Thanks to a reader in Victoria, BC for this relatable question about women in midlife and body image:
I recently went on a hike with two girlfriends during which time, I noticed how much we were talking about our bodies. I said to my friends; “This is weird! All three of us are beautiful women with great bodies, so why are we so focused on what is WRONG with them versus loving what is lovely about them?”
All of us are in midlife, ranging from ages 47-53 years old. What we mostly discussed was the fact that all of us seem to be packing on extra weight right around the belly area – and despite eating properly and exercising lots, our mid-sections just keep growing. We all said that we are trying to learn how to just accept the way our body is now – but also acknowledged that we often feel really frustrated and disappointed that this is happening to us.
So my question to you is this: Is it really possible to truly ‘accept’ our bodies and be happy with what we have?
Ah dear reader, I can relate so well being 44 and having gone through the exact same thing. I’m not sure if you’ve read the articles I’ve already written on food/weight obsession and midlife? Check these out if you haven’t already:
A very touching narrative of how a woman in her forties is working through this can be found here.
To learn about a really good book to read on the topic, check this out.
In my ten tips for accepting your body as it is article, I discuss some very helpful ways to reframe our thoughts and feelings around our body image.
To answer your particular question though, I will focus on three areas: The physiology behind midsection weight gain at midlife, how to reframe “fat thoughts” into self-loving ones instead, and focusing on healthy role models of other midlife women who are accepting and loving their bodies exactly as they are.
The physiological reasons behind why most of us gain weight in the midsection at midlife
One of my favourite experts in the area of eating disorders and midlife is Carolyn Coker Ross, MD. M.P.H. I’ve attended her lectures at various eating disorder conferences over the years and always walk away thinking, “Why don’t most doctors have this perspective?” Here’s what she has to say in an article about women and hormones and weight gain:
Between a woman’s late 30s and early 50s, estrogen levels start to drop and eventually menstrual cycles stop. Although the hormonal changes of menopause get the rap for mid-life weight gain, studies show the extra pounds are actually related to age, lifestyle and genetics.
Women lose muscle mass as they age and, since muscle burns more calories than fat, end up burning fewer calories. In addition, people tend to slow down and move less as they age. If women do not compensate for these mid-life changes by consciously increasing physical activity and making healthy food choices, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy weight.
Hormones aren’t entirely blameless.
They are likely responsible for the loss of muscle, which increases total body fat, and the distribution of those added pounds closer to the abdomen than around the hips and thighs. Not only do many women find the “spare tire effect” undesirable, carrying extra weight in the mid-section may increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and certain cancers. Trying to maintain a healthy weight in mid-life can feel like an impossible battle against two powerful forces: time and biology. But the middle-age spread is not inevitable.
Here is her sage advice- from the same article– on working with the midlife ‘spare tire’ in a balanced way:
Focus on good nutrition and exercise:
The exercise routine that worked in your 30s or 40s may not have the same effect in your 50s and beyond. Most women benefit from 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise four or five days per week. Try alternating between three or four activities you enjoy, such as Pilates, weight training, swimming, an aerobics class and walking, to prevent boredom and minimize the risk of injury. To combat the loss of muscle mass slowed metabolism and gravitation of fat toward the mid-section that come with age, include strength training exercises (complete with a good abdominal workout) at least twice a week.
So, the basic formula for maintaining a healthy weight is the same at every age: eat more healthfully, exercise more. But how much is enough? In one study, premenopausal women were able to maintain their weight and improve other health measures by eating more healthfully and exercising regularly. Those who made no lifestyle changes gained about one pound per year during the four-year follow-up period. Another study found that middle-aged women who didn’t make conscious dietary changes were 138 percent more likely to gain weight (seven pounds, on average).
How to reframe “fat thoughts” into self-loving ones instead
Catch yourself when you start having “fat thoughts” and practice the following:
The remedy for curing “fat head” (or “ugly head” or “stupid head”) is to dig beneath the surface and ask yourself (or a loved one struggling with this affliction) what FEELING is hiding out under this false label. You’ll probably discover that a particular event or situation in your life triggered the “fat head” thinking and that you can work through it by asking yourself the following questions (found in the “food-mood” chapter of my book).
What just happened?
What was I feeling at the time?
What did I need to feel better?
Focus on healthy role models of other midlife women who are accepting and loving their bodies exactly as they are
I’m completely in love with 94-year-old Iris Apfel, a New York fashionista and role model to all of us. Check out this article for some of her wisdom re: inhabiting and celebrating the body you are in at any age.
At 53 and looking fabulous and at peace with herself, check out Canadian role model to all of us, the fabulous Jann Arden.
And lastly, I leave you with a younger but very body positive role model, Danielle Brooks who took a gorgeous ‘selfie’ at the gym.