The most important relationship in a woman’s life is her relationship with herself. Our self-talk can diminish or empower us. In a culture so demanding and dismissive of women, we need to rebel and stop apologizing for not being perfect, and start telling ourselves we are good enough as we are – simply good enough! – Dr. Margo Maine, PhD, FAED, CEDS
Does it come as a surprise that 13.3% of women over the age of 50 in the United States have an eating disorder? Although popular media leads us to believe that only adolescent females are at risk, anyone can develop an eating disorder at any stage in life.
Although weight gain is normal and healthy for older women, the media and Western culture aggressively endorse a different narrative. Advertisements promoting weight loss and anti-aging products abound, selling the idea that gaining weight and growing older are to be avoided at all costs. Breaking down these toxic misconceptions are crucial to support prevention and treatment of eating disorders for women in midlife.
Disordered eating and a fear of aging go hand-in-hand for many women
A 2011 Gallup-Healthways Wellbeing Index found that women ages 45-64 have the lowest wellbeing and the highest stress of any age group or gender due to the often co-occurring circumstances including caring for aging parents, personal health concerns, loss of a parent, loved one or spouse, divorce, supporting dependent children, professional/career demands, food insecurity, financial instability, broken relationships and more. This amount and intensity of stress along with the stigma of a changing body puts women in midlife at increased risk for depression, anxiety, sleep disorders and eating disorders among other negative health outcomes. Additionally, a 2010 Study in the Journal of Prevention and Treatment assessed women over 50 and found that indeed disordered eating and a fear of aging go hand-in-hand for many women.
In Maine’s Pursuing Perfection: Eating Disorders, Body Myths and Women at Midlife and Beyond, she references the magic of women’s bodies. Survival for women has always depended upon women having more body fat than men, yet women are held to unrealistic standards based on aesthetics and cultural thin ideal. This ideal is opposite what nature intends for a woman’s body, therefor trying to obtain thinness for most women is a chronic stressor. Society forgets that a women will on average have at least enough body fat to survive a 9 month famine or more, and yet we criticize and pathologize females for gaining weight during puberty, pregnancy and yet again later in life when natural hormonal shifts take place and more weight gain will occur.
Eating disorders do not discriminate and impact people of all ages, genders, races, sizes, and abilities. Older women represent one group that deserves far more attention and support in this area.
This stigma around age and eating disorders often prevents adults from reaching out for help. They may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or even skeptical that they have an eating disorder in the first place. Encouraging and facilitating more conversations around the development of eating disorders at later stages in life may eliminate uncertainty around reaching out for help among those who need it. Women’s bodies change naturally over time with age – increased body fat is normal, healthy, and necessary in many ways. In fact, we must acknowledge that moderate weight gain around midlife associates with longer life expectancies for women.
Hungry for more concrete strategies and advice? In her webinar, Nine Truths About Eating Disorders at Midlife and Beyond, Margo Maine, PhD dives deep into the statistics and history around eating disorders and older women. She shares best practices for supporting adults in eating disorder recovery, equipping you to work with this population more effectively. Find Margo’s webinar in the EDRDpro members library! We also highly recommend her book, Pursuing Perfection: Eating Disorders, Body Myths, and Women at Midlife and Beyond, for a comprehensive discussion on disordered eating and body image disturbances in older women.