Conventional Wisdom: Women Over 50 Stop Caring About How They Look


“We know very little about how women aged 50 and above feel about their bodies. An unfortunate assumption is that they ‘grow out of’ body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, but no one has really bothered to ask. Since most research focuses on younger women our goal was to capture the concerns of women in this age range to inform future research and service planning.” – Cynthia Bulik, PhD

Women’s concerns about how they look don’t seem to change much with aging though. And according to a study published by Dr. Bulik, director of the Eating Disorders Program in the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, a surprising number of women are dissatisfied with their body image and many take unhealthy measures in an attempt to alter it.

The researchers contacted 1,849 women from across the U.S. participating in the Gender and Body Image Study (GABI) with a survey titled, ‘Body Image in Women 50 and Over – Tell Us What You Think and Feel.’1

Here’s what the researchers discovered:

  • 27 percent of the women were obese, 29 percent were overweight, 42 percent were normal weight and 2 percent were underweight.
  • About 8 percent of women reported purging in the last five years and 3.5 percent reported binge eating in the last month. These behaviors were most prevalent in women in their early 50s, but also occurred in women over 75.
  • Over the previous five years, approximately 36 percent of the women spent at least half their time dieting, 41 percent checked their body everyday and 40 percent weighed themselves at least twice per week or more.
  • 62 percent of women felt that their weight or shape negatively impacted their life, 64 percent said that they thought about it daily while 79 percent said that it affected their self-perception.
  • To change their body, the women used diet pills (7.5 percent), excessive exercise (7 percent), diuretics (2.5 percent), laxatives (2 percent) and vomiting (1 percent).
  • 66 percent of women were unhappy with their overall appearance and the number one area of complaint was the abdomen or belly at 84%.

“The bottom line is that eating disorders and weight and shape concerns don’t discriminate on the basis of age,” according to Dr. Bulik.

Feeling Fat is Not a Feeling

I gave a lecture a few years ago on how to manage body fat levels. One section of the talk was based on what a lot of women say about themselves and how they feel about their appearance…sometimes:


Dr. Ed Tyson, an expert in the field of disordered eating, and a friend and colleague of mine, likes to say “feeling fat is not a feeling”.

The problem is that when you are dissatisfied with yourself, the way you look, the size of your belly, what you’re actually feeling is perhaps sadness, anger, frustration, disgust, or a host of other emotions. The expression, “I feel fat”, is code for other, deeper feelings.

Fat is a tissue like any other biologic tissue in your body. And it serves a number of important functions like protecting certain parts of your body, helping to regulate various hormones, and assists in processing fat soluble vitamins.

You need fat. When you don’t have enough fat, all sorts of health problems show up.

But unlike tendon or fascia or bone, fat is a tissue with a an emotional issue (and this is also true for men but, in my experience, men don’t use the phrase “I feel fat” – they just don’t talk about it).

The Problem is NOT How You Look

The problem isn’t your appearance. The problem is how you feel about your appearance and why you want to change it.

If you want get rid of the middle age middle because you’ve fallen for what the mass media portrays as “ideal”, you’ll likely be frustrated and fail to make any lasting change.

But, if you think about your appearance as one indicator of your health and aging, then your objective becomes to improve your health and turn back your “body age clock”  – the difference between your chronological age and your biological age.

As we age, hormone levels slip downward, metabolism slows, our tolerance to activity seems to decrease, and we seem to gain a bit of weight year by year.

This leads to an “expansion project” that for most women seems to have its headquarters in the belly and hips/buttocks.

How many of us, now over 40 or 45, have a long history of consistently training (and I don’t mean “exercise” – that’s not the same thing), eating and drinking consciously and mindfully managing emotional stress?

Right. Not many. Including me…at one time.

Maybe you “worked out” when you were in your 20’s (or maybe not) and I’ll bet back in the day, you could eat just about anything and never see it show up on your belly, hips, or arms. Right? And this is without doing much more than an occasional stroll through the neighborhood as your exercise.

But life gets in the way. A job. Maybe marriage. Children. Mortgage. Cars. Bills. Commuting. Stress. Worry.

Years slip by. Blink. 5 years. 5 lbs.  Blink. 10 more years. 15 more lbs.

You get up in the morning, hustle to get the kids ready for school, yourself off to work, work all day – mostly sitting – and then scurry home, fix dinner, tend to a few chores, collapse in front of the TV and that’s it.

Day after day after day.

Is it any wonder that by the time your 40’s or 50’s roll around you have a roll around your middle, lack energy and strength,  feel frustrated, and wonder how all this happened?

The foods you eat, your activities, the quality of sleep and how much sunlight you get, how you manage emotional stress – all of these things evidence themselves in what you might call “body image”.

What Can You Do?

Accept and embrace what is normal for you. Please don’t do what some of the women in this study reported doing – short term, unhealthy fixes for a long term problem. Remember, 42% of the women in this study, were normal weight. The mainstream media wants you to think that beauty is an unrealistic, completely unobtainable image for most women, and for that matter, is also unhealthy. If your body weight and body fat fall within a normal, healthy range, be happy about that. Maybe your shape is curvy or maybe it’s straight (and of course we always want what we don’t have, right?). Either way, it’s you. Be okay with you.


Women the idea that this body image type is “ideal” which is then closely followed by “I should”

Know and understand your metrics. I’m not talking about bust, waist, and hips. Nor just body weight. The metrics to know are body weight, waist to hip ratio, and your body fat. In future posts, I’ll cover more info on these metrics but for now, just know that bodyweight is not a key stat. It’s just one. So stop weighing yourself everyday or several times per week.

Wake up. Examine your lifestyle and be honest about it. Mindful eating, purposeful training, and a raised awareness of how you manage emotional stress are the keys to the kingdom of healthy, active aging. Take an honest inventory of each and then start working on changing them.

Any changes you make, make them super small. The enemy of successful, lasting change is implementing too many new things at once. You have only so much emotional energy to use in a day and when you’re changing something like your diet (which is not the same as “dieting”), that change requires you to spend some emotional capital. So, think super small steps.

Sometimes you need a coach. As I said earlier, fat is a tissue with an emotonal issue. The basics here are not complex. They are simple but hard to execute. Why? Well, one reason is your mindset. You say things like, “I hate to exercise” or “I can’t give up pasta and sugar”. All of those types of self-chatter statements are beliefs that hold you right where you are. 


The Bottom Line

You can make yourself healthier and, as a result, alter your appearance. But, avoid chasing the ever elusive body image. Recognize that if you “feel fat,” that you’re actually feeling something else and the solution is not to try diet pills, use laxatives, or exercise endlessly.

You can change yourself. If I can do it, I think you can do it too.

  1. Bulik C, PhD Eating disorder symptoms and weight and shape concerns in a large web-based convenience sample of women ages 50 and above: Results of the gender and body image (GABI) study []
DD Kelsey says

Yes, men get the same “feeling” but, generally, are less hesitant to be open about it. And that’s an interesting observation about generational differences surrounding body image and activity. Your weight (or more accurately, body composition) and your life habits are central to living long and well. Unfortunately, some beliefs are very difficult to change.

Lacey says

Do men not get the “I feel fat” feelings?

Funny, just a few days ago I thought to myself “I feel fat.” My brain kicked in with, you do know that you are no where close to fat, right? Of course. That fat-feeling is usually the result of monthly hormonal shifts that result in minor, temporary changes in how my clothes feel on my body. Or, the fat feeling is more that icky body feeling (not body image feeling) I get after a few days of a less than ideal diet. My body feels sluggish or tired – poorly fueled.

My experience with the middle age crowd is a little different from the study. I’m talking 60 and over women, not 40 and over though. At least 75% of the women I know in this age group are overweight, and many obese -some because they have no muscle mass, other just have a lot of body fat. Yet when the topic of weight, appearance or exercise comes up, they like how they look! They seem to all equate weight and exercise merely with maintaining an appearance, and they look just like their friends, who are also overweight if not obese, and so in their heads they are healthy because they are “normal.” Also prevalent in this group is the notion that “ladies don’t sweat,” so moderate exercise demeans their gender. It is no wonder that heart disease and cancer is a problem …

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