How Ageism Impacts Body Image as We Age

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  • Category: Mental Health
  • Read Time: 10 Minutes

How Ageism Impacts Body Image as We Age

Aging: one of the few absolutes of life. We are all constantly aging, though it is something that so many people actively fight. There are entire fields that make significant profits from services aimed at combating signs of aging, helping preserve youth, or even arguing they can “reverse” aging. Why do we fight so hard against one of the few givens of life? This article will explore common experiences of ageism and body image across time, how that varies across differing identities, and both positive and negative coping mechanisms for aging. 

I want to acknowledge my tremendous privilege in this domain. As a person in their 30’s, I cannot personally speak to or relate to the impact of ageism. However, my intent with this article is to respond to a common request amongst users by aggregating the research in this domain. Therefore, to round out these articles, I am interested in hearing your thoughts, experiences, and opinions in the comments below! 

Ageism

Ageism is all around us. People have a tendency to make stereotypical assumptions about aging and discriminate against people perceived to be older. While a discussion of the full implications of ageism is out of the scope of this article, one area it manifests is within views on bodies and appearance. Within Western societies, having a youthful body and appearance holds moral value and is identified as being superior. People who are young, fit, and have an attractive body throughout their life are perceived as having self-control and superior and anything else indicates “laziness” and is seen as inferior (Slevin, 2010). 

When we throw gender into this equation, there is also a double standard of aging wherein femininity is equated with youth and attractiveness, and masculinity is equated with competence, autonomy, and power. This seems to be a losing battle against the natural order — youth and attractiveness decrease for everyone with age, but societally is only a problem for folks who aren’t men. Societally, men are perceived as more successful simply because of the value placed on gendered qualities (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2003).

Many people perceive age as being a marker for declining health, a gradual but steady loss of independence and autonomy. Even curriculum in various health fields indicate that aging is considered a “problem” and that there are certain solutions for that problem including diet and exercise (Phoenix & Sparks, 2005). When it comes to receiving quality healthcare, physician endorsement of ageist beliefs is related to significantly worse health outcomes across 45 countries (Chang et al., 2020). For instance, it is easy to write off symptoms such as forgetfulness or a slow/unsteady gait as indicators of age, when they could be the result of another health condition that could be treated. This indicates that ageism is perpetuated within educational systems and then endorsed by practitioners in health fields, only leading to worse outcomes for aging people. 

Unfortunately, these ageist beliefs are also endorsed by elders themselves, making them quite resistant to change. Research shows that people aged 60 and older are highly aware of and believe the stereotypes about old age. While they often employ strategies to prevent people from perceiving them as “old,” they are not actively combatting the beliefs themselves, just others’ perceptions of their age (Slevin, 2010). 

Body changes with age

Change in body shape is inevitable as we grow older. Though certain behavioral interventions like positive food choices, regular physical activity, and limiting substance use (including alcohol) may slow down the process, these changes are completely normal. For example, after 30, people tend to lose lean tissue. Some organs lose cells, we begin to experience loss of muscle tone, and our bones lose minerals and become less dense. The amount of fat on our bodies increases and redistributes for peri/post-menopausal women. Many people experience height loss as a result of changing bones, muscles, and joints. Weight gain and loss (including gain and loss of both muscle and fat) are natural parts of aging as well (MedlinePlus, 2022). People might also experience thinning hair, wrinkles, and breakdowns of collagen, reducing skin elasticity.

Not to mention these changes don’t take into consideration any of the numerous factors that can also impact our bodies. For example, pregnancy, race/ethnicity, substance use, socioeconomic status, illness, stress and other mental health concerns, among others can all significantly impact our body size and shape. The combination of natural aging processes and these factors make bodily change inevitable. 

It is important to not overlook the fact that there are elders who have fit/toned bodies and are in peak physical condition; these people are often held up on a pedestal and are viewed as being a “goal” to work toward. While on the one hand, these people have likely made positive life choices that they should celebrate and can serve as positive role models, this also puts undue pressure on folks for whom this is incredibly difficult or impossible to achieve and ignores genetic contributions to body shape and size. It further assigns moral value to this appearance and suggests that anyone who can’t or doesn’t look like this is inferior.

Body image with age

Research on body image throughout life suggests that body image actually doesn’t change much with age. Folks who are higher in body dissatisfaction earlier in their lives are also dissatisfied with their body later in life (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2003; Ålgars et al., 2009; Pietilä & Ojala, 2011). Age is associated with considering the self less attractive to others (Ålgars et al., 2009). However, the specific focus of the body dissatisfaction shifts from the body as a whole in younger age toward concerns about specific parts of the body in older age. At the same time, one’s body or appearance is viewed as being less important with age (Halliwell & Dittmar, 2003; Ålgars et al., 2009). In sum, elders still generally feel negatively about their body, but they don’t view it as important to themselves or other people.  

Most people, however, are not aware of their age as they move through their daily lives. Awareness of age and aging bodies is only salient when we are put in situations that make us think about our age. For example, when our bodies don’t match the physical demands of a situation. It appears that many people perceive age as a dichotomous variable; one is either “young” or “old” and you don’t cross over into elder status until your functioning is impaired. According to this perspective, there are certain conditions associated with aging (like weight gain and age-related diseases) but as long as they don’t impact functioning, they don’t make people feel “old” (Pietilä & Ojala, 2011). 

Intersectionality (gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.)

Aging and body image are inextricably tied to other identities including, but not limited to, gender, race, and sexual orientation. Intersectionality is a framework coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980’s that allows us to acknowledge that all people simultaneously hold multiple identities that vary with regard to their levels of advantage and disadvantage. Within research, it is hard to simultaneously measure all possible combinations of identities, meaning research often pieces out single identities like gender or race without recognizing the way these interact with one another to produce different experiences. 

Gender plays an important role in the experience of body image throughout the lifespan. For example, while both men and women have a general fear of becoming old, women uniquely have an added fear of looking old (Slevin, 2010). Men tend to not have as much preoccupation with age-related changes in appearance and, in some cases, age seems to only increase men’s perceptions of their appearance (coined the “Sean Connery effect”; Halliwell & Dittmar, 2003). Adding sexual orientation into the mix and the gender equation becomes more complicated. For example, research has historically shown that gay men more closely resemble heterosexual women in their body image; gay men seem to be more focused on and preoccupied with appearing old. Lesbian women, on the other hand, are typically less negative about aging and looking old (Slevin, 2010). 

Furthermore, the narrative throughout much of the body image research is that people of color are generally more accepting of their bodies (Slevin, 2010). While parts of this might be true, so much of the body image research focuses solely on weight and excludes other factors, often race-related beauty standards, from the primary influences on body image. Factors such as hair type, skin tone and complexion, facial structure, and physique are all important contributors to body image that do not disappear with age. Research has indicated that Black women are highly aware of these factors and they substantially contribute to their body image throughout their lives (Capodilupo & Kim, 2014). This is just one example, among many, of how race intersects with age to impact body image throughout the lifespan.

Stay tuned for more information on ways to maintain positive self-image and successfully cope with age-related stereotypes. In the meantime, we would love to hear how you see ageism show up either in your life or in the health industry. 

References

Ålgars, M., Santtila, P., Varjonen, M., Witting, K., Johansson, A., Jern, P., & Sandnabba, N. K. (2009). The adult body: How age, gender, and body mass index are related to body image. Journal of Aging and Health, 21(8), 1112-1132.

Capodilupo, C. M., & Kim, S. (2014). Gender and race matter: The importance of considering intersections in Black women’s body image. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 61(1), 37.

Chang, E. S., Kannoth, S., Levy, S., Wang, S. Y., Lee, J. E., & Levy, B. R. (2020). Global reach of ageism on older persons’ health: A systematic review. PloS one, 15(1), e0220857.

Halliwell, E., & Dittmar, H. (2003). A qualitative investigation of women’s and men’s body image concerns and their attitudes toward aging. Sex Roles, 49(11), 675-684. 

MedlinePlus. (2022, February 4). Aging changes in body shape. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003998.htm#:~:text=After%20age%2030%2C%20people%20tend,osteoporosis%20in%20the%20later%20stages).

Phoenix, C., & Sparkes, A. C. (2006). Young athletic bodies and narrative maps of aging. Journal of Aging Studies, 20, 107-121. 

Pietilä, I., & Ojala, H. (2011). Acting age in the context of health: Middle-aged working-class men talking about bodies and aging. Journal of Aging Studies, 25, 380-389. 

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.