In a previous article, we discussed the impacts of ageism, how body image changes (or not) with age, and how other identities like race or gender impact our body image throughout the lifespan. We cannot escape ageism and age-related stereotypes, as they are all around us: in subtle messages from friends and family, media portrayals of aging, messages from doctors and other health practitioners, and so much more. However, the prevalence of this type of messaging makes it imperative to find effective ways for us to manage the effects that ageism may have on our life. If you are able to challenge it from within, you will be less likely to experience the negative outcomes associated with ageism.
Common coping strategies
People seem to employ many different coping mechanisms to deal with their individual fear of aging, some effective and others not. For example, many people use diet and exercise in an attempt to demonstrate self-control and maintain a more youthful body. Others try to pass for being younger than they are through not telling people their age, constantly monitoring their body for signs of aging, and by intentionally dressing and acting in ways similar to people younger than them. Finally, some people will use cosmetic surgery as a means to keep their body appearing more youthful (Slevin, 2010). While these are all personal choices that differentially impact the people who utilize them, they all buy into the idea that aging (or at least appearing older) is bad and something that should be avoided. I, personally, would like to see a challenge of the value that we as society place on youthful appearances as morally superior.
Potential alternative coping mechanisms
The aforementioned coping strategies may or may not be helpful for you. However, they do all buy into the notion that aging is something to be avoided. Here, I want to provide additional coping mechanisms that people can use either in addition to or in place of the aforementioned coping strategies to cope with aging and the pressures that come with that. Not all of these will likely fit with your own beliefs or values, but hopefully one or more can help you (and society) to feel better about aging bodies.
- Move beyond the dichotomy of “young” versus “old”. So much of the narrative around aging makes it seem like you are either young or you are old. Each person has a different understanding of where the crossing line is, but this makes it seem like there is one day where we wake up and suddenly lose this desired trait of youth. By adopting a more nuanced spectrum-based perception of age, we can recognize the variety of experiences that accompany all age ranges. It will also help both ourselves and society to change our vocabulary to reflect a more nuanced perspective of aging.
- Practice body awareness and acceptance throughout your life. Because one’s body image does not seem to actually change much with age, it is important to start practicing body acceptance throughout our lives. An awareness and acceptance of our body at age 20 and continued practice acceptance and ongoing positive decisions for our health will likely translate to greater acceptance when we are 70. Find more tools for body acceptance here.
- Find (and be) positive role models. Research shows that the adults in the lives of children serve as their primary source of knowledge and perspectives regarding aging (Phoenix & Sparkes, 2005). Because we as society don’t talk much about aging, it is important for people to see positive role models. By this, I don’t mean finding people with a “perfect” body or people who have a very strict food and exercise regimen. Instead, I mean people who make individual decisions to promote their own health, who demonstrate body and age acceptance, and who are active participants in the lives of youth around them.
- Change your mindset. When it comes to our mindset about bodies and aging, there are many opportunities for subtle shifts. First, when you notice yourself internalizing and acting on ageist ideals, find a way to push past them and do something different. For example, if you notice yourself self-excluding from certain activities (an exercise class/video or not applying for a job you’re interested in), reflect on whether ageism is at play. If it is, try to push yourself to do it anyway (within reason)! Another opportunity for mindset change stems from the fear of aging. While you can’t change the emotion itself, when you notice it happening, find ways to remind yourself of the benefits that come from aging (more wisdom, experience, etc.) and view aging as a transformative and crucial part of living a full life.
- Attend to your inner self. Many body image concerns stem from a primary focus on appearance and our external perceptions of our body rather than on internal factors. As we have discussed, there are so many things that contribute to our outward or external presentation and our inner self is something that, with work, can be more stable and much more fulfilling. Any time you set a goal or intention, ask yourself why am I doing this? Try to frame it from the perspective of how this behavior or life choice will help you to live a better, more fulfilling, happier, or healthier life (fulfilling your inner self) rather than how it will make you look on the outside.
What ways have you tried to cope with or challenge this in your everyday life? We would love to hear your perspectives and experiences in the comments!
Phoenix, C., & Sparkes, A. C. (2006). Young athletic bodies and narrative maps of aging. Journal of Aging Studies, 20, 107-121.
Slevin, K. F. (2010). “If I had lots of money… I’d have a body makeover:” Managing the aging body. Social Forces, 88(3), 1003-1020.