearly 2 pounds per month under COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders in 2020. Although I have not quite matched that trend, to my chagrin the inevitability of age and menopause, changes with metabolic rate, gravity and sequestering has done a number on my appearance. As committed as I am to aging gracefully, this does not make me happy.

Sitting for hours on end tethered to my computer left little room to accommodate trips to the gym. When I did hoist myself out of my chair to do cardio I discovered that exercising with a mask on was not to my liking. Yoga and walks had to suffice, until I pulled a muscle in my back and that plan too was kiboshed.

Many massages, acupuncture sessions and gentle core stabilization routines eventually led to biting the bullet and getting an MRI. The verdict revealed a herniated disc compressing a nerve in the lumbar spine. I’m gearing up for an epidural steroid injection and physical therapy. I can’t wait.

In the meantime I am challenged to reconcile with my once fit petite, now quasi zaftig body. Maybe body positive memes touting self acceptance for every size will help me embrace the ‘new me’?

Truth is although I am certainly not on board with fat shaming I don’t equate self love with resigning myself to a state of being that feels unhealthy. Being sedentary and stout is simply not for me, and to be perfectly honest I liked being svelte.

Be that as it may, along with sensible health considerations and overall functionality, it’s my preoccupation with the prototypical measure of beauty that troubles me most. It’s the curse of vanity.

As the proverb states, all that glitters is not gold. We get trapped by the seductive lure of extraneous appeal, often to the exclusion of what intrinsically matters.

To that point, in my younger years I tortured myself to look good. Although I never succumbed to the knife or injected neurotoxins in my face, food restriction and exercise mania played a part in my physical appeal.

Regrettably, low self esteem, unresolved complex trauma and a cultural prescription to flaunt my goods in order to claim my spot on the food chain, contributed to commodifying my assets like an object of trade. I and most of the women I knew, bought into the tenet that a woman’s physical attractiveness and sexual posturing was entwined with a perceived position of power. Unfortunately there is truth to that message, further solidified by our collective compliance.

Illusions of youth, that life goes on forever, that beauty never fades, infiltrates our consciousness. The cultural fixation on beauty and vanity has tenacious hold and has us terrified of the impact age has on our physical attractiveness and vitality.

The cultish obsession with youth is seen in the acclaim afforded the beauty and fashion industries and lifestyle gurus. We see this trend evidenced n the 17.7 million cosmetic procedures performed in the U.S. in 2018 (American Society of Plastic Surgeons).

Reflecting back on my youthful energy and natural beauty makes me wish I appreciated that transient gift from a place of balance and perspective. If only I valued myself more, I would have objectified myself less.

Seems there’s always clarity in hindsight.

Now I am nearing sixty and although body image concerns, even at this stage in life are a reality for many women, women’s perception of what body image is evolves with age. Sexual desirability takes on a more superfluous role for women as we become identified with being old. This can be a relief for some and a devastating loss for others.

I suppose I am somewhere in between, relieved that I’m no longer shackled to external measures of worth, yet also feeling oddly deprived of shallow flattery. After all, being noticed felt nice. Except of course when it was creepy and involved unwanted threatening attention. On second thought, I might want to reconsider that longing.

The proverbial silver lining is that in my later years I’m finally blessed and grateful to experience the sort of love that can sustain me through this challenging transition. My husband loves me, flub and all. We wax nostalgic about our early years as we embark on our final stage of life together. Reminiscing about his athleticism, the motorcycle trip we took through the southwest, his soccer triumphs, music gigs, my kung fu training and our travels to far and distant lands, are integral to navigating this rite of passage from youth to seniority.

Remembering leads to recognition of contributions made, adventures fulfilled and lessons learned. It also leads to recognizing how necessary it is to maintain a responsible role in society. I am now an elder.
This requires me to shift from body consciousness into the more fertile space of mind and spirit.

In bidding my petite self adieu I call in the zaftig, feisty Crone with all her insight and formidability. Getting in touch with the archetypal Crone means getting in touch with that part of myself that is old and wise, who has seen everything, and dropped many of the pretensions, rules and limitations that society lives by.

She is that part of myself that is infinitely understanding and compassionate yet also direct and unrelenting. She sees the truth everywhere, in my life, my relationships and my actions. With her aid I will clear out the dross and garbage and revel in the freedom to live life more fully and make choices based on what works for me.

That said, what works best for me is to inhabit my aging body with loving kindness. The valuing of my physical self is no longer predicated on egoistic preoccupations with achieving a perfect body. Rather, it’s contingent on remaining mentally and spiritually healthy so as to treasure and care for my entire personage inclusive of wrinkles, stiff joints and extra pounds. It is from this place of acceptance I can surrender to the truth’s that accompany aging and willingly release the vanities of youth.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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