Even when someone has a goal to reach a healthier weight or is working out to become stronger and more fit, it is possible to maintain a positive body image. It is when we focus on a negative or distorted perception of our body or physical attributes that we can develop a poor body image. Having a negative body image increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, shame, disordered eating, social isolation, and developing a body image disorder.
Before diving in to discuss menopause and body image, it’s important to have a better understanding of some of the terminology that’s used by the media or in everyday personal conversations. When we talk about poor or negative body image, there are a number of different things we can be referring to. Some of them are clinical terms or conditions, and others are not.
Body dissatisfaction is a type of negative body image in which a person has negative feelings or thoughts about their body or general appearance. Those who are dissatisfied with their bodies typically feel a discrepancy between their ideal body image and their subjective perception of their own body.
We often hear terms in the media or in everyday conversation, like “body insecurity,” “body image issues,” or “poor body image,” all of which are referring to body dissatisfaction.
Someone who is dissatisfied with their body may actually have an accurate perception of it. We can have body image issues or poor body image without having a distorted image of our own bodies.
It may be that we are comparing ourselves unfavorably to others or to an unrealistic standard. Although body dissatisfaction is not a clinical diagnosis, we can allow these perceptions and beliefs to degrade our self-worth and contribute to other mental health concerns, like anxiety, depression, or even eating disorders.
Body image disturbance and overvaluation of shape and weight.
Body image disturbance and overvaluation of shape and weight are less familiar phrases. According to psychologists specializing in treating eating disorders, Dr. C. A. Timko and Dr. M. Cooper, “Body image disturbance is defined as a distorted perception of how someone sees their own body,” meaning that someone who is thin, or even underweight, may perceive themselves as being “fat” or “overweight.”
They go on to explain that overvaluation of shape and weight describes the disproportionate importance of shape and weight that someone places on “their identity, sense of self, and self-worth.” Both are conditions that are more likely to lead to clinical eating disorders and/or excessive, unhealthy exercise practices, as well as other potential mental health issues.
Body dysmorphia & body dysmorphic disorder.
Body dysmorphia is a term that is often misused by the media when they are discussing body dissatisfaction or body image disturbance. At times the term “body image disorder” is used, but that’s not exactly an accurate term or an actual diagnosis.
Body dysmorphia is much more serious than body dissatisfaction or body image disturbance. Body dysmorphia is an element of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition in which a person is preoccupied by and has obsessive thoughts about part of their body or appearance that they perceive is unacceptably flawed, but that no one else can see.
This can involve their skin, nose, chin, or any body part; however, this perceived defect is not based on body shape or weight only.
Individuals with BDD may go to excessive lengths to hide this feature or even seek extreme plastic surgery to change the imagined defect. Some isolate themselves socially or compulsively check the mirror throughout the day. BDD is a life-altering condition that requires treatment by a mental health practitioner who specializes in this area.
How menopause can trigger negative body image.
Thankfully, most women who struggle with body image issues are not experiencing body dysmorphia or BDD. Although not as serious, poor body image, body dissatisfaction, and body image disturbance can also negatively impact our mental health.
Women of any age can suffer from poor body image, although when the media portrays this issue, they most often focus on younger women and teenagers; however, more mature women experience body image issues, as well. The hormonal changes that women experience before and during menopause often cause weight gain and lead to collagen loss, accelerating changes in the skin’s tone and texture.
As our faces and bodies begin to change, our feelings about our bodies often begin to shift, as well. We may find ourselves wearing clothes that fit just a little bit more loosely and researching the latest anti-aging products or weight loss trends, or we may just begin to feel down about our changing bodies. If so, we’re not alone.
In a 2016 study published in Women & Health, the authors discovered a correlation between menopause and body dissatisfaction. According to the study, out of 75,256 participants, 83% felt dissatisfied with their bodies post-menopause. 83 percent. What causes such a high level of dissatisfaction?
At first glance, it may seem pretty obvious. Hormonal changes can affect our mood and emotions, cause our skin to sag and wrinkle, our metabolism to slow down, our bodies to lose muscle mass, our hair to get thinner, and our waistlines to get thicker. The woman looking back at us in the mirror is an older, and often curvier, version of the woman we see in our mind’s eye.
Are all of these changes we’re experiencing the true cause of body dissatisfaction in menopause? Or could it be our unrealistic expectations of what middle age is supposed to look like?
The images we see in the media of celebrities and models – even the ones with gray hair and curvier curves – are almost always edited and filtered. Our body image issues aren’t necessarily caused by what we look like. They’re caused by what we think we’re supposed to look like.
How to ease body image dissatisfaction during menopause.
Whether we choose to listen to the myths the media tell us about what we’re supposed to look like at a certain age or whether we choose to see the stronger, wiser version of the woman looking back at us in the mirror, it would seem the choice is ours to make. But is it really that simple?
Another study, published in Health Psychology Review in 2014, suggests that it’s more complicated than that. Its findings suggest that women’s attitudes toward menopause have a greater influence on their body image than the actual physical changes that occurred in their bodies, like weight gain, and changes in body shape.
Our attitudes and beliefs about menopause and aging have a greater effect on our body image than what our bodies actually look like. So all we have to do is simply change our attitudes and beliefs about aging, and then we can choose to have a positive body image? Well, it’s probably not quite that simple.
Unfortunately, our attitudes and beliefs don’t typically change with the flip of a switch or a quick attitude adjustment. We can, however, make a conscious effort to reflect on our attitudes and beliefs about menopause, aging, health, fitness, society’s expectations, and the media’s portrayal of how more mature women “should” look.
Even more importantly, we can become more self-compassionate. Studies have shown that self-compassion improves body image and decreases concerns related to our appearance. When we have self-compassion, we are kinder to ourselves, even treating ourselves as we would a friend.
Would we tell a friend that she’d look a lot better if she’d just lose ten pounds? Most of us wouldn’t. And why not? Because it would be hurtful – just as negative self-talk is harmful to our own well-being.
Self-compassion acknowledges that beauty comes in many different forms, and it allows us to acknowledge – and accept – our own emotional discomfort of getting older without judgement. Self-compassion allows us to appreciate our positive qualities, rather than focus on the negative, and treat ourselves with loving kindness, even in – no, especially in, the midst of failure and self-doubt.
Furthermore, self-compassion is biblical. In Mark 12:31, Jesus tells us to love others as we love ourselves. We are commanded to not only love others, but love ourselves, as well. Part of accepting our bodies and appearances is remembering that God made us in His image and likeness.
Would God cast us aside because our jeans went up two sizes or because our skin is sagging? No, God created us to live our lives fully and use our gifts for His purpose. The aging process, including menopause, is part of our journey.
Allow grace and self-compassion to lead you as you ease into the hormonal changes of menopause to decrease your likelihood of developing a negative body image or a body image disorder.
Don’t compare yourself to filtered images.
Television, movies, magazines, billboards, and social media portray a specific beauty standard. Yet, God created every woman uniquely, in all shapes and sizes. How boring life would be if God had made us all the same.
Be aware of how you view the media’s ideals. Often, celebrities in their forties, fifties, and beyond are under tremendous pressure to maintain their youthful appearance. Focusing on unrealistic ideals can erode positive feelings about our bodies and ourselves. Instead, strive to appreciate and accept the body God gave you, and treat it respectfully, with kindness and grace.
Play up your strengths.
To boost your self-confidence, play up to your strengths. Instead of focusing on perceived flaws, focus on characteristics that make you happy and accentuate those. For example, if you love your dark eyes, make them pop with eyeliner. If you work hard to have toned legs, show them off in clothes that accentuate your figure. If you love your smile, choose a lipstick or gloss to highlight your lips.
It is so easy to name what we want to fix about our bodies and appearance. Instead, list what you love and are grateful to God for giving you. Then find ways to appreciate those characteristics even more.
Exercise to feel happier.
Exercise is a mood booster, an esteem lifter, and even an antidepressant. When you exercise, the brain releases endorphins that leave you less stressed and feeling happier. It also boosts your body confidence. The great thing about exercise is that anyone can do it; even a short walk can benefit your mental health.
Make exercise fun. If you don’t like using the treadmill, find another activity. Dance, for example, is a great way to burn calories and boost your metabolism. Think outside the box; try cycling, hiking, martial arts, Pilates, yoga, or pickleball. Aim to exercise for about 30 minutes a day most days of the week if you can.
Choose an activity you love and get moving. And, of course, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two or if you’re having a hard time getting started. It’s okay to start small. Any movement is a step in the right direction.
Prior to starting a new exercise regimen, consult your physician about any limitations you may have.
Make self-care a priority.
While getting a pedicure or spending a day at the spa often come to mind as forms of self-care, true self-care can be much simpler, not to mention less expensive. Self-care can be as simple as stepping outside on your lunch break and feeling the warmth of the sun on your face or taking a walk and feeling the cool breeze on your skin.
Try taking off your shoes and walking barefoot in the grass, getting takeout instead of cooking dinner, or going out for a healthy lunch instead of eating a sandwich at your desk.
In addition to physical self-care, there’s emotional self-care, social self-care, spiritual self-care, and even professional self-care. Practicing hobbies, journaling, snuggling up with a good book, calling a friend, reading a devotional, listening to music, having a stimulating conversation, taking a class, praying, meditating, enjoying a sunset, and taking breaks at work are all forms of self-care.
Some self-care practices that can directly improve body image are yoga, Tai Chi, body scan guided meditations (the Insight Timer app has body scan meditations specifically related to body image), practicing gratitude for all the amazing things your body can do, wearing clothes that are comfortable or make you feel good, taking a break from social media, and practicing positive self-talk and self-compassion.
Make a list of self-care activities that you enjoy most and schedule time for self-care each week, or even every day if you can. Practicing all types of self-care improves your well-being, and when you feel better emotionally, you will treat yourself with greater kindness.
Assess your goals.
Remember that focusing on numbers, like your weight, clothing size, or calories, won’t improve your body image. Instead, focus on things that you like about yourself and appreciate the amazing things your body does every day.
Set goals that help you maintain a healthy lifestyle. Rather than focusing on calories, set goals that focus on eating a balanced diet. Rather than focusing on weight loss, set goals for being more active and exercising in ways that you enjoy and that make you feel good about yourself and your body.
When you look in the mirror, choose to see yourself as the whole person you are – inside and out, rather than focusing on specific characteristics of your face or body. Schedule time for plenty of self-care and social connection. Remember to practice self-compassion – treat yourself like you would treat your best friend. These are all goals that can help you achieve a positive body image and give yourself grace for the journey.
Menopause can be a challenging time. Surround yourself with supportive women who understand this season of life. If you are struggling, do not allow negative body image to rob you of your joy and the incredible years ahead. Reach out for support today.
Contact our office to schedule an appointment with me or one of the other counselors specializing in women’s issues, menopause, and body image. We are here to help you every step of the way.
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